“A Whartonfest is upon us,” Kate Muir predicted in the London Observer in August. She meant on the screen: Scorsese’s monumental, heartbreaking The Age of Innocence was about to open, and other Wharton films were projected or already available on video. She put down Wharton’s revived popularity to the fact that all but one of E.M. Forster’s novels are now completed, so the studios need a new source for upmarket costume drama. There could be other reasons: Wharton’s feminism, for one. In The Age of Innocence Scorsese pans in as the hero declares that women should have the same rights as men.
But anyway, Wharton’s novels and stories are ready-made for the screen: each episode, interior monologues included, is a drama with a climax followed by a cut, and comes complete with details for the set. The set can be essential and magical: in Summer, for instance, the unhappy heroine feels better for lying on the ground in a close-up of grasses and flowers like a Dürer meadow. But sometimes there is too much decor: The Reef is a book with page after page from The World of Interiors and reminds one that Wharton published several books about houses and gardens.
Among the works set to be filmed is The Buccaneers, unpublished since it first appeared in 1938. Wharton had not finished it when she died in 1937, and her friend and executor Guy Lapsley brought it out with her own outline for the later chapters, and an apologetic afterword by himself. It “comprised some work as good as any she had ever done,” he said, “and some that she would never have allowed to appear as it stood.” The new scholarly edition is by Viola Hopkins Winner, and comes with Fast and Loose, an early work, also unfinished. Winner adds a sympathetic and informative foreword, which makes the novel look rather better than it does in the other new edition.
But that is the version chosen to be filmed. It is by Marion Mainwaring, whose name would be “just the thing,” as a Wharton character might say, for a Wharton character. She has completed the novel more or less in accordance with Wharton’s outline, and inserted a few passages into the text to prepare for later developments. Wharton’s own chapters read like a parody of Wharton, and Mainwaring’s like a parody of that—except for mistakes that Wharton would never have made. On one page Mainwaring gets a title wrong: Virginia, Lady Seadown, when it should be Lady Seadown; and on the next Lady Churt says, “How shamingly idiotic of me,” which sounds more Noel Coward than 1870. Wharton’s running attack on Society and its false and cruel values was underpinned by a dowager-like determination never to slip up on any detail of behavior or deportment. She applauds when her courageous heroines deliberately break taboos, but is inclined to sneer at characters who make mistakes through ignorance and lack of breeding.
The Buccaneers is set in the 1870s. Five new-money American debutantes fail to make it into the old money in New York. So they sail for England and marry, respectively and in order of precedence, a duke, an earl who is heir to the premier marquess, the earl’s younger brother, and a high-flying Tory MP. The fifth girl only nets a Midwestern multimillionaire patron of the arts; but he dies conveniently after a couple of years, just as the young duchess, Nan, is divorcing; so she (the multimillionaire’s widow) gets in line to become the second duchess. The whole unlikely maneuver is set up by a devoted English governess, Miss Laura Testvalley. Miss Testvalley comes to regret what she has done, and so she should, because it is wholly out of keeping with the character and values she is meant to represent.
Henry James and Wharton were far from being the only writers fascinated by the American penetration of the British aristocracy. There was Frances Hodgson Burnett, for one. Nan takes a leaf out of Little Lord Fauntleroy’s book to drive about her husband’s estates scattering “toys and lollipops among the children, and [trying] to find out from their mothers what she could do to help them.” She is full of spontaneous American warmth and democratic impulse, which her repressed English duke can’t share; and so the marriage breaks down along typically Whartonian lines: feeling versus convention. For Wharton, feeling had to include a feeling for the values of an old society—which must mean the acceptance of a good deal of convention. Wharton never quite finds her way out of this vicious circle of conflicting desirabilities. The feeling for tradition can be inbred, or else instinctive. Nan’s is instinctive, and she comes to prefer England to the States because of its “layers and layers of rich deep background, of history, poetry, old traditional observances, beautiful houses, beautiful landscapes, beautiful ancient buildings, palaces, churches, cathedrals”—everything, in fact, you would find in a travel brochure. Abetted by Miss Testvalley and Ms. Mainwaring, Nan elopes with the son of a baronet, who is even more deeply rooted in the old values than the duke.
