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In Edith Wharton's twelfth novel 'The Age of Innocence', we meet Archer Newland, a young lawyer living in New York in the 1870s, who has been looking forward to his marriage to the naive and lovely May Welland, a society beauty whose sheltered upbringing and training has turned her into a young woman destined to become the perfect wife and mother. However, despite Archer's appreciation of May's quiet charms, he soon begins to find her strict adherence to society's rules and conventions and her unadventurous spirit rather frustrating and limiting - especially when he meets her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, an exotic and intriguing woman, who has scandalously left her husband in Europe and whose independent outlook on life forces Archer to question the narrow confines of his. Before long, Archer has fallen in love with Ellen, but nevertheless goes ahead with the wedding; however each time he meets the Countess Olenska, he finds it difficult to control his feelings, especially as Ellen shows that she is attracted to him as much as he is to her. Does Archer manage to suppress his deep desire for Ellen and dutifully stand by his marriage vows, or does he decide to disregard the rules of society and leave his conventional life behind him? Obviously I must leave that for those who have yet to read the book to learn for themselves.

In this novel, which was first published in 1920 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, Edith Wharton deftly paints a convincing portrait of upper-class New York society of the 1870s with its rigid code of conduct and its many hypocrisies, and the narrative is littered with Ms Wharton's perceptive observations of the society in which she grew up. Her characters are believable creations whose personalities develop through the course of the story and although, at the outset of the novel we might find ourselves sympathizing with May in her innocence, we soon begin to see that she is not as innocent or guileless as she initially seems and that when she needs to be she can be designing and manipulative - whilst conversely, we see the apparently less moralistic Ellen Olenska behaving in more admirable manner than her detractors might suppose she would - but I cannot explain further without revealing spoilers. All in all, I found this a beautifully written and very engaging read and, like the author's 'The House of Mirth', is one that I would be happy to revisit in the future.

5 Stars.
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on 8 July 2012
I came to Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence" via a reading of another novel, of her's, namely Ethan Frome. Ethan Frome enticed me to read other novels by Wharton because in about 120 pages the novella threw up some interesting and pertinent themes such as the human being's capacity to revolt against the strictures of their social mores whilst at the same time being able to accept the limits to which they can stretch that revolt and come to some form of compromise that allows them to maintain some degree of individuality without overly upsetting the norms of their social milieu. On a much broader and more in-depth scale, The Age of innocence explores such themes.

The novel is broadly set in New York at about the end of the First World War. Wharton's characters are wealthy, upper middle class and striving to maintain the social mores that define their social milieu. Her characters organise exclusive social gatherings, attend the opera and gossip about the behaviour and fortune of each other. The two protagonists that potentially disrupt and shake up the attitude and behaviour of this group are Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. Ellen, a member of the Welland family, has lived in Europe in an unhappy marriage to one count Olenska. She returns to New York apparently to escape the count's depravity and ultimately obtain a divorce. Ellen represents the outsider who perhaps unwittingly disrupts the cosy social life of her family and their friends. Newland Archer, a young lawyer engaged to May Welland, a cousin of Ellen Olenska, is given the task of persuading Ellen not to seek a divorce from her husband. A divorce would undermine the family's standing in their social context. Newland and Ellen basically fall in love leaving Newland torn between abandoning his engagement to May with all the consequences that would follow and eloping with Ellen. He stands by May and marries her. It is the subsequent tension between sticking to social norms or disrupting them and thereby engendering a new way of behaviour and doing things that Wharton brilliantly explores.

If one were to place Wharton's novel into a genre, if only to grasps her approach and what she does, then it could be argued that it has its roots in nineteenth century psychological realism. The novel is a fine example of that approach. As I read it, I was reminded of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Wharton's long sentences with their sub-clauses reveal nuances in her character's thoughts which in turn present us with fully rounded characters. Her tone is sardonic and to some extent cynical of the social world into which she takes the reader.

