The Age of Innocence
by Edith Wharton
(1921 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize)
1870s New York was a world that Edith Wharton knew very well in her youth and she captures its elitist claustrophobic atmosphere brilliantly in this novel.
Newland Archer is engaged to be married to May Welland, an attractive girl from a 'suitable' family. Although he loves May he sees her as a product of her class, purporting to an innocence that is required by her status.
The book opens at the opera (where else?) and the author immediately gives us an insight not only to the workings of that society but also to the workings of Newland Archer's mind. She writes,
…"The unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was moulded."
And it's at the opera that he first sees the woman who will rock the status quo.
Enter the beautiful and Countess Ellen Olenska.
Ellen is May's cousin who is on the run from a failed marriage to a philandering Polish Count. Having lived in Europe for many years she brings an exoticism to their circle with her unconventional manner and dress.
Newland, in his capacity as a lawyer, is asked by the family, and encouraged by May, to become her adviser. He is soon captivated.
Ellen's situation is complex. Divorce would bring disgrace and penury, yet how is she to live in New York? She takes a house in an unfashionable part of the city and is regularly visited by the disreputable (and married) Julian Beaufort. Her association with Beaufort disgusts Newland, particularly as the attraction between he and Ellen deepens.
May is not blind to this and, with the imminent threat of marital disaster, the family (in particular the matriarchal 'Granny Lovell Mingott', - "something vast and august a as a natural phenomenon" - who has been keeping a close eye throughout on the proceedings) literally ambushes Newland and Ellen at a dinner party.
There is an incredibly painful scene just before the dinner party when Newland realises at last that May is certain of his feelings for Ellen:
"Poor May!" he said.
"Poor? Why poor?" she echoed with a strained laugh.
"Because I shall never be able to open a window without worrying you," he rejoined, laughing also.
For a moment she was silent: then she said very low, her head bowed over her work: "I shall never worry if you're happy."
"Ah, my dear: and I shall never be happy unless I can open the windows!"
This book provoked a lively discussion within our group on the question of women's freedom and the inequality of the sexes in which we were truly divided on just how far we have come.