Edith Wharton is a writer I’ve always wanted to like a little bit more than I do. I have Hermione Lee’s biography of her sitting on a shelf to read sometime, but there is only one of her novels I have really enjoyed: the wickedly satirical Custom of the Country. It is probably that tone I am missing from other of her novels I’ve read, including The House of Mirth and, now, The Age of Innocence (1920).
Innocence tells the story of Newland Archer, a member of 1870s New York’s high society torn between a tradition that makes him comfortable and an artistic and critical bend that leads him to be highly critical of it. Set to marry the nicest of nice girls, his head is turned by an old love interest with a less conventional personality looking for refuse from an abusive husband. To pursue his interest would turn him and her into social outcasts; to get married as planned would be to commit to a life of boredom.
He goes ahead and marries the good girl about half way through, of course.
It is a hard book to get excited about because it is hard to get that invested in Newland’s dilemma. Wharton makes it clear that the bigger victims are the women: May, Newland’s bride, is boring and more or less deprived of interesting thought because she has been made that way (though it should be said she is more insightful than Newland thinks); the Countess Olenska is condemned for living a life that no man would be disparaged for. Newland’s choice is shaped by the same society that shaped their problems, but the impact on him is relatively small due to his privilege as a man. The two women are much more of interest than he is, but he is the focus.
The other key problem with the novel is Wharton’s constant winking at the reader about life in the 1870s verses life in the early twentieth century. We are to be impressed by Newland liking the contemporary authors that turned out to be famous or remembered later, but more heavy handed are the references to new technologies that can’t be believed—or characters thinking how weird potential future technologies sound (which of course exist after the events of the novel). Wharton constantly asks us to chuckle at how new all those things seemed back then even though we now take them for granted. This tendency relates to the lack of drama: the plot tends toward a look back at “how silly we all were” rather than making the issue alive for the present, as if by the 1920s women’s problems were solved. I am pretty sure Wharton did not think so, but the novel comes across that way.