After watching BBC THE BUCCANEERS (1995) for my Period Drama Challenge, I absolutely wanted to read Edith Wharton’s works. I decided to start with THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize), and I was right: believe it or not, it has been the best read of this 2009, one my best ever. It grabbed me right away, it actually took me to another place and time and I loved Wharton's use of language.
The story of Newland Archer 's impossible love for the disgraced Madame Olenska is a perfectly wrought book about an era when upper-class culture in the USA was still a mixture of American and European extracts, and when "society" had rules as rigid as any in history.
I really related to the characters, I mean to the protagonists, Newland and Ellen, Mr Archer and Countess Olenska: I felt their passionate transport hardly controlled, their silent empathy and their desperation at being prisoners of the stiff cruel hypocritical rules of that decaying upper- class culture.
There are so many beautiful and masterfully written pages that I was tempted to read passages aloud just to hear them trip back to me somewhat physically. Anyhow, I didn’t do it, I just re-read them more than once silently.
The story is set, both with nostalgia and condemnation, in the cloistered world of Wharton’s youth, the 1870s-80s, a time when society people “dreaded scandal more than disease,” when style and etiquette dictated that every fork, every servant, and every piece of furniture needed to know their place and when the people that commanded them so well better knew their place. In love, an individual’s lack of freedom could turn his/her life to hell .

The Plot (SPOILERS!)
Newland Archer, gentleman lawyer and heir to one of New York City's best families, is happily anticipating a highly desirable marriage to the sheltered and beautiful May Welland. Yet he finds reason to doubt his choice of bride after the appearance of Countess Ellen Olenska, May's exotic, beautiful thirty-year-old cousin, who has been living in Europe. Ellen has returned to New York after scandalously separating herself (per rumor) from a bad marriage to a Polish Count. At first, Ellen's arrival and its potential taint to his bride's family disturbs him, but he becomes intrigued by the worldly Ellen who flouts New York society's fastidious rules. As Newland's admiration for the countess grows, so does his doubt about marrying May, a perfect product of Old New York society; his match with May no longer seems the ideal fate he had imagined.
Ellen's decision to divorce Count Olenski is a social crisis for the other members of her family, who are terrified of scandal and disgrace. Living apart can be tolerated, but divorce is unacceptable. To save the Welland family's reputation, a law partner of Newland asks him to dissuade Countess Olenska from divorcing the Count. He succeeds, but in the process comes to care for her; afraid of falling in love with Ellen, Newland begs May to accelerate their wedding date; May refuses.
Newland tells Ellen he loves her; Ellen corresponds, but is horrified of their love's aggrieving May. She agrees to remain in America, separated but still married, only if they do not sexually consummate their love; NewNewport, Rhode Island. New land receives May's telegram agreeing to wed sooner.
Newland and May marry; he tries forgetting Ellen but fails. His society marriage is loveless, and the social life he once found absorbing has become empty and joyless. Though Ellen lives in Washington and has remained distant, he is unable to cease loving her. Their paths cross while he and May are in land discovers that Count Olenski wishes Ellen to return to him, and she has refused, despite her family pushing her to reconcile with her husband and return to Europe. Frustrated by her independence, the family cut off her money, as the Count had already done.
Newland desperately seeks a way to leave May and be with Ellen, obsessed with how to finally possess her. Despairing of ever making Ellen his wife, he attempts to have her agree to be his mistress. Then Ellen is recalled to New York City to care for her sick grandmother, who accepts her decision to remain separated and agrees to reinstate her allowance.Back in New York and under renewed pressure from Newland, Ellen relents and agrees to consummate their relationship. However, Newland then discovers that Ellen has decided to return to Europe. Newland makes up his mind to abandon May and follow Ellen to Europe when May announces that she and Newland are throwing a farewell party for Ellen. That night, after the party, Newland resolves to tell May he is leaving her for Ellen. She interrupts him to tell him that she is pregnant and that Ellen had been told of it two weeks before. Newland guesses that this is Ellen's reason for returning to Europe. Hopelessly trapped, Newland decides not to follow Ellen, surrendering his love for the sake of his children, remaining in a loveless marriage to May.
Twenty-five years later, after May's death, Newland and his son are in Paris. The son, learning that his mother's cousin lives there, has arranged to visit Ellen in her Paris apartment. Newland is stunned at the prospect of seeing Ellen again. On arriving outside the apartment building, Newland, still reeling emotionally, sends up his son alone to meet Ellen, while he waits outside, watching her apartment's balcony. Newland considers going up, but decides that his dream and memory of Ellen are more real than anything else in his life has been; he walks back to his hotel without meeting her.
(from Wikipedia)
How much I loved Newland’s choice in the end! I found it sad and poignant but so romantic. Have you noticed? I’ve been turning more and more sentimental lately. “Maybe I’m becoming soft in my old age” , quoting a line from a TV movie someone may recognize. Mind, I’m honest though, unlike the character who says that.
Let’s go back to our THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. I‘d like to share some excerpts I particularly liked with all of you.

