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Betty Suchar, Member, on 19 March 2002
The objective of this talk was to examine Edith Wharton's book , The Age of Innocence, to discover her style, her ideas and what the book reveals about her life.
The talk began with a question. Why, when most American writers were focusing on the changes emerging in the wake of the end of World War I, should Edith Wharton choose to return to the New York of her childhood?
For the answer, the speaker briefly reviewed her life from her birth on 24 January, 1862 during the American Civil War, through the time of her work in France during World War I.
Her family, the Jones, belonged to a small elite group of Anglo-Dutch descendants of the early immigrants to Manhattan Island. By virtue of their early arrival, these families acquired real estate and thus subsequent generations benefited from inherited incomes from this increasingly valuable land.
At the end of the Civil War inflation increased the cost of living in New York and the family decided to live in Europe and remained there for 6 years. During those years Edith learnt French, Italian and German. She said of her early education "I learned modern languages and good manners."
Her family provided her only socialisation, they defined the acceptable values. Early on Edith realised that she was not in tune with her family's values as no value was placed on intellectual interests, especially for girls, and much on attractiveness. The result was that she had a lonely childhood, felt unloved, and was discouraged from pursuing her intellectual interests. At 23, Edith Jones married Edward Wharton but soon afterwards she again began to feel out of place and incompatible with her situation.
The despair she felt in the marriage helped to push her into writing as she sought to lose herself in her imagination. As the critic Edmund Wilson observed her writing was an `outgrowth of personal maladjustment.'
At this time she actively sought to cultivate a group of friends more compatible with her interests. The best known of these is Henry James. She found James an inspiration because of his attitude about literature as a serious art.
She defied her society by becoming a professional writer and she defied it again in 1913 when she sought a divorce; at that time and in her society there was a terrific stigma attached to divorce. Afterwards she decided to live in Europe and was in France at the outbreak of World War I.
This takes us back to the question, why she chose in 1920 to look back at the New York of her childhood?
Edith Wharton was now 57. She had found the war disruptive and she was witnessing a new kind of civilisation emerging - one generally alien to her own values. Her divorce had cut her off from her previous life and she was alone. James and other friends had died during the war. She now wanted to re-establish her connection with her roots and to find a sense of continuity in her life.
She also wanted to examine her judgement about the society into which she was born. Maybe she had been too critical of its lack of responsibility, its dread of innovation and its control over the individual. She had harboured resentment about the harm the New York society had inflicted on her by limiting her education and her art, and its failure to value intellectual pursuits.
Carl Van Doren said "she portrayed the rituals of old New York as familiarly as if she loved them and as lucidly as if she hated them."
By the l870s, her New York group was well established and had constructed a large body of elaborate rules, manners and customs to guide its members' behaviour and elaborate means of controlling deviant behaviour. She was interested in sociology and studied various books about tribal development including The Golden Bough.
In l870 the handwriting was already on the wall. The immigrants had arrived, industrialisation was quickening, and expansion of the western frontiers had resulted in huge fortunes being assembled. The wealth of the industrialists and the financiers had eclipsed the fortunes of those with inherited wealth.
One of the most poignant examples of this transition from old wealth to new is given at the start of The Age of Innocence.
The opera house was dominated by old wealth, they held all the boxes and the season tickets. When Vanderbilt found he couldn't buy a box at any price, he gathered his friends - the Goulds, Whitneys, Rockefellers and Morgans and they built the Metropolitan Opera House. By 1885 the old opera house was forced to close. This new breed led by the Vanderbilts, brutal, cynical and aggressive, had won. The Gilded Age had arrived.
The Gilded Age known for its opulence and nouveau riche pretentiousness so offended her sense of taste that she wrote a book on interior decoration to help Americans acquire better taste.
In the American scheme of things, the New York aristocracy was not very important. They held no political power as was the case in England and they received no formal privileges. Their very existence ran counter to the prevailing democratic values. Fitzgerald was outraged by the fact that the rich did so little with their opportunities. Edith Wharton was also upset by their lack of achievements and their willingness to enjoy an isolated leisure.
But she couldn't, as Fitzgerald could, accept the invaders who didn't play by the rules of honour. She couldn't accept the self-made man without a code of conduct to ensure business probity. She vividly describes in The Age of Innocence the importance of financial probity within her New York circle. In this new age she saw the breakdown of sanctions in society and the victory of the individualist. The balance between society and the individual had been altered.
