Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton

The Age of Innocence
Remember how much I love turn of the century settings? While L.M. Montgomery has been my go-to for ages, I discovered this summer that the 100 Best Novels list could provide some new options. The Magnificent Ambersons became the first from the list to fit the bill.  The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is the second.

Until recently, this novel had given me no cause to promote its place in line. It ranked no higher than many others on Modern Library's list. I knew virtually nothing about it. My only connection was a vague understanding that I would be reading it sometime in the next few years.

Then, I started listening to The History Chicks. If you are not already listening to their delightful podcast, you definitely you should. These two awesome ladies tackle a different female, historical figure each episode. They are entertaining and educational. Seriously, go check them out.

Anyway, they did a series of episodes on the Gilded Age. I was in heaven. Seriously, guys, I think this is the next historical era I'm going to obsess over. During the series, the had a whole episode dedicated to talking about Martin Scorsese's acclaimed film adaptation of this book. I figured out early on that the movie they were discussing was based on one of the Modern Library books. As soon as I did, I skipped the episode. I didn't want any part of the plot ruined for me.

Wharton based her story on the lives of Mrs. Astor and those in New York society during the Guilded Age. According to The History Chicks, some of her fictional creations were pretty thinly veiled characterizations of real life people. I am definitely interested in doing a little more research into that idea. That, however, is for another day.

The Age of Innocence pretty much had me captured from the opening scene at the opera.  Newland Archer, a young bachelor, admires his fresh-faced fiancĂ©e, May Welland, across the room in her family's box. Soon, she is joined by her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen is returning from her years abroad cloaked in the scandal of a deteriorating marriage. The story that follows is so dictated by culture and time period that it could take place in no other era.

To some, it would seem that hardly anything happens in the book. Plot is advanced through stiff conversations and the inner thoughts of Archer. There is little real action. This, however, is what makes the book so genius. Wharton portrays the societal expectations brilliantly through her writing style.

A line from that opening opera scene paints the picture beautifully:  
"She sang, of course, "M'ama!" and not "he loves me," since an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences."
Whatron shows from the start the strict world her characters live in. It is a world governed by rules that often make no sense. Archer's journey is a struggle with those rules. He cannot accept them in the placid, accepting way May Welland does. Countess Olenska gives him a glimpse of a world dictated by rules that are, at least, different than the ones binding him.

I found Wharton's writing and style to be beautiful and restrained. It all fit so well with her plot and setting. It did not surprise me a bit to discover that The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. Wharton was the the first woman to whom it was awarded.

There is one more Edith Wharton novel on the 100 Best Novels list - The House of Mirth. It no longer suffers the same anonymity The Age of Innocence once did. I plan to delay gratification and put it off for a while. It is a lovely feeling knowing it will be there waiting in line just when I need another turn of the century delight.  In the mean time, Scorsese's film adaptation of The Age of Innocence just made its way to my Netflix queue.

Pages: 305
Date Completed: November 3, 2013

Do you have a specific era you like to read about? What books give you the fix you need?

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