Having said the above in praise of the novel, I must admit that I had two major gripes with it. The first is that I had no sympathy for Wharton's well-to-do characters. And secondly the social world into which Wharton takes the reader is anathema to me. These are two very subjective criticisms that say a lot about my position and values rather than any necessary inherent fault with the novel. Nonetheless, I simply found this world of snobbery and opera attendance, not for any appreciation of the opera but simply as a result of one's social position, dull and a little tedious to read about.

The novels of Edith Wharton are a fairly new discovery for me. I like the themes she explores and her characters are well drawn. Pushing a hundred years since Wharton wrote, the two novels I have read are still relevant today and worth reading.
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on 26 May 2016
Warning: contain spoilers!

A good novel is not just a story which entertains, helps you pass the time and leaves you with no trace of intellectual imprints except of the momentary pleasure which is likely to pass. Rather a good novel is an analysis, observation or a view of a certain aspect of humanity through the fictitious characters, their life and encounters created by the pen of the writer. In this sense, the Age of Innocence is a good novel. It works very hard to tell of the society, its morality supported by the conventions and traditions, through the characters whose behaviour and thinking were moulded in that environment.

Through our modern 21st century eyes, the ending may be shocking - the true love did not win but conform to the demand and expectation of the social norm. The objective was not to disturb the calm waters. In the introduction to this version, it is quoted that 'Archer's and Ellen's 'particular tragedy' is their 'sacrifice' to May Welland, who is 'virtuous because she is incapable of temptation, competent because she is incapable of any deep perturbation....' (p.viii). I suspect that most people today will share that view - it's a 'sacrifice' of true love for what is proper and the norm. But when we read on in the book, the outcome was an active choice of Ellen and a passive one of Newland. It is fascinating to pick up her reasoning why she exerted so much restraint on her emotions and in so doing, also restrained Newland's. Here is what Ellen said to Newland: 'But from the beginning, I felt that there was no one as kind as you; no one who gave me reasons that I understood for doing what at first seemed so hard and - unnecessary. The very good people didn't convince me; I felt they'd never been tempted. But you knew; you understood; you had felt the world outside tugging at one which all its golden hands - and yet you hated the things it asks of one; you hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. That was what I'd never known before - and it's better than anything I've known.' (p.110) When Newland mentioned his 'right', she responded, 'Ah, you've taught me what an ugly word that is.' (p.111) Ellen made her choice because she saw how her wider family operated and interacted, something that she had never observed from a close quarter until then because she was brought up in Europe. She had found something 'better than anything I've known'. That sounds a perfectly good reason to me to rein in the force that was going to destroy the harmony. To her, it wasn't just a duty but something 'better'. I think this is a very good antidote to our individualism, self-centredness, and love-above-all mentality. There are things better than love. There are other means to bring about happiness than love. There are other human virtues that are as worthy of praise as love. Ellen's choice is not that shocking if we step aside of our self-centredness.

Thereafter, her decisions and choice were her effort in keeping that balance, which she submitted Newland to it even against his wish: 'It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquilised him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity.' (p.155) 'She would go (baack to her husband) only if she felt herself becoming a temptation to Archer, a temptation to fall away from the standard they had both set up. Her choice would be to stay near him as long as he did not ask her to come nearer; and it depended on himself to keep her just there, safe but secluded.' p.155.

Of course, the delicate balance could not be sustained as the temptation was too big. They nearly blew it if not for May Welland, who feeling under threat, intervened and foiled their plan by awakening Ellen's conscience. In the end she had to leave, back to Europe but not back to her husband. Even then Newland was prepared to chase after her if not for the family responsibility brought on by the expanded family.

The ending probably is not a tragedy - perhaps Ellen found love thereafter, the book does not say anything about Ellen. Newland's life on the other hand has fulfilled all expectations and Ellen came to symbolise what he had missed in life. That's all right, isn't it? No one can have everything in life. I think the decision, albeit agonising, is the right one, because it is a mirage of modern time to believe that two people can be truly happy just on their love for one another if many loved ones are hurt by their getting together. How can you be truly happy if you know that you have wronged someone deeply?

