I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for a high society tale. Maybe because I frequently like to rant about its hypocrisy and how this makes the world a worst place for it but I have always like observing the highs and lows of the haves in ludicrous situations and even more ludicrous costumes. From Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh and Edith Wharton (amongst others) to Gossip Girl and The Luxe series (teen pulp fiction at its finest) I’ve never been able to draw myself away from the champagne and sparkles world.
I’ll admit I was first inspired to read The Age of Innocence when I saw it performed as a play on an episode of the TV series version of Gossip Girl way back in 2009. However, instead of diving straight in I read what is regarded as its predecessor The House of Mirth during the summer after my first year of university (my reading pile is normally backed up by at least a year) and I did really like it if the setting was a little incongruous (its hard reading about 19th century New York when you’re in rural Tanzania) so I thought I’d read the original book that had piqued my interest in the first place.
Written in 1920, The Age of Innocence is seen by some critics as an apology for the savage criticism launched at upper class New York society in The House of Mirth, written in 1905 with is filled to the brim with social commentary and analysis of the rise and fall of high society darling Lily Bart as a critic of high society’s brutal mores.
The Age of Innocence is far more gentle in its portrayal, focusing more on mocking the absurdities of 1870s New York and the conflicting nostalgia and horror of looking back from the far more egalitarian and liberal twentieth century. It instead captures the melancholia and loneliness associated with life in the gilded cage. Its central character, Newland Archer, was supposedly content with his life as a junior partner at a top New York law firm and his impending marriage to May Welland, a nice but rather insipid New York debutante when he met and fell in love with an old childhood friend, Ellen Olenska after she returns to New York to escape her marriage to an abusive Polish count.
So far, so Jilly Cooper.
However, although I thought it was unlikely that a turn of the century author would write a ‘bodice ripper’ so to speak but she did frequently set up some many situations designed for dramatic resolutions and heartfelt speeches where love ultimately triumphs and then turns on their head by resolving in an understated manner as the character’s choose duty and propriety over what they truly want.
As we travel through Archer’s psyche we see the people are him forced to make sacrifices for appearances or derided when they refuse such as Regina Beaufort’s unwilling to accept ostracization after her husband’s financial ruin and Madame Olenska herself’s defying her family’s wish to go back to her husband before ultimately agreeing to not pursue a final divorce.
The novel spans thirty years in total and sees the rules of engagement finally change to allow for love but with the bittersweet relasation that its too late for Newland and Ellen who are doomed to be trapped in respectable but loveless marriages.
The most remarkable thing about this novel is its epilogue. A sudden jump of thirty years to the beginning of the twenty century as Archer observes the opportunities his children have that he never received. The novel ends on a truly heartbreaking moment when he is given a second chance at happiness and realises that it is simply too late for him.
No matter how you feel about the characters throughout the book it is impossible not to be moved by the image of Archer turning his back and walk out that door for the final time in his life while his son moves forward.