The Age of Innocence was begun when Edith Wharton was fifty seven and published, in October of 1920, when she was fifty-eight. She had come to the writing vocation tardily, after an upbringing in New York society and some years of an increasingly unhappy marriage to a Bostonian, Edward Wharton. She was twenty-nine when her first short story was published, and six more years passed before her first book, a nonfiction collaboration called The Decoration of Houses, appeared. Yet as the new century settled in, she, despite the many distractions of an active social life and travel schedule, and bouts of ill health on both her and her husband’s part, had settled into a daily routine of morning writing and a steady, even copious, production of fiction. The House of Mirth in 1905 was her first masterpiece; Ethan Frome (1911) and The Custom of the Country (1913) followed, among many other well received, if less well remembered, titles. Against the grain of her social class, she had become a thoroughly professional, widely read, critically esteemed writer. Still, the brilliance and fullness of The Age of Innocence, coming so relatively late in her career, suggest a special renewal.
For a novelist, the halls of memory and imagination are adjacent spaces. An exemplary work of fiction is generally the fruit of a new grasp the author has taken of the riches within. Toward the end of the war, in Paris, Wharton had remarked to Bernard Berenson, “Je me cherche, et je ne me retrouve pas.” Her search for herself had been a process of many steps, beginning with her ardent exploration of her father’s library in the Jones house on West Twenty-third Street. Edith Jones’s marriage to the amiable but somewhat feckless and, in the end, mentally unstable Teddy Wharton had been another step, which had left her deeply informed on a favorite theme, the unsatisfactoriness of marriage, especially a socially presentable marriage of mismatched spirits. Teddy Wharton might have been an admirable husband for a less intellectually ambitious and formidably achieving woman than his wife; as it was, they tried each other sorely. Their sex life (for which Edith’s prim and imperious mother had prepared her by telling her to look at Greek statues and exclaiming, “You can’t be as stupid as you pretend”) went from poor to nonexistent; but Edith executed another step, in her self-education, by taking a lover, Morton Fullerton, in 1909.
Her ties to Teddy, who on his side had turned to adultery and embezzlement from his wife’s assets, weakened along with her ties to the United States; in 1911 she sold the Mount, a splendid house she had built in Lenox, Massachusetts, not ten years before, and became a Parisian. Her divorce followed two years later. World War I possessed her, as it did her adopted country; manifesting a prodigious organizational prowess, she founded and ran hostels for refugees, workshops for women unemployed because of the war, hospitals for tubercular patients, and a rescue committee for a thousand children of Flanders. But for some battlefield journalism later collected in Fighting France, her own work, including several novels, languished, and not just for reasons of time and energy. “These four years,” she wrote in 1918, “have so much changed the whole aspect of life that it is not easy to say now what one’s literary tendencies will be when the war is over.”
Weary of Paris, she bought a small estate twelve miles to the north, named Pavillon Colombe after the two soiled doves, Venetian actresses and courtesans, whose lovers had installed them there in the eighteenth century. Also in 1919, she found and leased a suitable winter home—a ruined convent on a hilltop in Hyères, on the Riviera, which an American architect promised to render habitable. “I am thrilled to the spine,” Wharton wrote to a friend. “I feel as if I were going to get married—to the right man at last!”
In these new and congenial settings, then, amid the flurry of creativity with which she tackled fresh challenges of interior decoration and gardening, the writer set herself to fulfill a contract with the American magazine Pictorial Review, which offered the great sum of eighteen thousand dollars for the serialization of a novel. Wharton always had several novels cooking at once, but she and the editors settled on a new idea. As R.W.B. Lewis explains in his biography of Wharton,
It bore the working title “Old New York” and the scene was laid in 1875. The two main characters, Langdon Archer and Clementine Olenska, are both unhappily married. Falling in love, they “go off secretly,” Edith explained, “and meet in Florida where they spend a few mad weeks” before Langdon returns to his pretty, conventional wife in New York, and Clementine to an existence, separated from her brutish husband, in Paris.
As the reader will see, the eventual Age of Innocence departed from this scenario in a number of particulars, including the chief characters’ first names and the situation for which Florida is a background. Dividing her year amid four places of residence, including her last extended stay in her apartment on the rue de Varenne, Wharton pushed the novel forward and delivered it on schedule, in April of 1920; Rutger Jewett, her editor at Appleton and Company, wrote her, “Do you marvel that I bow low before such energy?”
