I spent the past couple of evenings listening to (and immensely enjoying) an audio version of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I doubt I would have enjoyed the book as much if I’d actually read it, rather than listened to it. (There’s a good, free recording of the whole thing that you can get through iTunes U / Lit2Go, but there are also other versions, for example through Librivox.org, which are free too. And of course you can get the full text — for free — on Project Gutenberg, since the piece is out of copyright.)
If you’re into books where things happen, this is not the book for you. Virtually everything that happens, happens in people’s minds. The plot is simple enough: Newland Archer, who is engaged to be married to the charming, beautiful Mae Welland, loses his heart to her exotic, semi-Russian cousin (the Countess Ellen Olenska) who has left her (likely abusive, but definitely philandering) husband and seeks refuge with Mae’s family in New York. The feeling is mutual, but Ellen does not want Mae’s heart to be broken. Much of the book is spent painting a vivid, intricately detailed picture of the New York high society of the late 1800s: the attitudes, social etiquette, fashions, etc, and who determines who and what is acceptable. The image Wharton creates is that of an American nobility, American ‘blue blood’ so to speak.
It is hinted throughout that Mae may know about Newland’s feelings for Ellen, but until after her death we are left to guess. Just before the wedding, Mae makes very clear that she does not want him to break prior obligations if there is someone else, and to only marry her if there are no other claims on him. After they get married, Ellen continues to occupy his mind, and at one point he is ready to leave the lovely but conventional Mae for the bohemian, more adventurous Ellen, but she chooses that moment to tell him she’s expecting. Of course, being a gentleman, he stays with her. At the end of the book, in the very last chapter, there’s a jump of almost 30 years. Newland is a fifty-something year-old widower, traveling with his adult son Dallas. Dallas arranges a meeting with Ellen Olenska, who by this time is also a widow, so that nothing actually stands between the two would-be lovers. Newland, however, isn’t sure how to proceed, not until the very last moment. He chooses not to follow his son into her apartment, and walks back to their hotel by himself.
There could have been a happy end. There isn’t one. Or maybe there is.
The book was written in 1920 and received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year, making Edith Wharton the first woman to receive that prize. A couple of movie versions have been made, the first one a silent film in 1924, the last one in 1993. I’ve not seen any of the movie versions — I have to say, I’m usually underwhelmed by movie versions of books I like, and looking at the casting choices for the movie versions it’s pretty clear to me that, once again, the characters looked very different in my imagination than they did in the director’s.
In any case, I really, really enjoyed the audio version. It was very soothing, the sheer decadence of description, the snobbishness, and the codes of honor especially Newland Archer observes (or tries to observe). Also, the changes Newland observes in New York society (and in himself) in the last chapter. If you want to read this, read it for the descriptions and the character studies. Don’t expect action. To me, listening to this was soothing and perfect for the cold spell (yes, it got cold even here in Mississippi!). This made me want to go to New York again, to look at the places it mentions and to visualize these turn-of-the-century characters moving about, communicating by not communicating.