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The Age of Innocence?

Our little Parwich Book Club has come of age!  All five original members are alive and well and still reading, 21 years later. One of the five left some years ago to move to Yorkshire with her husband and family but still returns once or twice  year, and most certainly at Christmas and 21st birthdays. (She has been replaced by another loyal member. We have numerous requests from other friends to join but we decided very early on that five, for us, was the optimum number. As it is we sometimes struggle to get a word in edgeways…)

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Our 21st Birthday Book

We’ve read a lot of books in the 21 years and had as many interesting discussions. The liveliest are usually when at least one of has has not enjoyed a book. We had all enjoyed the Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, but all the same we had some very stimulating discussions over our wine and nibbles: there were so many levels at which one could interpret the book, and so many topics and sub topics.

Essentially it is about the top layer of smart New York Society toward the end of the 19th century with its own extremely rigid set of social  expectations and obligations, which included the expectation of the dutiful, obedient, subservient wife who could not cope without strong guidance from her husband. Ironically, it is these very women who guard their status quo so rigidly, more rigidly possibly than the men.

The only people who get away with questioning these or showing any sort originality are those at the very top whose position is therefore unassailable (as for example the grossly fat Mrs Manson Mingott who entertains society with – shock! horror! – her bedroom in full view, and whose loyalty to family overrides any moral dilemmas about their  questionable behaviour…). Also, somehow, the men, altogether less restricted anyway in their lives, seem too seem to get away with preaching absolute standards of propriety whilst happily enjoying extra marital affairs and inappropriate business ventures on the side as long as discretion prevails.

This was the society that Edith Wharton had been brought up in, and shaped by. However,  she was writing the book after the first World War, having lived for some time in Paris, with its much more relaxed attitude to manners and morals. Rather than being ostracised as a writer – and therefore dismissed as ‘bohemian’ – as she would have been in New York, she had been  awarded the Legion of Honour for her involvement in the war. She was very critical of the inhibiting, repressive expectations of New York society which had no intention of adapting to any changes wrought by the war but at the same time she was alarmed by the social upheaval unleashed in Europe by that war.

Anyway, in the Age of Innocence Wharton reverts to a world long before World War 1. We were not sure who the main character really was? Was it Newland Archer, who marries May because he is committed to her, all the while in love with the socially questionable Count Ellen Olenska, his wife’s first cousin and a divorcee tainted by years of Parisian living? He is very dismissive of his wife May whom he sees as innocent (naive) and needing his guidance to make any sense of life. Ellen Olenska proves to be charming, but ultimately principled, and she and Newland never consummate their love for each other. Is she perhaps the main character, representing someone who has adapted successfully, as society has inevitable developed. She certainly is more interesting than May.

May however is not quite as dull and naive as it suits Newland to believe. Whilst feigning innocence, as the respectful and dutiful wife New York expects her to be, she is discreetly  aware what is happening: she has quickly sensed that Newland is very attracted – and tempted – by her cousin Ellen Olenska. In fact, quietly, she directs what happens. She befriends Ellen, and successfully manages to sabotage all Newland’s romantic plans and completely scuppers them  finally when she confides to Ellen that she is expecting a baby even before she has told her husband. Ellen will not consent to an affair with Newland knowing that May, her cousin, is expecting his baby.

So, not so innocent! Edith Wharton had suffered from her own repressive upbringing; she too had had an unhappy but socially ideal marriage, so it may be that she saw in May the repressed heroine, who was not able to escape openly but had to rely on working deviously, and extremely successfully, below the surface. However, if she is the heroine, she does nothing to change society. My vote is for the even less innocent Ellen!

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