New York society had been her milieu and of course had figured in her fiction before; The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country both dramatize the charms and cruelties of the Manhattan upper crust. But she had never before approached the topic so deliberately, with the wisdom of her (and her hero’s) “readings in anthropology” and the personal sense of history which the world war had inflicted upon her. According to Berenson, she told him that “before the war you could write fiction without indicating the period, the present being assumed. The war has put an end to that for a long time…. In other words, the historical novel with all its vices will be the only possible form for fiction.” The 1870s had been the decade of Edith Jones’s growing from the age of eight to that of seventeen; she reached back now across the ocean toward an era long dead, as seen by a self long outgrown. Not that she had ever broken completely with her past; as Lousi Auchincloss points out in his Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time, her fund raising for her war charities had enlisted the rich old families, so that her list of directors “reads like a blue book of New York society.”
Distressed by much of the contemporary world, she found the nineteenth century, she wrote a friend, “a blessed refuge from the turmoil and mediocrity of today—like taking sanctuary in a mighty temple.” She set her agent and former sister-in-law, Minnie Jones, to researching the dates and details of opera performances, balls, assemblies. Her own memories fleshed out, in The Age of Innocence, a precisely etched reconstruction of brownstone New York, of Newport before the great cottages, of Florida in a primitive, idyllic stage of development. The author’s voice more than once reminds us that this is a past time, when the telephone is just a gadget and the horse-and-carriage the only conveyance.
Yet the insistent historical details, including characteristically Whartonian particulars of décor and costume, do not distance or muffle the passions and intimate presence of the three principal characters: Ellen Olenska, Newland Archer, and his wife, May. Rather, the historical distance uncluters the carefully lit stage: these New Yorkers stroll up and down Fifth Avenue as if it were a village street, and are always encountering each other, in a world scarcely larger or less economically populated than the Starkfield of Ethan Frome. The décor is lush, but the plot is stark; its action is mostly subjective, in the realm of the emotions. Though the poor and unfortunate figured in Wharton’s awareness, and movingly appear in The House of Mirth and several short stories, the train holding Newland and May on their honeymoon trip to Rhinebeck is describing as simply “shaking off the endless wooden suburbs”; no “social question” is allowed to arise and let the reader doubt the importance of how this man and his two women, amid their material comforts, dispose of their romantic needs. Wharton’s wartime reading had gone back to basics—the older German literature, the Old Norse sagas, the New Testament—and the directness of myth entered her new novel.
The Age of Innocence has classic lines, and reminds us of other classics. Like Anna Karenina, it pulses with the sexuality of its polite, thoroughly clad protagonists, and with the awesome sacrilege of Victorian adultery. Like The Princess of Clèves, it embodies the romantic paradox expressed by its heroine: “I can’t love you unless I give you up.” Like The Scarlet Letter, it shows a Europeanized woman, married to a sinister older man, beckoning to a son of a Puritan society with the allurements of a richer life “over there.” Like much of Henry James, and especially The Ambassadors, it deals with the effect of European corruption upon the purer American soul and with the terror of a man, like James’s Strether, confronting the fact that he has missed “the flower of life” and is “a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.” Surely James was much on Wharton’s mind, as he was often a guest in her house and a passenger in her automobile, and the intense—but rarely mannered and never unclear—stylistic refinement of The Age of Innocence is some kind of riposte, across the English Channel, to his ghost. And, like A Farewell to Arms, by a third American in love with Europe, her novel ends with a man walking back to the hotel alone.
But the new sharpness and the strange poetic steepness revealed by the crystalline perspective of this novel owe much, I felt upon a recent rereading, to Proust. Proust and Wharton, though they lived but blocks apart and had a number of friends (including André Gide and Walter Berry) in common, never met; but she was among the early enthusiasts for Swann’s Way, which came out in 1913. She and Berry had been enthralled by the book, to the point of making the names of the aristocratic Guermantes part of their vocabulary; she sent a copy to Henry James, who was slow to warm but eventually pronounced it “a new vision” by “a new master.” She herself wrote, after Proust’s death in 1922, that “his endowment as a novelist…has probably never been surpassed.” By the time she was working on The Age of Innocence, only the second volume of Proust’s immense work (Within a Budding Grove, in 1918) had followed the publication of Swann’s Way, but, though the sprawling social commentary of The Guermantes Way was still to come, Wharton had read enough to learn his lesson of social analysis, with his flashes of comedy and presiding philosophical temper.
Proust’s simultanously telescopic and microscopic view; his recognition that grandeur and absurdity coexist; his sense of society’s apparent rigidity and actual fragility—these inform Wharton’s enchanted caricature of her own tribe, brought to life in her delicately farcical elaboration of Mrs. Manson Mingott’s absurd girth and her mansion surreally located among “the quarries, the one-story saloons, the wooden greenhouses in ragged gardens, and the rocks from which goats surveyed the scene.” The van der Luydens’ mummified sacerdotal status, and Lawrence Lefferts’s hard-working hypocrisy, and Mr. Welland’s tyrannical hypochondria, and Mrs. Lemuel Struthers’s inexorable rise all have the serio-comic savor of Proustian data.
Of course, the material was Edith Wharton’s already, but Proust’s example gave her a new angle on it, a slant both more impudent and lofty than hers hitherto; her earlier treatments of society are relatively caustic and fearful, still full of girlhood resentments. At a time in her creative life when she needed fresh direction, she learned from Proust the dignity of nostalgia and the value of each character as a specimen, an index to the species and to broad laws of behavior. She learned from him, one might say, how to leap: her impending marriage of the daughter of the kept woman Fanny Ring and the son of the old-breed Archers spans worlds, as did Proust’s marriage (still in manuscript) of Gilberte Swann, the daughter of a Jew and a courtesan, to the Marquis de Saint-Loup.
The romantic heart of The Age of Innocence, however, beats with an ardor that Proust might endlessly anatomize but could not persuasively recreate. Edith Wharton might be brusque and aloof in person—with a mouth, an unkind observer said, “shaped like a savings box”—but she was a writer of unstinting empathy. Her portrait here of a man in love, with his unconscious slippage, his changeable internal weathers, his resolves and irresolution, his unquellable obsession, though it lacks any specifics of male lust, is extraordinary, and beautifully modulated toward its highest pitch. What could more forcefully express the mystery of erotic bewitchment than Archer’s way of forgetting what Ellen looks like, and his telling her, in italics, “Each time you happen to me all over again.” Ellen Olenska is one of the splendid women of American fiction—alluring, conflicted, vulnerable, blithely and touchingly truthful—and we see her entirely through his eyes, in a few hurried encounters; she speaks a sibylline modicum of words in the course of the novel. May Archer, the third principal, barely escapes the author’s impulse to make her a simpleton of upper-class prejudices; but in a few critical scenes she is allowed to move beyond her character into a more generous and intuitive femininity. She is seen as a glorious young archer, literally, and, unlike Archer, she hits her targets; she acts. The excited and not unsympathetic warmth that exists between women—in this case, cousins—competing for the same man is conveyed, but always in indirect testimony; our masculine narrator hears of, but never overhears, May and Ellen talking. On the other hand, Wharton confidently gives us a number of stag conversations, over brandy and cigars.
The novel glitters with epigrammatic moments, sequins of comedy—“Mrs. Lovell Mingott had the high color and glassy stare induced in ladies of her age and habit by the effort of getting into a new dress”—and jewels of hard wisdom: “A woman’s standard of truthfulness was tacitly held to be lower: she was the subject creature, and versed in the arts of the enslaved.” The novel treasures and polishes its incidents, as Archer’s mind returns to his few, infatuated glimpses of Ellen, shaping them into fetishes and precious symbols. The recent motion-picture adaptation by Martin Scorsese had no trouble locating its scenes, in the almost allegorical tapestry Wharton had laid out; among the $70,000 which the novel earned for its author in the first two years was $15,000 from Warner Brothers, for the first film adaptation.
No scene is more poignant, more memorably loaded with widening significances, than the lonely lovers’ meeting in the old Metropolitan Museum, “a queer wilderness of cast-iron and encaustic tiles”; the two seek seclusion in a deserted room containing the “Cesnola antiquities,” fragments of vanished Ilium. Ellen, in the awkwardness of this chaste assignation, wanders over to a case:
“It seems cruel,” she said, “that after a while nothing matters… any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: ‘Use unknown.”‘
“Yes; but meanwhile—“
The historical perspective Wharton achieved—the passions of the past, imprisoned in the conventions of the past—widens here into an archeological vista wherein our poor dry fragments will be someday labeled “Use unknown.” Our lives, so full of feeling and yearning and egotism, and of the beauty and magnetism with which Nature equips us to accomplish her ends, are but a magnificent “meanwhile,” whose most glowing possibilities must often be sealed with a renunciation. The Age of Innocence, beneath its fine surface, holds an abyss—the abyss of time, and the tragedy of human transcience.
Copyright © 1995 by John Updike.
November 30, 1995