1. One of the most passionate moments

(Newland Archer) "Don't be afraid of me: you needn't squeeze yourself back into your corner like that. A stolen kiss isn't whatI want. Look: I'm not even trying to touch the sleeve of your jacket. Don't suppose that I don't understand your reasons for not wanting to let this feeling between us dwindle into an ordinary hole-and-corner love-affair. I couldn't have spoken like this yesterday, because when we've been apart, and I'm looking forward to seeing you, every thought is burnt up in a great flame. But then you come; and you're so much more than I remembered, and what I want of you is so much more than an hour or two every now and then, with wastes of thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly still beside you, like this, with that other vision in my mind,just quietly trusting to it to come true."
For a moment she made no reply; then she asked, hardly above a whisper: "What do you mean by trusting to it to come true?"
"Why--you know it will, don't you?"
"Your vision of you and me together?" She burst into a sudden hard laugh. "You choose your place well to put it to me!"
"Do you mean because we're in my wife's brougham? Shall we get out and walk, then? I don't suppose you mind a little snow?"
She laughed again, more gently. "No; I shan't get out and walk, because my business is to get to Granny's as quickly as I can. And you'll sit beside me, and we'll look, not at visions, but at realities."
"I don't know what you mean by realities. The only reality to me is this."
She met the words with a long silence, during which the carriage rolled down an obscure side-street andthen turned into the searching illumination of Fifth Avenue.
"Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress--since I can't be your wife?" she asked.The crudeness of the question startled him: the word was one that women of his class fought shy of, evenwhen their talk flitted closest about the topic. He noticed that Madame Olenska pronounced it as if it had arecognised place in her vocabulary, and he wondered if it had been used familiarly in her presence in the horrible life she had fled from. Her question pulled him up with a jerk, and he floundered."
I want--I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that--categories like that--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."( from chapt. 29)

2. An example of Wharton’s condemnation of upper society’s hypocrisy

Are we only Pharisees after all?" he ( Archer) wondered, puzzled by the effort to reconcile his instinctivedisgust at human vileness with his equally instinctive pity for human frailty.For the first time he perceived how elementary his own principles had always been. He passed for a youngman who had not been afraid of risks, and he knew that his secret love-affair with poor silly Mrs. ThorleyRushworth had not been too secret to invest him with a becoming air of adventure. But Mrs. Rushworth was "that kind of woman"; foolish, vain, clandestine by nature, and far more attracted by the secrecy and perilof the affair than by such charms and qualities as he possessed. When the fact dawned on him it nearlybroke his heart, but now it seemed the redeeming feature of the case. The affair, in short, had been of thekind that most of the young men of his age had been through, and emerged from with calm consciences andan undisturbed belief in the abysmal distinction between the women one loved and respected and thoseone enjoyed--and pitied. In this view they were sedulously abetted by their mothers, aunts and other elderlyfemale relatives, who all shared Mrs. Archer's belief that when "such things happened" it was undoubtedlyfoolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the woman. All the elderly ladies whom Archer knewregarded any woman who loved imprudently as necessarily unscrupulous and designing, and mere simple-minded man as powerless in her clutches. The only thing to do was to persuade him, as early as possible, tomarry a nice girl, and then trust to her to look after him.In the complicated old European communities, Archer began to guess, love-problems might be less simple andless easily classified. Rich and idle and ornamental societies must produce many more such situations; and there might even be one in which a woman naturally sensitive and aloof would yet, from the force ofcircumstances, from sheer defencelessness and loneliness, be drawn into a tie inexcusable by conventional standards." (chapt. 11)

From the book to the movie

As soon as I finished reading the last page of the novel, I started looking forward to seeing the 1993 film by Martin Scorsese I had carelessly watched on TV - never from the beginning to the end - many years ago. I have a DVD I’ve never watched so far , so I’ll put it in the player just now that I’ve finished writing this book review. (...)

Done it . I saw the movie. I told you I wanted to do it soon. I’m still so excited and moved …I don’ t want to write much. So ... this is the shortest and best review I found online. I agree with every single word.

"A sumptuous, achingly moving tale of love thwarted by duty and convention in turn-of-the-century New York. Camerawork, direction, costumes, set design, colour and, not least, the performances of Danny Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder are uniformly magnificent. Possibly Scorsese's finest achievement".

I only want to add that ...
- watching this movie was one of those very rare occasions when I saw exactly what I had already imagined. It was like reading the book a second time…or even better
- there were just few slight meaningless changes
- I was hooked by Danny Day-Lewis. His performance was touching in more than one scene
- I was just a bit confused at the beginning because May was a blonde blue-eyed beauty and Madame Olenska a dark one in the book. While in the film version May was Wynona Ryder and Ellen Olenska Michelle Pfeiffer!
- I especially appreciated the care to every detail: clothes, furniture, tapestry, props, hair-style, music, paintings, buildings, accessories, balls, carriages, hats
- It is a splendid period movie and .... this is my favourite scene (below)






Lotta Dahl said...

I love EW! She is one of my very favorite authors. I have seen her movie adaptations, and I own many of her novels, but have not yet read all of them. The AOI is one I haven't read yet. My favorite of the ones I've read so far has been The House of Mirth. The movie adaptation of that one is great too! I'm so glad you discovered someone "new"!

Maria Grazia said...

@Jenny Kerr
Well, she is not "new" but it is one of the authors I hadn't read so far. I'm really glad I discovered her. The House of Mirth, then. I must get it. Book and DVD. Thanks J.!

Lucy said...

Excellent post! The excerpts in particular, I love!And such a rarity that a movie can stand proud next to the book. Thanks

Stephanie Allen said...

I started watching The Age of Innocence for the period drama challenge. I need to hunt down a copy of the book now so I can read that, too, because I love the story so far.

Maria Grazia said...

@Ms Lucy & Steph
Yes, Lucy. You're right. It's so rare not to be disappointed while watching an adaptation of a movie you loved! But I also agree with you Steph: this book must be read, it fives you a great psychological insight of the characters, especially of the male protagonist, Newland Archer.

Elvira said...

I LOVED this film. "I was hooked by Danny Day-Lewis." So was I, he's so attractive and he's a great actor. I enjoyed your post, Maria Grazia!

Maria Grazia said...

Hooked, indeed. Such a deep touching performance! Thanks, Elvira. I'm glad we share so much. Hugs!

Mel u said...

Thanks for this passionate and insight full post

here are part of my thoughts on Age of Innocence

To me personally, the deepest meaning is in the beauty of the words. Listen for a moment to this sentence and think about why Edith Wharton used the word
retailing" rather than retelling like very one else would:

"The queer cosmopolitian women, deep in complicated love-affairs which they appeared to feel the need of retailing to every one they meet, and the magnificent young officers and elderly dyed wits who were the objects of their confidences..."

Life recasts it self as a story, not as a newspaper article. The Europe created in the mind of Newland Archer (a first name worthy of Pynchon) is also a literary construct out of the books he cherishes.

Maria Grazia said...

@mel u
Thank you so much, mel, for your interesting contribution. In literature, "how" is so much more important than "what"!

mulubinba said...

Stunning post. I haven't seen Age of Innocence but I feel I must do so after reading this. Thanks!

Maria Grazia said...

Let me know what you think about it. It is such an involving well-written novel! Have a good day!

Luciana said...

Oh, I could not read itI I came down here as soon as I read (spoilers)! Today I was at a bookshop and I saw AOI and remembered that you said you were reading it. Unfortunately, for more that I wanted to buy it I had to buy an Umberto Eco's book for university, so EW will have to wait! But as soon as I have time to read the book I'll read the post completely!

Maria Grazia said...

What are you going to read by Umberto Eco? Is it one of his novels or an essay? He is a complex author and a fine writer. I loved his "The Name of the Rose". As for EW ... university comes first! Hugs.

Table Talk said...

I have seen both 'The Buccaneers' and 'The Age of Innocence' but never read an Wharton. I keep meaning to put that right, but there is just so much reading to be done!

Maria Grazia said...

@Table Talk
Yeah, I know, Ann. I'm perfectly aware we have too a long "to be read list" to keep the pace! Have a nice weekend and thanks for commenting!

Luciana said...

Oh, I bought "Como se fa una tesi di laurea", 'cause I'll have to do my final project as I'm almost finishing my undergraduate course and here we have to present a sort of thesis. I've also read some parts of "Kant e l'ornitorinco", which is very good, and "La biblioteca". I want to read his novels too. My mother loves his novels. Unfotunately my stupid high school did us watch "Il nome della rosa" when we were studying the Middle Ages. I'm just saying it because I like to read the books before seeing the movies made about it, but the movie is very nice and I believe the book might be even better!

Seccionista said...

I have The Buccaneers on my TBS pile, clearly I need to pick it up and start reading Wharton...

Maria Grazia said...

@Ana T.
I started wanting to read her novels just after watching THE BUCCANEERS and I've discovered she's wonderful. I want to read more.

Christy B said...

Oooh! Now you've got my excited to watch the film!