Miss Testvalley rather steals the show from her favorite pupil Nan by renouncing her own happiness for her sake. The cultivated old baronet fancies the spirited governess; he even thinks of marriage. But when she encourages his son’s elopement, he drops her in outrage. According to John Updike in the New Yorker of October 4, Wharton intended to end on a tragic note, with Miss Testvalley’s sacrifice, a replay of the Countess Olenska’s sacrifice in The Age of Innocence. The countess is glamorous, very nearly a femme fatale; and the governess is the plain spinster you get in films who suddenly reveals beautiful eyes—like a Goya’s, in this case, because Mainwaring is careful to copy Wharton’s rather tiresome cultural name-dropping. A doughty intellectual with a great heart and advanced, loosely feminist views, Miss Testvalley is rooted in revolution. Her name is an Anglicization of Testavaglia; her grandfather was one of Garibaldi’s freedom fighters exiled to England, and the family are cousins of the Rossettis. Dante Gabriel himself makes a geriatric appearance in Mainwaring’s pages, destroyed by laudanum. A moral and physical wreck, but a dream of a cameo part. In fact, every character in this absurd concoction is a dream part, beginning with the five beauties, whose eyelashes, laid end to end, would stretch from the duke’s seat at Tintagel to Newport, Rhode Island, where their owners are humiliatingly rejected.
It is Wharton herself who is responsible for the eyelashes, not Mainwaring. She has her novelettish side. Even in The Age of Innocence, an incomparably better novel than The Buccaneers, there are passages of dialogue that go right over the top, for even self-restraint can go over the top if it’s sufficiently hushed and heroic. Unlike the duchess who gets her divorce and the man she loves, the Countess Olenska gets neither. Both novels are set in the same decade, The Age of Innocence in the New York upper crust which rejected the five Buccaneer girls. Edith Wharton was born into this world in 1862, but when she published The Age of Innocence in 1920, it already looked like a “costume piece.” A contemporary novel or film set fifty years ago does not seem nearly so “period”—not even Brideshead Revisited.
It isn’t only because clothes have changed less. Wharton sensed that the cultural break made by the First World War was more radical than any that had gone before. She wanted her novel to show two people still inner-directed by the laws of the old society, even though cracks were beginning to appear in its structure and in their acceptance of it. The last thing she wanted was for the book to be taken as a “costume piece”; and Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker of September 13, praised Scorsese’s film precisely for turning its back on our “age of Merchant-Ivory, when the very idea of a ‘costume piece’ is taken as a blessed relief, a breath of good taste amid the snarls and fumes of mainstream cinema.” Well, Michael Ballhaus may be more seismic with his camera than Merchant-Ivory’s director of photography; but all the same, since everyone in The Age of Innocence is rich (or else in livery) and, what is more, obsessed with displaying the right possessions, Scorsese is able to have icing and whipped cream on his cake and eat it by the bucketful: the film is visually luscious, with ooh and ah costumes and sets, tableaux in the style of Tissot, Whistler, and Sargent, and the customary army of researchers and advisers on “period” among the credits. You get a night at the opera, a night at the theater, a ball, a ladies’ archery competition, and seven opulent dinners with terrapin and canvasback duck concocted by a “Chef 19th Century Meals.”
The story begins with May Welland (Winona Ryder) and Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) about to announce their engagement. Sweet-natured May is the perfect jeune fille bien élevée and Newland a perfectly rangé young man; his only eccentricity being a containable yearning for more artistic and intellectual stimulus than philistine New York can give. At the opera (Gounod’s Faust, nice and easy but sung in Italian) he is introduced to May’s cousin Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who has just returned from Europe after running away from her debauched Polish husband. (Dark hints about the unmentionable things Count Olenski gets up to are actually the most “period” feature of the novel.) Ellen’s family disapprove of her past, but close ranks to get her accepted back into stuffy, puritanical New York society.
Ellen loves the arts; she is unconventional, thinking nothing of crossing a room to speak to a gentleman instead of waiting for him to come to her; she is witty and spontaneous; she even knows how to cry. “Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among these kind of people who only ask one to pretend,” she sobs (but very quietly). “Does no one cry here, either? I suppose there’s no need to, in heaven.” Archer finds himself dangerously attracted by her charms, moral and intellectual as much as physical (though Day-Lewis undoing the pearl buttons on Pfeiffer’s glove to kiss the inside of her wrist is a very sexy take). To fortify himself against her attraction, he hurries his engagement—urged on by Ellen, who is bound by loyalty to the cousin who has been loyal to her.
Newland finds himself lonely in his marriage to demure, unquestioning, uneducated May. He is more and more obsessed by Ellen. She is lonely too, needs and loves him, but does what she can to avoid him. In the end, he is ready to elope with her. So she returns to Europe, sacrificing love, happiness, and her future in America. She starts as a rebel and ends conforming to the tribal laws; he starts as a conformist and ends up ready to throw everything to the winds for love. Like nearly all Wharton’s men, and in spite of his declaration of feminist principles, Archer is a cultivated coward with slightly unconventional views and completely conventional reactions.
