Have you ever visited a fine art museum? The moment the doors close behind you, the sound of the outside world is cut off. You become aware of your transition from the world you inhabit to a cold, perfectly maintained world, instantly aware of the sounds of your own shoes on the floor and of the whispers of your fellow art patrons. All around you is beauty, numberless and magnificent. Each painting offers you a window into the mind of an artist and the world they inhabit. It is within your reach, teasing you, enticing you. You look, you imagine, you even scrutinize. But you cannot touch it. You cannot be a part of it. A part of you is drawn in, and a part of you will know only frustration and futility. No matter how long you linger in the quiet stillness, eventually you re-enter your own world with the kind of nostalgic sadness that forms a barrier between you and the world that continues to scream by at mach speeds, taking with it a chip out of your soul. Your time in that museum has allowed you to grow as a person in some measurable way, but once the world comes crashing back in around you, what does it really mean?
Originally serialized in four parts in 1920, and released as a book in 1921, The Age of Innocence earned Edith Wharton the distinction of being the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That fact, impressive as it is, seems so small to me by comparison to what this novel achieves.
The story is set during the Gilded Age of 1870s New York City, in the time and place of Wharton’s childhood. The book reveals itself as the bittersweet remembrances of a world so thoroughly destroyed in the fires of World War I. Wharton offers her readers a bridge to that bygone era, the opportunity to step back over all the lines that were crossed, to sample a world to which she herself could no longer return. The portrait of the world painted within these pages is, superficially, the American equivalent to Julian Fellowes’ Gosford Park or Downton Abbey. Both writers lived in that world and demonstrate the ability to show it to us in ways that make us feel a part of it enough to sympathize on some level. The difference, of course, is that Fellowes has proven to be a one-trick pony, while Edith Wharton’s variety seems to enjoy no limits, and her powers of prose borders on the supernatural. With those powers, she crafts a fully holographic world where the rules are preset, and a reader is tasked within those boundaries and alongside the characters with the search for purpose and deeper meaning.
At the center of the story is Newland Archer: gentleman, lawyer, and heir to one of the finest families in New York. He is to be married to May Welland, the quintessential example of a “suitable bride,” beautiful in her way, but unspeakably sheltered and bourgeois. Enter May’s equally beautiful (or moreso) and exotic cousin, the Countess Ellen OIenska. Worldly, headstrong, and caring little for the rules of society, her arrival is heralded by scandal as she has separated herself from a bad marriage. She is, in a word, “different,” a theme that will have echoes all the way though the novel to the very end. What unfolds is an examination of relationships with an eye toward the boundaries and expectations of high society, and the unnecessary heartbreak that engenders through empty and joyless relations for the sake of appearances or status. The Age of Innocence sets itself up as a perfect romance novel, but it flies in the face of that convention, proving to be anything but a romance novel at every turn. Like Ellen Olenska herself, it would be a mistake for a new reader to assume they know what lies at the beating heart of this tale. Like her, this one is “different.”
I won’t give away any twists or the ending itself. While they are integral to the plot and character development, and to the journey as a whole, they are surprisingly of almost of no value to a review of this story. The museum is open for anyone to visit. We can discover for ourselves the treasure within. It’s what we leave with that’s somehow more important. At least, that’s how it is for me.
“Nothing could more clearly give the measure of the distance that the world had traveled. People nowadays were too busy — busy with “reforms” and “movements,” with fads and fetishes and frivolities — to bother much about their neighbors. And of what account was anybody’s past, in the huge kaleidoscope where all the social atoms spun around on the same plane?
Nearly a hundred years after its publication, I find this book to be a shrine not only to the generation that it describes, but to the generations since as the internet and social media tear down societal walls and expectations as fast as they can build them in the first place. It’s as though Wharton has encapsulated the very introspection our modern world is so desperately missing. The way she does it… I find myself enamored with everything about how this novel was put together. It’s subtle. It’s beautiful. It hides none of the human flaws. Instead of exposing the skeletons in the proverbial closet, Wharton presents them in the very best light as living, breathing people. They are worlds apart from you or me, and they are the same in spite of it. Therein lies the tragic majesty.
I’ve had a paper copy of this in my physical library for too many years. It’s waited patiently for me to discover it. With renewed interest, and aware of my own limitations, I opted for an audiobook version. It was so magnificent, I found myself pulling that dusty (and yet otherwise pristine) paperback off the shelf, reading along in those moments where I could, and re-reading whole sections of the book later where I was spellbound by the narration. With no hyperbole, I think this might be one of the most elegantly-written books I’ve yet encountered. I won’t claim it to be my favorite story, nor my favorite characters. Even so, this one did something to the core of my being that feels profound, as the very best novels should. More than that, it offers a different kind of insight and resonance into those same lines crossed in the Great War. My favorite book is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Symbolically, that story paints the same world and its transition through fire and horror from the old to the new. The Age of Innocence has somehow offered me an opportunity to cross backwards along the same path. It’s a completely different, but somehow complementary way to look at the world and its trajectory through the crucible of history. That I finally read this book at this particular moment in time, when my weekly explorations of The Lord of the Rings will take me once more to the final chapter of that epic quest… it’s difficult not to be moved by the whole idea of it. It’s as though Edith Wharton has given us a key to something not unlike Tolkien’s Grey Havens, and we can go there anytime. I look forward to someday discovering what it will do to me on a return visit to this particular art museum.
“It’s more real to me here…”