The Age of Innocence

February 5, 2007 § Leave a comment

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
You can see why she was called the female Henry James (with whom she was quite chummy too). Her depiction of 1870 high-class New York is delightfully ironic without the long-windedness of James. It’s short, to the point, barren at times. Try this for fun, venomous, silent irony:

She [Madame Nilsson] sang, of course, “M’ama!” and not “he loves me,” since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded.
(p. 4)

I’m not sure I fall for the tragic reiteration of the love story between Newland and Countess Olenska (they meet three times, each time he’s ready to declare himself, each time she checks him), which probably helps…

…show that no matter how hard Newland tries, he is trapped within his own conventional bounds. But then it may be my mauve streak wishing for some sort of happy end instead of the bland human desert that we have. Also I’m not sure I understand why Newland is so conventional, or why he’s so unconventional. With her Pulitzer price in hand Wharton became quite an authority on Old New York. Her descriptions of furniture and places were noticed at the time and they are gorgeous indeed.
The conclusion, with the son deriding his father, is also a good way for the 1920s to send off the stuffy 1870s. No wonder Wharton became quite popular: nothing like sinking the past with your own present contemporary vividness.
Incidentally, she also positioned herself quite cleverly in that decade’s debate between high-brow and low-brow. Her criticism of high-brow 1870 New York is not exactly low-brow — but the alternative (the modern son) is as democratic as 1920 felt itself to be. The book was made into film as early as 1924 by Warner’s and Wesley Ruggles of Louise Glaum’s early fame, but her books don’t seem to have been very popular for film adaptations (3 in the decade). Still, though I haven’t seen the film I can well image cinema taking the side of Newland’s son in the cultural debate — arguing that low-brow isn’t so low after all.
Still it’s not at all clear that the 1920s are such a radical new break from that stuffy 1870 high-brow conventional taste. For instance, this description of literary tastes of the two Archer women (mother and sister):

[They] read Ouida’s novels for the sake of the Italian atmosphere. (They preferred those about peasant life, because of the descriptions of scenery and the pleasanter sentiments, though in general they liked novels about people in society, whose motives and habits were more comprehensible)…
(p. 30)

reminds me of the beginning of The Italian (1915) with its nicely shaded, sunsetting atmosphere of peasants in Italy.

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