Wednesday, 8 July 2009

49 - 'The Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton

On a Facebook group I frequent, there was once a thread discussing the relative merits of Jane Austen and Edith Wharton. Not having read anything by Wharton, I refrained from commenting (unlike the carriageful of Austenites who used the thread as another excuse to praise Saint Jane to the skies), but I was interested by the few comments which actually mentioned the American author. So, when I was idly looking around my local campus bookshop... well, I think we all know where this is heading by now.

Having now read 'The Age of Innocence', I can sort of see why the comparison with Austen was made. The writer describes the close-knit society of 1870s New York with a similar scrutiny to Austen's view of the home counties at the start of the nineteenth century, penetrating the veil of breeding and form and observing the way people who don't really need (or want) to work spend their days. Just as a handsome soldier or blushing debutante were able to set tongues wagging in deepest Surrey, so too is the arrival of the prodigal daughter, Ellen Olenska, the catalyst for a thousand (mostly scandalous) private conversations in the American metropolis.

The differences, however, are far more intriguing. Unlike Austen's race-to-the-matrimonial-finish-line relationships, the happy couple in Wharton's book begin the story as newly affianced lovers, a point where their relationship begins (for the first time, perhaps...) to become interesting. On meeting and talking to the newly arrived Ellen, the cousin of his fiancee May, Newland Archer begins to examine the stifling social structure surrounding him through new eyes and starts to wonder whether he really wants to get married at all. The more he gets to know Ellen, and the more he becomes involved in fighting for her cause against the massed ranks of his new relatives, the less certain he is of his place in New York's fashionable milieu.

As Newland ponders the surroundings he has taken for granted all his life, the reader is sucked into seeing events through his (newly troubled) eyes. When, later in the book, we get the first hints of secrets being kept from our hero, this viewpoint renders the surprise we feel even more abrupt. Throughout the novel, Newland believes that he is in control of his actions, trying desperately to make the decision to break with his family and friends to be with the woman he really loves; it is only at the dinner party to send Ellen on her way back to Europe that he (and the reader) realises that there is no such thing as a secret among New York's upper echelons - and that there is very little chance of his being able to extricate himself from the position he has been groomed for from the cradle.

In fact, despite his constant protests about his fate, Newland may not be as different as he, and the writer, would have us believe. There are several hints to his normality, his 'averageness', in his behaviour, which he would have us consider as unique and different. Even when he is on the verge of running away with Ellen, he feels that their case cannot be compared to the tawdry affairs of his acquaintances; in fact, society knows (but decides to discreetly ignore) about his commonplace pulling against the reins of polite society. What seems like a frustrated rebellion against his family and friends may actually just be the normal doubts of a married man in an era where sex before marriage was not even to be hinted at.

To return to the comparison of Wharton with other authors, this novel brought to mind another English writer, one who wrote about London society at the same era as that of 'The Age of Innocence'. In his Palliser novels, and the excellent 'The Way We Live Now', Anthony Trollope neatly captured the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the day but was also able to accurately reflect the start of a change in the way people went about their daily lives. Just as Ellen Olenska causses turmoil in Manhattan, so too does Lizzie Eustace in 'The Eustace Diamonds'; the notorious bankrupt Julius Beaufort, a minor character in Wharton's novel, is reminiscent of the 'Great Financier' Augustus Melmotte in 'The Way We Live Now'. In comparison, Austen's tales of the rural upper-middle classes can seem a little tame and lacking in substance.

Twenty-odd years on from the bulk of the action in the book, Newland Archer looks back upon his youthful escapades, happy with his married life but still nursing regrets about what could have been. It is easy for the reader to see his marriage of convenience as a sham and to think that this kind of societal pressure is no longer possible; in the West, at least, this kind of semi-arranged marriage is no longer the norm. However, the ties that our community constricts us with are perhaps no less real today than in the New York of Wharton's novel. Can we really say that when we act we pay no regard to the possible reactions of our family and closest friends? In spite of the long gap separating our time from that of the unfortunate Newland Archer, the truth is that we can often be under as much unseen pressure as Edith Wharton's hero.