The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for months now, and I finally decided to pick it up. The book has all of the makings of something I would love: a historical love story set in New York City in the Gilded Age, peppered with feminist ideas.
My interest in the Gilded Age stems from the fact that I grew up in Southern Rhode Island. For those of you that don’t know, Newport, Rhode Island was known as the wealthy set’s summer playground. Dozens of “cottages,” or, large mansions if we’re being honest, line a street called Bellevue Avenue, and I grew up admiring them.
You may be wondering how a self-proclaimed feminist could be interested in such an oppressive age for women. Call me crazy but with a bit of digging, there are examples of empowered women within the Gilded Age to be found, and I love finding them. I was pleasantly surprised that The Age of Innocence contains one of them. Or, two, if you count the author’s story.
Before I jump into the novel, I want to give you all a little bit of background on the author, Edith Wharton. I first heard her name thanks to her own summer cottage on the sea. It’s called Land’s End and I must have driven past it over 50 times in my life.
Wharton herself was a part of New York City’s upper class, and most (if not all) of her stories take place in this far away (for most of us) world. After doing a bit of research I also found out that the saying “keeping up with the Joneses” refers to her father’s side of the family. That’s just to give you an idea of how wealthy her family was.
Wharton emerged from this world as a successful writer, something very rare for a woman at the time. Historians say that she showed an interest in writing from a very early age, despite little to no support from her family and friends. Well, let me back up. Her family agreed to publish her work as long as her name was not attributed to any of it. After all, “writer” isn’t the occupation of a lady.
However, Wharton persisted. After she was married, she and her husband began to travel extensively throughout Europe. While abroad, Wharton was able to focus on her writing without the criticisms of her family. She lived throughout Italy, France, and England throughout the beginning of the 20th century, and she also assisted with the war effort in Paris during World War I. When I think about Wharton’s summers in Newport, interest in writing and in Europe, I feel like I’ve found my spirit animal.
After the war, she traveled to the South of France where she wrote The Age of Innocence. She went on to become the first woman ever to win a Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1921 for the novel. She was also nominated for the prize in 1927, 1928, and 1930.
“‘Women ought to be free — as free as we are,’ he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”
- The Age of Innocence, pg 39
When I read the line above, I realized that The Age of Innocence wasn’t just any love story from the Gilded Age, but one in which the author had added some of her own feminist ideals.
The story centers around a man named Newland Archer. When we meet Newland, he is a bachelor in New York City. Within a few pages, however, the reader is introduced to his fiancée, May Welland. May comes from one of the richest and most respected families in NYC, and Newland is eager to marry her.
Wharton shows us early on that Newland has several conflicting ideas. While he is happy with his life amongst the upper class of New York, he does seem to recognize that he and his peers live in an old fashioned and flawed system. He goes back and forth between being content in his life and his upcoming marriage, to feelings of disgust over the dated way he will is expected to live his life.
One line that really stuck out for me, and which does a great job at explaining what I mentioned above, is found on page 164. May and Newland have been married and are on their honeymoon in Europe when Newland gets to thinking:
“Archer has reverted to all his old inherited ideas about marriage. It was less trouble to conform with the tradition and treat May exactly as all his friends treated their wives than to try to put into practice the theories with which his untrammelled bachelorhood had dallied. There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free; and he had long since discovered that May’s only use of the liberty she supposed herself to possess would be to lay it on the altar of her wifely adoration. Her innate dignity would always keep her from making the gift abjectly; and a day might even come (as it once had) when she would find strength to take it altogether back if she thought she were doing it for his own good. But with a conception of marriage so uncomplicated and incurious as hers such a crisis could be brought about only by something visibly outrageous in his own conduct; and the fineness of her feeling for him made that unthinkable. Whatever happened, he knew, she would always be loyal, gallant, and unresentful; and that pledged him to the practice of the same virtues.”
- The Age of Innocence, pg 164–165
Newland wants to change the system that he and May live in, but ultimately he says, “What’s the point?” His wife seems to be happy in the way she lives, and he would rather leave her in ignorance. Here is where I began to become frustrated with Newland: he’s frustrated that May doesn’t want to break away from the outrageous system of obligations, but he does not want to show her that there is another way.
While it can be easy to become frustrated with May, I felt more disheartened by Newland. He wants more for his marriage, but he refused to help open May’s eyes to something more. While the reader can see that May lives in ignorant bliss, we can also see that she is an intelligent person. Why doesn’t Newland talk to May about his feelings? Why doesn’t he try to open her eyes to her own situation?
Most likely because as the story goes on, we realize that Newland is in love with May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen grew up in Europe and married an abusive Count at a young age. She recently became fed up with her own situation had left her husband to return to her relatives in New York.
Ellen is practically the exact opposite in May, which is one of the reasons Newland is attracted to her. May is discreet, ladylike and content in her position. Ellen is outspoken, bold, and wants more out of life. Ellen is clearly very intelligent, and thanks to her untraditional upbringing in Europe, she knows that women did not have to fade away into the background.
While Newland admires Ellen, he knows that he is married and must stay faithful to his wife. We learn that divorce just doesn’t happen amongst their set. Even Ellen, wife to an abusive nobleman is expected to stay with her husband no matter what. Her family even comes up with a scheme to trick Ellen into going back to Europe.
However, Newland tends to romanticize the situation, while Ellen keeps a clear head:
“‘I want — I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that — categories that like — won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.’
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh, ‘Oh, my dear — where is that country? Have you ever been there?’ she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: ‘I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake ay wayside station: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo — and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.’”
- The Age of Innocence, pg 242
Ellen is pessimistic, but also realistic. She knows that Newland will never leave May to be with her, and I think in some ways she accepts that. She is perhaps the most feminist character in the story, and she is also my favorite. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I admire the choice she makes, and I think that it was the only way she could have lived the life she imagined.
While The Age of Innocence is not overtly feminist, Wharton does an excellent job in expressing her own thoughts on the suffocating world of the upper class in the Gilded Age. If you like historical fiction and want to get an insiders look into the life of the extremely wealthy in New York in the 19th century, I definitely recommend this read. You should read it as Wharton’s manifesto to a world that she lived in and loved, but was also able to criticize. It looks like I’ve found another story of feminism in the Gilded Age through Wharton.
Originally published at https://www.themistressofbooks.com on April 6, 2020.