The book surprises me in that New York was depicted as more stifling than Europe, where Ellen could be free. Europe in my mind also had a lot etiquette and social expectations and ranks. New York, or America in general, was freer in my perception. I may be wrong, but I wonder if this is because people live far away from home and extended family and therefore naturally will be freer to be themselves and do what they want.

One of the main focuses of the book is the tug between social expectations, duty and decency on the one hand, and one's own private desires on the other. As Wilberforce has dissected for us in his Practical View of Christianity, it is a fatal error to detach morality from its foundation. I believe that this conflict will go on forever if we do not have higher reason beyond ourselves and society for morality. Morality cannot survive on its own without its anchor. If it is detached from its foundation, it will only be chipped away gradually over time by the force of our private desires, as we have indeed seen in our 21st century society.

The author writes well, full of description and satires of the social norms of her day. It is engaging and keeps us thinking. I think Book I is better than Book II, as the latter doesn't grip our attention as fully as the former. An enjoyable and worthwhile read overall.
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on 13 September 2013
I love the cover, a fashion plate done in 1913 for Paquin. The lady's dress and hat decorated with daisies, while she plucks the petals of a daisy to see if her love loves her. The theme continues in the first pages when the hero comes into the NY opera in time to hear the diva singing 'M'ama ..... non m'ama' (he loves me - he loves me not) 'since an unalterable and unquestionable law of the musical wortld required the german text of a french opera sung by swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of the english speaking audience'. The first chapter is stuffed w<ith memorable phrases from the elegant and fashionble Miss Wharton. The book has lots of charm and historically is very interesting with the authors inside view of old NY society and their ways, all to be flouted by the heroine, Countess Ellen Oblenska; who returns after about 10 years of glamorous marriage with a very rich Polish count who she met in Paris dancing in Tuileries!!! to the imagined security of her childhood years in NY. The hero, engaged to a young & inocent girl with a large dot, is carried away by the romantism of this exotic person who he knew as a child. So the eternal triangle exists, he sends large bunches of lily of the valley to his fiancée and golden yellow roses to the countess, whose cozy room is already filled with hothouse orchids and carnations from other admirers. The on off romance continues over years and has a very poignant and fitting end. Wharton was the first woman to win the Pullitser prize and she deserved it.
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on 11 April 2013
If I can do one thing for you it is this. Let me tell you nothing about the book other than you have to read it. It is beautiful. I will read this again, it is part of a very small group in that. I had bought it and a guest, who loved 'A Month in the Country' said 'Age of Innocence' was also one of her favourite books, so I moved it to the next in the list to read and I only wished I had read it sooner, because I could then have read it more times in my life, been influenced by it earlier and recommended it to more people. I have passed it on to everyone I know who likes literature, and those who have read it love it to. I am sorry for saying nothing 'about the book' but please read it, then see if I was right to let you go into the book with a little warning as possible.
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on 25 March 2017
A nice book for those who enjoy Victorian literature. Gives a good insight into the attitudes of society in America at the time.
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on 26 April 2017
I am afraid not my kind of book only finished it as it was my local book club choice.
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on 6 June 2013
Of course the book is a classic, a rare treat, you can't fail to be moved. This Penguin edition is full of typing mistakes, punctuation mistakes and missing words. It has obviously been typed into the Kindle machine by a non English speaking person on a fixed rate and no one has thought to check it. You might expect that from a free edition but Penguin should take much more care.
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on 28 June 2017
Disappointed. I kept seeing it on reading lists for books you should read. It was a long winded story of lost love and doing the right thing.
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on 7 December 2015
A book on morality in New York set over a hundred years ago. Still relevant in theme to a certain extent on the subject of duty versus desire but I found it difficult to read with very long sentences plus some words and settings unfamiliar to a modern reader.
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