Newland Archer, soon to marry the lovely May Welland, is a man torn between his respect for tradition and family and his attraction to May's strongly independent cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. Plagued by the desire to live in a world where two people can love each other free from condemnation and judgment by the group, Newland views the artful delicacy of the world he lives in as a comforting security one moment, and at another, as an oppressive fiction masking true human nature.
The Age of Innocence is at once a richly drawn portrait of the elegant lifestyles, luxurious brownstones, and fascinating culture of bygone New York society and a compelling look at the conflict between human passions and the social tribe that tries to control them.
"An exquisite delight . . . A consummate work of art. . . . New York society and customs in the seventies are described with an accuracy that is almost uncanny; to read these pages is to live again . . . The love scenes between [Newland] and Ellen are wonderful in their terrible, inarticulate passion; it is curious how much more real they are than the unrestrained detailed descriptions thought by so manywriters to be 'realism' . . . So little is said, so little is done, yet one feels the infinite passion in the finite hearts that burn. . . . The appearance of such a book as THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by an American is a matter for public rejoicing. It is one of the best novels of the twentieth century and looks like a permanent addition to literature."
The New York Times Book Review
October 17, 1920
"THE AGE OF INNOCENCE is a masterly achievement. In lonely contrast to almost all the novelists who write about fashionable New York, [Wharton] knows her world. . . . [Her] triumph is that she had described these rites and surfaces and burdens as familiarly as if she loved them and as lucidly as if she hated them."
The Nation, November 3, 1920
"Mrs. Wharton opens to life a free and swinging door . . . The 'best people' are, after all, a trite subject for the analyst, but in this novel Mrs. Wharton has shown them to be, for her, a superb subject. She has made of them a clear, composed, rounded work of art . . . She has preserved a given period in her ambera pale, pure amber that has living light."
The New Republic, November 17, 1920
About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York and New Haven, Connecticut
Date of Birth:July 11, 1930
Date of Death:October 14, 2019
Place of Birth:New York, New York
Education:B.A., Cornell University, 1951; Ph.D., Yale University, 1955
Read an Excerpt
The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
Chelsea House PublicationsCopyright © 1998 Edith Wharton
All right reserved.
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances "above the Forties," of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the it new people" whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
It was Madame Nilsson's first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as "an exceptionally brilliant audience " had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery snow streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient "Brown coupe"' To come to the Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one 's own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold and--gin congested nose of one's own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery-lstableman's most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.
When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the club box the curtain had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason why the young man should not have come earlier, for he had dined at seven, alone with his mother and sister, and had lingered afterward over a cigar in the Gothic library with glazed black-walnut bookcases and finial-topped chairs which was the only room in the house where Mrs. Archer allowed smoking. But, in the first place, New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was "not the thing" to arrive early at the opera; and what was or was not "the thing" played a part as important in Newland Archer's New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.
The second reason for his delay was a personal one. He had dawdled over his cigar because he was at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure tocome often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation. This was especially the case when the pleasure was a delicate one, as his pleasures mostly were; and on this occasion the moment he looked forward to was so rare and exquisite in quality that-well, if he had timed his arrival in accord with the prima donna's stage-manager he could not have entered the Academy at a more significant moment than just as she was singing: "He loves me-he loves me not-he loves me!" and sprinkling the falling daisy petals with notes as clear as dew.
She sang, of course, "Mama!" and not "he loves me," since an unalterable and 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: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.
"Mama . . . non mama the prima donna sang, and "Mama!", with a final burst of love triumphant, as she pressed the dishevelled daisy to her lips and lifted her large eyes to the sophisticated countenance of the little brown Faust-Capoul, who was vainly trying, in a tight purple velvet doublet and plumed cap, to look as pure and true as his artless victim.
Newland Archer, leaning against the wall at the back of the club box, turned his eyes from the stage and scanned the opposite side of the house. Directly facing him was the box of old Mrs. Manson Mingott, whose monstrous obesity had long since made it impossible for her to attend the Opera, but who was always represented on fashionable nights by some of the younger members of the family. On this occasion, the front of the box was filled by her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Lovell Mingott, and her niece, Mrs. Welland; and slightly withdrawn behind these brocaded matrons sat a young girl in white with eyes ecstatically fixed on the stagelovers. As Madame Nilsson's "M'ama!" thrilled out above the silent house (the boxes always stopped talking during the Daisy Song) a warm pink mounted to the girl's cheek, mantled her brow to the roots of her fair braids, and suffused the young slope of her breast to the line where it met a modest tulle tucker fastened with a single gardenia. She dropped her eyes to the immense bouquet of lilies of-the-valley on her knee, and Newland Archer saw her white-gloved finger-tips touch the flowers softly. He drew a breath of satisfied vanity and his eyes returned to the stage.
No expense had been spared on the setting, which was acknowledged to be very beautiful even by people who shared his acquaintance with the Opera houses of Paris and Vienna. The foreground, to the footlights, was covered with emerald green cloth.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Having been introduced, like many people, to Edith Wharton via Ethan Frome (though I found it one of the most moving books I¿ve ever read), I was surprised to find such differences between that book and The Age of Innocence. Though Wharton condemns hypocrisy, imposed morality and the society surrounding her suffering characters (who suffer mainly DUE to that society¿s rules), it is far more believable in ¿Innocence¿ than in ¿Frome¿. In the latter, if one knows anything about Edith (you should read her autobiography) and her supposed ¿expertise¿ on the culture of the ¿hill folk¿ (I snicker silently!) of the Berkshires, one must take the whole thing with a pound of salt. I did, and hence, loved the book for its maudlin, pseudo-tragic representation of the hopelessness of 19th Century rural, New England life. And the film adaptation, with the excellent Liam Neeson as the eponymous hero (?) shows how great he is as an actor, soulfully, yet almost tearfully hamming up Wharton¿s pseudo-perspective, and thus shedding MORE light on the hill folk and their lot than she did!But The Age of Innocence is different. Here she is thoroughly in her element: high society. Though she would have only been a young girl in the late 1970¿s, her world did not change that much. Her world rarely changed at all, for all her gadding about to the Berkshires, Italy, cruises to Greece, and even a stint in a hospital in WWI London (basically forced on her by an altruistic friend). She, who claimed to despise her peers and their ¿smooth hypocrisy¿, was every bit as stuck up as they, but she managed to put the glossy cachet of a supposedly ¿artistic¿ temperament, and better yet, ¿being published¿ upon it, and made sure only to worship those writers, like Henry James, who had ¿arrived¿, as they used to say. She is like a female Soames Forsyte (Of James Galsworthy¿s The Forsyte Saga, the ¿Man of Property): a connoisseur of things which are already or bound to be successful and therefore valuable.As such, she is far more like Newland Archer¿s vacuous, yet level-headed and shark-like fiancee, May, than she is like poor, scatterbrained, bohemian Madame Ellen Olenska, for all her sympathetic posturing toward the latter. I would venture to say that, even if she did not sympathize with May¿s nefarious husband-pinning tactics (though I would assume that she DID), she would understand them well enough to make them frighteningly real¿not a thing one often sees in articles on marriage, much less in novels about 19th Century courting.Wharton¿s whole demeanor toward Ellen Olenska, though written to sound sympathetic, is easily seen through as condescending, disapproving and her sanctioning of Ellen as a heroine only gained by having her sacrifice her beloved on the altar of the very hypocrisy and Puritanical, New York society she claims to despise! It is unimaginable to Wharton that Ellen and Newland Archer could actually take off to live together, though neither would be breaking up an established, happy marriage, unlike Galsworthy¿s real hero, Jolyon (Soames¿ cousin), who thrice ¿goes against everything¿, as his lover and later, wife, Irene, tells their son. Wharton simply cannot allow this to happen, putting the pathetic, unconvincing lines into the supposedly carefree Ellen¿s mouth that she could never love him if he DID go against morality. What TOSH! At least Galsworthy had the guts to create a hero and heroine who had the courage of their convictions and would continue loving, despite public condemnation, which was quite severe (the time period was less than twenty years after Wharton¿s story¿the 1890¿s). Though I thoroughly trounce Wharton¿s hypocrisy, and the unbelievable nature of her hero and heroine, I DO celebrate her ability to describe late Victorian life, in all its detail. One of my favorite lines involves Americans and their desire to ¿get away from amusement even more quickly than they went to it¿¿something that does not seem to have changed much! Hence
One of Modern Libraries Best 100 books of the 20th Centruy. Published in 1920,the marvelous author Edith Wharton draws you into the lives of New Yorks upper crust as they live according strict social customs.