The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is a novel of Victorian sensibility, a magnifying glass upon an age and time, belonging to a people who valued society above all. Considered one of Wharton's finest works and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the novel held the last remnants of New York's dying leisure class, to a mirror, revealing the time for what it was, when people lived their lives within the bound of unspoken musings of the heart.
Their testaments and yearnings were never so vulgar as to be stated outright. And despite all the articulations of the age, there was a quiet hindrance to all emotive needs. For these reasons it was the age of innocence.
Wharton greatly admired her contemporary, Henry James and it is as if her prize winning novel perfectly juxtaposes The Wings of the Dove. Her writing style is as modernly succinct as his is prose-like and it is Wharton's perfectly sad Countess Olenska who fills the role of the dove, so lacking in Jame's works.
The question arises, as to how a dove should make herself situated among societal factors of New York's finest. "On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York," and on this January day "poor Ellen Olenska" as she is known in her family surfaces through the fixed mechanisms of conservatives who cherish their opera house for its, "shabby red and gold boxes," not because they could not afford new boxes but because a modernized Opera House would likely be more convenient for, "new people."
The house's homey and elegant quaintness turns its back on the modern, making itself a fine fit for Newland Archer, who "leaning against the wall at the back of the club box" with a serene sense of vanity, surveyed not so much the stage, with its unusually beautiful setting; but rather his fixation lay within the Mingott's family box directly across from him.
"Mrs. Lovell Mingott, and her daughter, Mrs. Welland; and slightly withdrawn behind these brocaded matrons sat a young girl in white with eyes ecstatically fixed on the stage lovers." The girl in white, May Welland; grand-daughter of Mrs. Manson Mingott (who is too obese to attend the opera, but rathers to entertain at home) is simple and elegant in appearance. Gazing at the lover's scene below with one white hand tenderly caressing her bouquet of lilies of the valley.
May, Archer's fiancée, is the center of his focus. The inspiring scenes of Faust are a blurred nodding toward artful detail as Newland returns his gaze to the stage. Newland's balanced world of comfortably luminated sensibilities is tipped to a side, when Larry Lefferts, who, "was, on the whole, the foremost authority of 'form' in New York," exclaims, " 'My God!' and silently handed his glass to Sillerton Jackson," due to the venerable prefecture, upon which the balance of Newland's new orbit is to now be pinioned on.
Countess Olenska had taken her seat and waits for her potential executioners to give a thumbs up or thumbs down. Lefferts, the foremost authority gave a thumbs down with, "I didn't think the Mingotts would have tried it on."
Ellen Olenska, cousin to Newland's fiancée, has had the horrifying Victorian luck of a poor marriage. To have had a less than virtuous matrimonial partnership is one matter. To actually reveal the propensity to lack self blame in public for it is quite another. Yet, there she was with her grave eyes daring to reveal the firm judgement she was being sifted through. As if the cannibals of the opera could eat her soul but found it tasteless for her countenance and features to reveal their taste for blood.
As family is family Newland's ultimate defense was to protect Countess Olenska. And so Archer left his box at the end of the act and made his way to find a place at her side. "Her glance swept the horse shoe curve of boxes. ‘Ah how this brings it all back to me - I see everybody here in knickerbockers and pantalettes!' she said, with her trailing slightly foreign accent, her eyes returning to his face." Yes, Ellen had the nerve to outright reflect that perhaps her executioners might need to grow up a little, but probably never will. There lay a political tenacity behind her words.
Besides, there is never anything more charming to a man than a woman in an undefined position who does not care that she is so. Such was the twilight charm of Ellen Olenska. There is something pure about twilight. It is neither here nor there and its undefined state of essence brings to mind that nothing is so beautiful as that which is imagined.
Newland defends Ellen earnestly from societal retribution while at various dinner parties, including his sister's snide, as well as invasive, comments that Ellen should be named Elaine as Elaine is more elegant;
“ ‘It’s odd,” Janey remarked, ‘that she should have kept such an ugly name as Ellen. I should have changed it to Elaine.’ She glanced about the table to see the effect of this.
Her brother laughed. ‘Why Elaine?’
‘I don’t know; it sounds more-more Polish,” said Janey blushing.
‘It sounds more conspicuous and that can hardly be what she wishes,’ said Mrs. Archer distantly.
‘Why not?’ broke in her son, growing suddenly argumentative. ‘Why shouldn’t she be conspicuous if she chooses? Why should she slink about as if it were she who had disgraced herself?’ ”
He states that even if Ellen has had the fortune of an unhappy life, this is no reason for her to be an outcast. Yet, eventually Newland himself is guilty of setting up Ellen to be a low-life’s mistress rather than a reasonable man’s wife when he persuades her not to seek full divorce in order to preserve the family reputation. Ellen, who remains objectively disenchanted with her life carries on with a melancholy dignity that transposes time. She takes hansom rides with men, who are not her husband, in the middle of the afternoon, does not answer to her people of fashion as she feels they have not answered to her, and never seems to do anything truly mean to anyone else, as if innately incapable of cruelty. Ellen cannot seem to escape a double edge sword’s cut regarding her marriage, and it is as if her best defense is to become the perfect shade of grey.
Newland Archer, a lawyer of high society, a man of more talented propensity than most of his contemporaries was always on the verge of something truly great. Newland makes friends with those who are on the fringes of society but yet are somehow welcomed at its most advanced tables. And among these ornamental threads, Newland seems to find the most intact connections; such as Monsieur Riviere, “That young tutor is an interesting fellow: we had some awfully good talk after dinner about books and things,” Newland said to May, while they are both riding in a hansom on their way back from a dinner party shortly into their marriage.
“The little Frenchman? Wasn’t he dreadfully common?” said May of M. Riviere. And by common, it is meant by May, “not unusually rich.” Many of their disputes are settled when May rejects a friend of Newland's as "common." But it is M. Riviere; Newland has the most in common with of anyone within the novel. Both men love conversation and are always standing tip toe on a precipice of a moment higher, “You see Monsieur,” M. Riviere said to Newland during the dinner party, “it’s worth everything, isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty, not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence?” And it is M. Riviere who turns to Newland, years later to beg him to protect Ellen from returning to her monster of a husband. M. Riviere could not impede upon a closed sensibility toward divorce, but he did his utmost to keep Ellen’s family from forcing her to return to some vague beast of a man, known to be Count Olenska. M. Riviere held not personal gain from his protections toward Ellen. It was just that he, more than any man, eternally kept both taste and form folded at the corners as handkerchiefs within the pockets of his faded suit coat.
Newland married society and was swept away by its flow. He had a son (perhaps) and a daughter by May and when she passed away he honestly mourned her. Though now at the age of 57 Newland has a chance to meet Ellen once more, while on a trip through Europe with his son. They could talk as there is nothing like good conversation. But Newland cannot. Perhaps it was progeny he always wanted from Ellen and he just couldn’t stand to be her friend now. Perhaps he needed someone or something in his life to be pure, as the yellow rose of friendship placed upon the threshold of eternity. For whatever reason, he sits on a bench outside of Ellen's abode and instructs his perplexed son, Dallas, "Say I'm old fashioned: that's enough." And so Dallas goes to see Ellen without his father. Newland remains on the bench, and it is not until the shutters are put up as the street has darkened from dusk to night, that he gets up and walks back to his hotel alone. Ellen remains a dove in the twilight, as if the background to a painting never fully completed but wondrous in its own right all the same.
"Come, own up: you and she were great pals weren't you? Wasn't she most awfully lovely?"
"Lovely? I don't know. She was different."
By Sarah Bahl