The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This was one of the titles I received on the Book Blogger Holiday Swap from last Christmas. Annabel Gaskel from Gaskella was my Secret Santa and the book was one of a number of goodies that made their way to my house. I started it while I was on holiday in Sweden and I have wanted to read it for some time.

Set in New York during the late 19th century, the novel follows the tightly knitted and highly constrictive society of the rich and privileged, governed by manners, etiquette and duty. This is a world where nothing is said outright, communication is subtle and with few surprises. Their lives are mapped out for them, and their biggest fear is any kind of discrepancy that would mean a blight on their families good name.

The narrator explains the intricate hierarchy of families while introducing us to the main players while attending the opera. Our main character, Newland Archer, handsome, successful and from a respected family, is soon to announce his engagement to May Welland, pretty, dutiful and from another good family, when the arrival of her cousin Ellen, throws a cat among the pigeons. The Countess Ellen Olenska, beautiful with bohemian leanings, was a childhood friend of Newland's, but has lived in Europe after marrying a Russian Count. Ellen's return, after the breakdown of her marriage, causes the New Yorkers tongues to wag, especially as her ways are not those of the families she had left behind. As her family try to support her, while limiting the damage her presence can do to them, Newland and May agree to bring their engagement forward in order to deflect public opinions of Ellen. Newland, however, has begun to question the constraints of duty and longs for a freer view away from duty. When he is asked, as a lawyer, to advise the Countess against seeking a divorce, an act that would do untold damage to her and taint her family, Newland finds himself becoming helplessly drawn to Ellen, and she to him.

I started this book not knowing how I would find it. I saw the movie with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer years ago, so I knew it was not an action packed affair, relying on the agonies of restraint, suppressed passion and the unsaid. A few people have said that they had to suffer its boredom on college literature courses, so I was very pleasantly surprised to find a lot of humour right at the beginning, while the narrator gives us a wry view of the great and the good. I found myself reading passages out to friends because I found it unexpectedly funny. The names are fantastic...Newland Archer, Lawrence Lefferts, Sillerton Jackson, and there seems to be a constant twinkle in the eye of the storyteller.

The sumptuous interiors of the houses and the expectations in behaviour are fascinating, and as alien as an anthropological study of an ancient tribe from a rainforest. Where this novel shone for me was the breathless intensity of forbidden feeling between Newland and Ellen, and the stifling lack of honest expression between Newland and May.

There were times where this compression of feeling was painful. On leaving Ellen after a brief meeting, where his feelings, as yet inexpressed and new, threaten to engulf him, this is a man who is surrounded by those who frown on feeling anything much,

'He bent and laid his lips on her hands, which were cold and lifeless. She drew them away, and he turned to the door, found his coat and hat under the faint gas-light of the hall, and plunged out into the winter night bursting with the belated eloquance of the inarticulate.'

The language is elegant and succinct, and I enjoyed reading this book very much because of it. I am guessing it was the suppression of feeling that made you, the reader, feel so much when it was alluded to. It is clear that Newland adores Ellen, it is shouting out of him, silently. His examination of his feelings for May are equally painful.

This is not a book for those who like pace and movement. It is populated by detail and stiff characters, dictated to by endless tradition. I can see why some, who are made to read it, view it with dread and boredom. I however really enjoyed it. Its lack of outer feeling made me feel so much. It reminded me of Jane Austen's witty and detailed examinations of the well off. I liked the historic setting, in a world changing so fast and desperately hanging on to their values for fear of any alternative.

Recommended for classics fans and those who enjoy historic society novels, and Jane Austen fans looking for something different.

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Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye