'In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphical world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs...'
So having been on that virtual visit to The Mount, and hastened to the Edith Wharton shelf, the first novel I settled on for this little reading journey was The Age of Innocence. I read it in the old Oxford World's Classics edition with this cover picture a detail from An Evening at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen by Paul Gustav Fischer. It made for perfect gazing as I stopped and pondered the book, all eyes very cleverly focused on a woman sitting alone and seemingly isolated.
I think we've been through the whole 'Why on earth haven't I read The Age of Innocence before?' and I am confident that this Edith Wharton foray will yield some great reading before the trail eventually lures me off in another direction. I am sitting on (not literally) the new biography Nancy - The Story of Lady Astor by Adrian Fort though I don't know how long I can keep my hands off it. There are real local connections to pursue with Nancy given that she was the first woman MP and the seat she won was Plymouth, but I want to spend a while with Edith and the glittering world of Old New York first.
Published in 1920, The Age of Innocence, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize the following year and it would seem no one was more surprised than Edith. In fact everyone else was probably surprised too, including Sinclair Lewis whose novel Main Street was chosen by the prize jury only for that decision to be over-ruled in favour of Edith Wharton by 'higher authorities.'
Imagine that happening today...or does it??
By this time Edith was earning big money too, an $18,000 payment for The Age of Innocence along with further payment of $15,000 against royalties came as a welcome boost to the bank balance of a woman who was restoring and running two homes. Editors of the fabulous volume of Edith's letters that I am dipping into alongside my reading estimate that between 1920 and 1924 her earnings were approximately $250,000 (in 1988, the year of publication of these letters, that was calculated as about $3,000,000 in today's money) which gives much credence to her popularity whilst adding to the mystery of quite how and why Edith fell out of fashion for some years before a resurgence in the 1970s.
On the surface, and perhaps even more so to a 21st century reader, lives seem superficial and beset by boredom and monotony in the gilded age of wealthy 1870s New York. People don't seem to do much and pay lip service to the notion of work without breaking into a sweat whilst living off inherited money. This is a closed circle of 'old money' that admits outsiders, the 'new money', with reluctance, and of course I immediately saw parallels with rural life here. Whilst the community may not be quite so 'moneyed' there is much suspicion levelled by the old guard at those who seem to appear from nowhere, buy up a large country estate and proceed to live the life.
It will be many years before the likes of Mrs Struther are considered true 'locals' but Edith Wharton cleverly pins down that willingness of the old guard to sample the hospitality nevertheless...
'It was thus, Archer reflected, that New York managed its transitions : conspiring to ignore them till they were well over, and then, in all good faith, imagining that they had taken place in a preceeding age. There was always a traitor in the citadel; and after he (or generally she) has surrendered the keys, what was the use of pretending that it was impregnable? Once people had tasted of Mrs Struther's easy Sunday hospitality they were not likely to sit at home remembering that her champagne was transmuted Shoe-Polish.'
Newland Archer and May Welland, living in their world of 'faint implications and pale delicacies', are betrothed and swiftly married at Newland's impatient insistence, and perhaps more out of convenience and convention than real love, and it is the arrival of May's cousin, the enigmatic Ellen Olenska, in the throes of a divorce from her Polish husband, that will gently upset the marital apple cart. I say 'gently' because this is Old New York, 'tumultuously' would be inconceivable within a community that has sufficient power and authority at its kid-gloved fingertips to ensure that everything is kept cleverly beneath the surface. Appearances must be kept up at all costs, so the possibilities are rarely given voice and only allowed to bubble up through occasional cracks. It is never made clear quite what makes Count Olenska so dreadful that to return to him would be unthinkable, but lawyer Newland works tirelessly on the divorce inevitably becoming besotted with Ellen in the process.
May is not quite the dupe she would seem and plays a canny game with her husband, leaving the reader in no doubt that she is fully aware of what is happening, though Newland might be too blinkered to see it. Under no circumstances will May relinquish her husband and herself to a life of scandal, and when matters do come to a head it is the tribe that steps in to support her, and with such devastating precision at a dinner party.
The penny finally drops for Newland...
'He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the seperation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything...'
Along the way I think Edith Wharton has created one of the most memorable characters I have yet to meet in her fiction...well, apart from Undine Sprague in The Custom of the Country that is. Prepare to meet a Wharton classic in the 'carniverous old lady', Mrs Manson Mingott...
'The immense accretion of flesh which has descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active woman with a neatly turned foot and ankle into something as cast and august as a natural phenomenon.'
Well I nearly choked on my cup of tea... Edith being best read on the sofa on a gloomy, overcast winter's afternoon with a blazing fire and a pot of the best Earl Grey...oh for a day bed like Edith's...
Confined by the burden of her flesh to a single floor of her New York home it is Mrs Mingott who holds court in her sitting room with a very unacceptable glimpse of a frivolous, lace-flounced bedroom....'in flagrant violation of all the New York proprieties.'
For me, Edith Wharton's skill rests not only with her depiction of this elite, insular, tight little citadel and her barely diguised disdain for it, but also in her acute observance of the social nuances and the motives behind them.
'Madame Olenska is a great favourite with the gentlemen,' said Miss Sophy, with her air of wishing to put forth something conciliatory when she knew that she was planting a dart...'
Moments that added up, piece by piece to a complete understanding for this reader.
The ending, which of course I won't reveal, is replete with yet more unspoken anguish as it becomes clear what fate has awaited those who tried but failed to break free.
The Age of Innocence was initially serialised and sent to the U.S. publishers in instalments from Edith Wharton's home in Paris. For all the money that Edith was earning she was no pushover when it came to laying down her terms, and getting wind that the publishers may 'tamper with the text of the novel' she had this to say...
'I have done a really super-human piece of work in writing. within a year, the best part of two long novels, entirely different in subject and treatment, simply to suit the convenience of the Editor of the Pictorial and I cannot consent to have my work treated as if it were prose-by-the-yard.'
Brilliant.... loving the Edith.