Looking back on my reading history, I last read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence ten years ago, just pre-blog. I barely remember it. As I turned the pages, everything seemed new and fresh. I couldn’t anticipate the plot, and I had the strong sense that I was seeing these characters differently than I’d seen them before, or maybe that I’d never seen them at all. The magic of re-reading with a bad memory: I tell you, it’s a palace of delights.
This book is told from Newland Archer’s point of view. He is a wealthy young dilettante, the cream of the crop of New York society families in the 1870s. Everything revolves around this small group of clans: the Mingotts, the Dallases, the Archers, the Wellands, the van Luydens. If you behave the way everyone expects (job, marriage, brownstone house, big parties for the clan, children) you’re one of Us. If you behave with less than spotless propriety — especially if you’re a less-than-spotless woman — you’re one of Them, cast into outer darkness. Newland is well on track to remaining one of Us for all time, and quite smugly contented to be so.
Until Countess Olenska comes, literally, on the scene (he sees her first at the Opera.) The Countess used to be little Ellen Mingott, but married an abusive Russian count and escaped, some say with a lover. Shocking! to leave a husband — more shocking still to have another man involved — the most shocking thing yet, to appear brazenly in public afterward. How can she not know that she should hide away? But she doesn’t, and Newland is unaccountably drawn to her, perhaps because she is so different from his innocent, untouchable fiancée May Welland.
This is a wonderful novel. The writing is absolutely outstanding: elegant, wry, fascinating. (One of my favorite statements: “Until a few months ago he had never known a ‘nice’ woman who looked at life differently; and if a man married it must necessarily be among the nice.”) The characters absolutely leap off the page. This time through, the most interesting thing to me by far was the difference between Newland’s assessment of May and the Countess, and my own ideas about them.
Newland spends a lot of time thinking about May as pure and beautiful, but not very bright. There are a lot of descriptors for May like clear, transparent, bright, shining, graceful, “a young Diana,” and so forth. Her intellect, however, is described as distinctly sub-Newland. He mourns several times that he will always know what she is thinking; that she will never surprise him; that she will never understand the poetry or art that he likes. Hmmm, I thought. Maybe. But since she does spring a huge surprise on him in at least one place in the book, and smaller surprises elsewhere, maybe she’s smarter than you think. And it’s possible that she understands the art and poetry just fine, and is tired of you mansplaining it.
Newland also plays what I consider a pretty dirty trick on Countess Olenska, supposedly out of his rising passion for her. (I would actually put it down to his pig ignorance of the realities of the world, none of which he has ever personally had to face.) He obeys his family’s pressure to convince her not to get a divorce from the abusive count (because divorce would be a scandal for the family), but then doesn’t ever ask himself what’s become of her. The family cuts off her allowance, and the count won’t send her money either. She has no way to live, and Newland is blithely ignorant. Once he finds out, he’s briefly angry that the family left him out of this decision to pressure the Countess to return to her husband, but takes no responsibility for the part he played, or for… forgetting, I guess, that everyone needs money. He has power, so he doesn’t ask himself what becomes of those who don’t. She doesn’t seem angry with him, either. I would be.
I would be very interested to read a modern novel based on this one, a version written either from May’s point of view or from the Countess’s (or both, maybe in alternating sections or chapters.) There is so much going on behind the scenes here, and Newland, to my mind, doesn’t come off well. This is a novel rich in irony and subtlety. It’s splendid.