The Age of Innocence

You just never know what you’ll get with this blog.  (Neither do I.)  Last time, the Chillis; now:

I finished The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton) recently.  It’s a library-sale book I’ve had about for a while, on the “no, really, I’m going to stop reading so much fluff and elevate my average” shelf.  Dickens (of whom I’ve read too little) is there, and Twain (of whom I … don’t think I’ve read anything), and Don Quixote and, yes, the Russians – Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.  Yes, well, one day.  I happened to pick up Innocence, literally in passing, and within a couple of pages was thinking “Where have you been all my life?” 

OK, it wasn’t so much love at first sight – but it was surprised delight.  My expectations?  Stuffy, I guess; stiff; something you’d be forced to read in high school.  Something a Merchant Ivory film would be made from (though the adaptation was actually directed by Martin Scorsese).  And while the second two are true, the first two very much are not.  It was beautifully written, with engaging characters, and it was … I was going to say “funny”, but while I think I did laugh out loud a couple of times, part of that was surprise.  Its main goal was not to be funny; it was witty. It was kind of wonderful.  I have more Whartons, and they have moved up on my to-read list. 
I went it to it unspoiled; I’ve never seen the movie (though I plan to now, soon), and if I’ve ever read a synopsis of book or movie the synapses didn’t retain it.  So there was a certain amount of suspense maintained throughout.  The story is told entirely from the point of view of Newland Archer, a young man of good family in 1870’s New York who has just become engaged to a sweet young thing called May Welland.  They plan to announce it soon, and events are spurred by the arrival of the Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, not quite considered a black sheep but certainly grey.  Her mother was a bit wild and unconventional, so no one really blames Ellen; her marriage to a Polish count (much older than she) was arranged, and while it would have made her New York kin more comfortable if she had simply disappeared quietly into her husband’s wealthy lifestyle – but she didn’t; the rumors are that she ran off with her husband’s secretary and has now fled to the bosom of her American family.  Newland meets her right around the time his engagement is announced, and, predictably given her beauty and exoticism and his bent for questioning the stolidity of the New York Society existence, falls for her, and she for him.  From this basic structure hangs Ellen’s apparently genuine wish not to hurt May, the honey-like consistency of their society, and the advice Newland as a lawyer acting on behalf of his family gives Ellen before he acknowledges his feelings for her, and before he knows more of the reality of the situation: do not divorce your husband.  The family’s attitude is basically: leave the man, all right; come here and dress incorrectly and cause ripples, if you must; but Divorce?  Heavens no. 

The suspense, of course, lay in what, exactly, was going to become of Newland and Ellen.  There is always danger in a story about extramarital love, no matter whether it’s a period piece or a sci fi novel, but in this setting in particular the tension is heightened: if they choose to act on their love, and Newland leaves May and Ellen  gets her divorce the repercussions will be harsh, for the two of them, and Newland’s family, and for May and her family.  What Will They Do??  And what they wind up doing was nothing I saw coming.  I don’t think I liked it – that’s one reason novels of this time period don’t attract me more, I think, is that this type of ending was in fashion then – but I did understand it, and under the circumstances it made sense. 

One very interesting thing about Newland’s point of view is his outlook on the implementation of the double standard in marriage.  The prospective husband is not expected to go to his wedding night ignorant as to what he is supposed to do when he got there; in fact, quite the opposite.  While the bride is to be a blank slate, he is supposed to garner information and experience from discreet sources, about which his wife (and mother) must never know (or must pretend they don’t know), and it is with this experience that he must instruct her.  He thinks of May in all her hard innocence and ignorance, and is swamped by the responsibility of it, and, in a very modern way, by the flaws inherent in a system which demands that a husband is also, in many ways, a father to his spouse. 

And people wonder why feminism happened. 

Newland Archer is the kind of character I don’t want to like, and like despite that.   I didn’t remember Daniel Day Lewis had the movie role, and in my head Newland looked just like the wastrel son in Berkeley Square, Lord Hugh.  It should be interesting to replace him with Daniel Day Lewis.  Not to start floundering in the High School English Class mire, Newland embodies the future, or at least a yearning for the future, and change, and radical new ideas – but, slowly, step by step so that he hardly notices it, he is sucked back into the tar pit of the norm and Society’s mores.  He might not have struggled very hard if he did notice; he seems to be a great deal more idea than action. 

May is … a piece of work.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the character is handled onscreen, because her brand of so-thoughtful cruelty is, I think, unique in my experience.  She’s all surface, no depth – but the surface is so hard and shiny, so much what is expected, that no one but Newland (and through him the reader) might ever suspect the soullessness underneath.  There is an outer appearance of all obedience and pliancy, but the hollow inner core is all an unyielding adherence to The Way Things Are, against which attempts to introduce new thoughts and ways bend and break or are deflected.  She’s utterly capable of listening to a madcap plan from Newland, and saying “Yes, dear” – or of sensing the tendency in Newland to do something new and different – and finding soft and subtle ways to make the new and different thing completely impossible.  (“But dear, weren’t you going to Washington?”)  One more simile, because I can’t resist the similes: she’s a spider, slowly, inexorably stilling his struggles and wrapping his spirit in the silken stodginess of daily life in New York’s upper crust; as time passes and the silk accretes the plans and ideas die away, until all that remains is just another one of the set. 

Ellen is a conundrum.  She and May are two facets to the Innocence of the title, and, surprisingly, depending on your definition, of the two Ellen may be the more innocent.  She is also in many ways the strongest of the three of them.  May is hard, but I don’t think she’s strong; she’s passive for the most part, until she needs to bring things back to her straight and narrow.  Newland … not strong.  Every chance he has to break from the stolidity he fears so much just … fizzles.  But Ellen – Ellen lived through unnamed horrors in her marriage, and instead of crumpling under whatever abuses there were she broke free, and back in New York proceeds to do much as she pleases, whether the family likes it or not, all the while sweetly interacting with the family in a genuine gratitude and affection, oblivious to their censure. 

One thing I take note of, whether it’s noteworthy or not (probably not), is the switch of hair color for May and Ellen in the film.  In the book, May is blonde and Ellen has “sable” hair; in the movie, May is brunette Winona Ryder, and Ellen is fair Michelle Pfeiffer.  I can see Pfeiffer doing damaged but honest, and Ryder doing outwardly sweet and inwardly acid.  I can’t help but wonder if it was a deliberate choice, a commentary of sorts, not to put the ladies in wigs.  As I said, I’m really looking forward to seeing how the book was adapted; it’s surprisingly rare that I see a film based on a book I’ve read but am not emotionally involved with.  I think I can be pretty objective here.

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3 Responses to The Age of Innocence

  1. stewartry says:

    I hope you like it!

    Are you on Goodreads at all? I just joined what seems to be a really great group, and I’m already having fun with the discussions…

  2. Helen says:

    God Bless Project Gutenberg – I am able download this and will because it makes a change from my fantasy first-love:)

    one more on the list ….

  3. Pingback: 24 Frames: A Época da Inocência (The Age of Innocence, 1993) | Quixotando

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