The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton

 

Mostly I finish books I start, but when I first tried reading this novel twenty-five to thirty years ago, I don't think I made it past page five. I have a vague memory of seeing the film adaptation back in the 1990s, but it clearly didn't inspire me to return to the novel. So I'm not sure what made me decide to acquire and listen to the audiobook so many years later. However, I'm glad I did.

 

I knew that Wharton had written a novel critical of the world from which she sprang - late 19th century New York high society - but I hadn't expected such sharp irony. Nor had I expected the not infrequent touches of humour. Early on I was reminded of “The Forsyte Saga”, in which Galsworthy exposes the hypocrisy of the English upper middle class of the same period. But Galsworthy painted on a broader canvas than did Wharton, who focuses on her central protagonist Newland Archer's struggle between conforming to the expectations placed on him by his class and social position and his longing to follow his heart.

 

I really like Wharton's prose and her description of high society in 1870s New York is brilliantly evocative. I became less interested in Newland Archer's internal conflict as time went on and I was mildly irritated by the repeated references to characters' blushing, flushing and turning pale. (Was there really no other way Wharton could have indicated strong but restrained emotion?) But the poignancy of the ending won me over: it rang strong and true. The novel is an interesting snapshot of a particular place and at a particular time, but it still has something to say about the conflict between societal and family expectations and personal integrity and freedom. It made me want to read more of Edith Wharton's work.