The Age of Innocence was the first book written by a woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It is a masterpiece.
It tells the story of Newland Archer, who is part of one of New York’s oldest and best families, beginning on the evening when he announces his engagement to the perfect May Welland, another progeny of an old, proper New York family. In a time when propriety and what other people might say were all that mattered, May’s disgraced cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska will have a hard time coming home and finding any kind of compassion or support from her home town. She has left her husband in Europe and has no friends, save her grandmother, who has always been a bit unconventional. When May urges Archer to show kindness to her cousin, she has no idea what Pandora’s box she is opening.
All of a sudden, cold, proper Newland Archer is sending flowers to the Countess and finding excuses to see her and before long he is fighting his own better instincts: the Countess or May.
It had been a while since I had read such a classic, and honestly, it took me a little while to get used to the vocabulary and syntax of such a novel. But I was quickly engrossed and by the end, I’m sure that I emitted a sigh of satisfaction usually reserved for the likes of Jane Austen. However, unlike Jane Austen, The Age of Innocence is not a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the social niceties of the day, but a rather tortured account of the way in which social normalcies dictated the lives of people without giving any thought to their future or present happiness.
Whenever decisions are to be taken regarding the Countess, it is up to her family and their lawyers to decide what she should do, what would be the proper course of action. But no heed is paid to what the Countess may want t do, the stain of her inappropriate behaviour being too big a risk to take, as it would taint the whole family’s reputation.
Even though I know that there are still vestiges of old New York alive and kicking today, it is still hard for me to think of New York City as this stuffy, uppity place. Today, for me, NYC is much more about fashion and food and movies and everything else pop culture. I’m sure that the scions of New York’s oldest families would be rolling in their graves to see the depravity that has been foisted on their grand old city by the likes of Lady Gaga and Saturday Night Live.
The Age of Innocence has earned its place on my list of favourites and I look forward to discovering what other brilliant works Edith Wharton has to offer.