One could say that on a private rather than a political level, Ellen’s renunciation conforms to the advice tendered by the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott; in his essay “Political Education” he wrote:
A tradition of behaviour is not a fixed and inflexible manner of doing things; it is a flow of sympathy. It may be temporarily disrupted by the incursion of a foreign influence [Ellen’s life abroad, culturally rich, but morally objectionable], it may be diverted, restricted, arrested, or become dried-up, and it may reveal so deep-seated an incoherence that (even without foreign assistance) a crisis appears [Newland’s experience fits a combination of these alternatives]. And if, in order to meet these crises, there were some steady, unchanging, independent guide to which a society might resort, it would no doubt be well advised to do so.*
The guide Ellen follows is her inbred code, the Americanness in her that strikes her French ex-lover, Monsieur Rivière, the moment he sees her on her home ground: “the discovery…of what I’d never thought of before: that she’s an American. And that if you’re an American of her kind…things that are accepted in certain other societies, or at least put up with as part of a general convenient give-and-take—become unthinkable, simply unthinkable.” This important statement has to be delivered, but Wharton was slapdash about the messenger. Rivière’s mission to Ellen on Count Olenski’s behalf with an offer of money to return to him is hard to swallow, and so are his chance encounters with Archer (not just one, but two: Wilde would have said it looked like carelessness).
Ellen behaves well and forces Newland to behave well too. The only person who behaves badly is well-behaved, orthodox May. She tells her cousin Ellen that she is pregnant when she only suspects that she may be; and that gives the final push to Ellen’s decision to give up Newland and not betray the trust of the family who took her in when she needed support. Reviewers of the film have gone to town on the tribalism of New York old-money society, comparing it to Little Italy in Mean Streets and gangland in Goodfellas. It could be argued that May’s duplicity is in the cause of omertà as much as a move to keep her husband for her own sake: if Newland eloped with Ellen, the whole family would be disgraced. Whatever you read into it, the scene in which Newland realizes what May has done is a terrific piece of cinema. The young Archers have just given their first party as a married couple—a farewell dinner for Ellen, who has announced her intention to return to Europe, though not to her husband. The audience understands that Newland intends to go after her. May follows him into his firelit study, ostensibly for a postmortem on the dinner (“It did go off beautifully, didn’t it?”) but really to tell him that she is pregnant. Inadvertently she lets out that she told Ellen a fortnight before she was sure.
The scene “goes off beautifully” too, a superb piece of directing and acting, the high spot of the film, very quiet, but as shocking as a killing and as desolating. Scorsese said he was attracted by the poignancy of Wharton’s book. There is no story line more poignant than renunciation, but not many stories explore the pathos of the person for whose sake the renunciation is made. Certainly not Wharton’s, which has May’s “blue eyes wet with victory” when her duplicity comes out. Winona Ryder’s eyes are not blue, but huge and brown; she is pale, dark, and fragile-looking, whereas Wharton describes May as blonde and statuesque, an athlete, as far as a Victorian girl could be, who wins the ladies’ archery competition. It is Ellen who is supposed to be “a dark lady, pale and dark.” Michelle Pfeiffer is not dark, and the make-up department has given her a golden outdoor complexion and busy orange curls, which make her look not like a lady at all. During her short walk-out with the dubious new-money Beaufort she may come just in sight of fallen-woman status, but she is still miles off and never gets any closer. Newland loves her dignity and composure: “she was so quiet—quiet in her movements and the tone of her low-pitched voice.” Pfeiffer is vivacious and flirtatious, from the moment of introduction when she holds out her hand with the little finger archly splayed.
As for Day-Lewis, he seems perfect—not especially nice, but well-bred, easy, ironic, slightly wary, with a rare but charming smile. In his grief he is manly in a thoroughly Victorian style: no theatrical tremor is seen in his stiff upper lip because—as a gentleman would—he hides his face behind his beautiful, sensitive, sexy hands. He manages to be dignified and moving even at fifty-seven with his temples powdered for the mournful coda in Paris, where he refuses to accompany his grown-up son to call on Ellen in the rue du Bac. Being devastatingly attractive is surplus to Wharton’s requirements: she usually leaves irresistibility to her women.
It’s nothing to carp about, because in any case, Scorsese has altered the emotional balance of the story by casting his female leads so perversely—which increases the scope and intensity of the pathos. He may be unfaithful to the novel, but if one knows a novel well, it is always difficult not to see infidelities when it is filmed or dramatized. One has to take adaptation as a variation on a theme. This one is a bit short on irony, which is mostly confined to the voice-over (Joanne Woodward) speaking Wharton’s text, and perhaps not as effective as it was intended to be. But it doesn’t matter. Wharton’s irony is penetrating and entertaining, but too insistent: she sneers on and on about the ghastliness of society and its values, until irony turns to sarcasm and becomes a bore. It’s perfectly respectable to prefer Verdi’s Otello to Shakespeare’s play, and so why shouldn’t one prefer Scorsese’s Age of Innocence to Edith Wharton’s?
November 4, 1993