‘Our ideas about marriage and divorce are particularly old-fashioned. Our legislation favours divorce – and our social customs don’t,’ says Newland Archer to Countess Olenska, attempting to explain the subtle but rigid unspoken conventions of the patrician New York society to which they both belong. The Countess Olenska arrives in New York from Europe as Archer is about to announce his engagement to her cousin May Welland, a beautiful, athletic and irreproachable society girl. Ellen Olenska has fled her philandering husband, a Polish count, and returned to her family in New York to get a divorce. ‘The individual, in such cases, is nearly always sacrificed to what is supposed to be the collective interest: people cling to any convention that keeps the family together,’ continues Archer, dismayed to find himself forced to resort to such platitudes.
The ferocity with which the Countess longs for her freedom from her husband, her inability to be surprised by anything, her bold talk and eccentric style – ‘Madame Olenska, heedless of tradition, was attired in a long robe of red velvet bordered about the chin and down the front with glossy black fur’ – conjure for Archer a mysterious European world that grows to fill the void in his life, which is rapidly becoming apparent to him with the approach of his society marriage. Brought together by May’s family, the Countess and Archer find themselves consumed by desire for one another.
In the unfolding of Archer’s story and his divided heart, Edith Wharton teases out the tensions between individual needs and social obligations – the shame of divorce, the pain of marriage, the restrictive codes of society, its damning of outsiders and yet its generosity to its own, the irresistible charm of its ways – and draws a complex and subtly delineated portrait of upper-class New York in the 1870s. Only in its quiet closing moments does the novel reveal the truth of May’s lucid understanding of her husband and marriage, and demonstrate the ambiguity of Wharton’s rounded perception of life.
Edith Wharton was in her late 50s when she wrote The Age of Innocence. She had experienced in her own life the pain of loveless marriage, the shame of divorce, the pleasure of illicit sexual passion and the unyielding power of New York’s upper class. She had also experienced at first hand the devastation of the First World War. The war broke out when Wharton was living in Paris and she immediately became energetically involved in assisting those whose lives it had ruined, helping refugees from northeastern France and Belgium, and travelling to the front in her motorcar. (Wharton loved driving and bought her first automobile in 1904.) In 1916 Wharton edited The Book of the Homeless, an anthology with contributions from Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and WB Yeats, to raise money for the refugees. In recognition of her wartime relief work, Wharton was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the French government.
Following the war, totally consumed by an urge to write about its overwhelming intensity, almost as an aside Wharton began to work on a new novel about the New York of her childhood. If before the war Wharton had seen society exclusively in terms of its power to crush the individual, her experience of the war years opened her eyes to the benefits of civilisation, the ways in which family, history and tradition can provide the context and security essential for life. Her new insights can be felt in The Age of Innocence.
Born in New York in 1862 during the Civil War, Wharton was the youngest child (by twelve years) and only daughter of George and Lucretia Jones, members of the New York upper class whose English and Danish ancestors had acquired their vast wealth in business, law and banking. (They were the original Joneses with whom the term ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ originated.) As a teenager Edith was known as ‘that handsome, disagreeable little Pussy Jones’. In her milieu a girl’s only conceivable ambition was to make a successful society marriage and become an exemplary wife and mother. Wharton’s family was not at all interested in literature and was surprised by Edith’s passion for reading and writing. Educated at home and on the family’s travels through Europe (which began in 1866 and lasted six years), Edith wrote poetry and finished her first novella, Fast and Loose, when she was 15. A few years after the death of her beloved father, Wharton, at the ripe old age of 23 (at which she was considered almost on the shelf), married Boston banker Edward Wharton in 1885.
Wharton’s first notable book was published in 1897. Written with friend and architect Ogden Codman, her book The Decoration of Houses advocated simple, classical design and immediately influenced designers throughout America. Wharton also designed her own house, ‘The Mount‘, in Lenox, Massachusetts. Completed in 1902, the house was described by Wharton’s friend Henry James as ‘a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond’. Wharton adored her house and garden, and wrote in her diary that architecture and flowers (as well as books, dogs and a good joke) were among her ruling passions.
In 1905 the popular and critical success of her novel The House of Mirth established Wharton as a prominent American writer. But she felt enormous tensions between her position as a society matron and her vocation as a writer. This may have contributed to the breakdown of her health, which took the Whartons to France and Italy, where her health was restored. In 1907 Wharton moved with her husband to Paris, a city she felt was in her blood.
Following her move to Europe, Wharton flourished as a writer but her marriage foundered. In France she wrote in bed, dropping page after page onto the floor for a secretary to type. Her daily output was massive and she produced a book a year for 40 years. But in 1913 Wharton and her husband Edward were divorced, prompted by his mental instability, financial irresponsibility and numerous affairs with other women.
In 1908 at the age of 46, Wharton fell in love with American expatriate Morton Fullerton, a journalist on The Times who’d had affairs with men and women, and they had a passionate sexual affair as well as a meeting of minds. Henry James had introduced her to Fullerton, with whom Henry was also in love and on whom he modelled Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove. Wharton was a lifelong supporter of Henry James, which included campaigning for him to win the Nobel Prize (which he never won) and secretly diverting some of her own more abundant royalties to him via her publisher.
Contracted for publication by The Pictorial Review, a popular magazine for women, The Age of Innocence appeared in four large instalments from July to October 1920. The book, published the same year, was an immediate success. In 1921 The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize. In what was to be her only journey home following the war, Wharton returned to America to receive the award. Two years later, in 1923, she became the first woman to received a Doctorate of Letters from Yale University. For a girl born into a society in which women writers were unheard of, that Wharton had become a writer at all was a remarkable feat of courage and determination. That she had risen to such heights of critical acclaim was testament to her abundant talent and fierce intellect.
Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous 1993 cinema adaptation of The Age of Innocence starred Daniel Day Lewis as Newland Archer, Winona Ryder as May Welland and Michelle Pfeiffer as Countess Olenska. Scorsese was passionately committed to directing Wharton’s great novel and brings to his film all the subtle characterisation, complex social mores, signs and codes, all the claustrophobia and beauty of Wharton’s original.