In the Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton portrays New York society of the late nineteenth century as a repressive and claustrophobic world. Society was small – everyone connected – everybody knew the rules and played by them.
“In the course of the next day the first of the usual betrothal visits were exchanged. The New York ritual was precise and inflexible in such matters; and in conformity with it. Newland Archer first went with his mother and sister to call on Mrs Welland, after which he and Mrs Welland and May drove out to old Mrs Manson Mingott’s to receive that venerable ancestress’s blessing.”
It is on the very day that Newland Archer becomes engaged to May Welland that he sees May’s cousin the Countess Ellen Olenska in a box at the opera. Countess Olenska is already placed outside of society, returning from Europe, minus her husband, from whom she has run away; she has set up home in a small house in an unfashionable neighbourhood. Protected by her relationship with some of New York’s key families, she is nevertheless under great pressure to return to her husband and her miserable life. Newland’s fascination with Ellen soon deepens into love – but they are doomed by society. He is soon to be married to her cousin, she is still married, and part of a society that finds divorce far more shocking than having separated from her husband. Newland is destined to live a conventional life. He tries to do the right thing – and certainly by today’s standards he doesn’t really do very much wrong. However his feelings for Ellen can’t be swept away and he finds himself lying to his wife. He finds however, that his wife and her family see and understand far more than he had given them credit for.
“He guessed himself to have been, for many months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between him and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied around his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything, and that the occasion of the entertainment was simply May Archer’s natural desire to take an affectionate leave of her friend and cousin.”
The story of Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska is a familiar one – and not one that presents the reader with any surprises, and yet it is still a joy to read. At the risk of being shouted down for possible spoilers – I found this short passage just a couple of pages from the end, extraordinarily lovely.
“Perhaps she too had kept her memory of him as something apart; but if she had, it must have been like a relic in a small dim chapel, where there was not time to pray every day”