If no more than background reading on the state of society in America and in particular NY in this period and the way in which it compared with Europe – and compared itself with Europe, a different thing again – The Age of Innocence is a splendid thing. I take issue with Paul Bryant’s complaints about her material descriptions of the world she describes – I believe they are supposed to be part of her ironic portrait her characters and their setting. She is revealing what is important to them, not to her. One wonders, however, if Pinterest will have an app some time where one can key in words and out come pictures. I’d do that with this book. I have read that interior design was very important to Wharton. I still don’t think that affects what the point of it is in the book.
But the book is, of course, more than this. There is the story and the morality of the situation she constructs. What Wharton does which is so diabolically clever is that she talks of the powerlessness of women – and this is through the eyes of an independent, single, wealthy young man, Newland Archer – only to make it clear as the story develops that it is the women who are in charge. It is almost comic to see the way the hero charges about thinking that he is affecting the course of history when in fact it is the women who are doing that. Well, it would be comic if it weren’t awfully sad. Every time he thinks he is going to do the renegade thing and take off with his true love, a women ‘stops’ this from happening. Obviously not literally for he could always decide to rise above that, but he is never brave enough to. In the end he cannot rise above the thing that he thinks he is above – ‘what other people think’.
And then when it is late enough in his simplified life that what other people think no longer matters – not just late enough in his life, but late enough in history, times have changed, we are told – he doesn’t have the gumption to see if reality will match his dreams. I don’t know how much of a coward that makes him: he has been sustained for decades by dreams built on the tiniest wisps of what he thought he could have, but is it pragmatism at work when he decides to let sleeping dogs lie, or is it the fear, which could turn out to be unbearable, that finding out will not only ruin the present, but will ruin his precious bank of dreams. To risk one’s memories. That’s not an easy gamble to make.
I cannot begin to imagine how a movie could have been made of this when what is important about the book is Wharton’s delightful take on the people who populate her pages. She’s hilarious. The book is a hundred years old but hasn’t dated, the writing having an elegant lightness that is easy on the modern reader’s eye and ear. I do not hesitate to recommend it.