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A Beautifully Written and Perceptively Observed Story
on 27 June 2017
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.