Some time was spent in giving a summary of the plot of The Age of Innocence.
Newland Archer, a young lawyer who believed he felt `deeper' than the typical member of his New York group, but who still functioned within its confines, is about to marry May Welland.
Newland, as the narrator, tells us that May is attractive, sporty but innocent, without enough education and experience to be imaginative.
Yet May understood the rules and rituals of the tribe and accepted them - the perfect conformist. From this vantage point she was able to use the consolidated strength of the family and its values to gain her objectives.
Newland at the start of The Age of Innocence is a family insider and praised for persuading Ellen Olenska from seeking a divorce. Ellen is a non-conventional cousin of May, who had left New York and moved to Europe where she had experienced a more complex and cosmopolitan life, and now had returned to this provincial society. The society wanted to protect itself from any possible disturbance Ellen might cause..
As the family observed Newland's growing closeness with Ellen, the family began to view Newland as a threat to stability. Faced with the choice between staying with May or following his passion for Ellen, Newland decides on staying in his marriage. Unfortunately his diversion with Ellen prevented him from finding true happiness with either his wife or with Ellen.
By the next generation, Dallas, Newland and May's son, finds casting off the bondage of society easy. Accepted forms of conduct are giving way to personal desire. There is a realignment in the strength of society versus the individual.
Edith Wharton questions the true value of this new freedom. She accepts the importance of tradition in building a society and understands the need to impose certain constraints. She even accepts that some sanctions intensify feelings and result in heightened communication between individuals.
After May's death, Newland could renew his relationship with Ellen but he prefers his remembered past.
Newland's action suggests various interpretations: Aristocracy is so weak in this period it is unable and unwilling to grasp the future or the sociological interpretation that Newland made a personal sacrifice, and realising that by choosing faithfulness to marriage he had adhered to the accepted code of behaviour and kept his honour within the tribe.
Newland Archer as an individual appears weak because he didn't embrace the love of his wife or demonstrate sufficient passion to pursue love outside the family's code.
Edith Wharton preferred the highly developed European novel format. She was not an experimentalist as was the vogue of the time. She was criticised for embracing a fixed novel format of European invention and failing to give it a modern or an American dimension.
For her, order and beauty were to be preferred to experimentation. "Fear of being unoriginal was leading modern writers to anarchy", she said. Her style has direction - almost impatient movement, a clear plot, definable characters and polished prose.
She was a realist who examined human nature in the context of a place and a time. Her knowledge of interior decoration and gardening comes through in the detail. Edmund Wilson called her the `poet of interior decoration'. The reader feels she knows what she is talking about and is totally confident.
Choice presented a difficulty for Edith Wharton. Did you choose to stay within the rigid social taboos of a tyrannical society or, if a sensitive person, choose to pursue your individual instincts and passions even if they ran counter to the conventions of the group?
Whatever the choice she believed there was always a cost to be paid. The person who doesn't conform is made the victim and outcast. The person who suppresses or abandons his or her own individual passions suffers a loss of fulfilment. She also sees difficulties with relationships; she believes individuals are not self-sufficient so they seek out relationships. These relationships involve the same type of compromise extracted by society - a loss of freedom. Within marriage there is also usually a disparity of feeling - that is desire may be greater on one side than that reciprocated, or less than that given. Choice here is also painful. Divorce means being outside the tribal group whereas to stay within marriage may mean never experiencing true love or having to pretend one has certain feelings.
The key question Edith Wharton asked herself was how she could find social significance in fashionable New York? Her response was that a `frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals.'
In her life time Edith Wharton's books sold well and she surrounded herself by everything money could buy. What she didn't have was love and contentment of the soul. Consequently her books seem to express a pessimism and scepticism about the possibilities of human relationships.
In 1920, when the younger American writers were looking at the expanding world of industrial capitalism and greater individual freedom, Edith Wharton looked inward.
In my view of The Age of Innocence is a fascinating, well written story that gives us a vivid picture of Edith Wharton's early life and the way she struggled with the dilemma of choice.
The convenor summed up by saying, that he closed the book with a sense of failure and unfulfilment. Newland Archer could not bring himself to see Madam Olenska even when there were no obstacles to their meeting. He had been given permission, and even encouraged by his own son, whose mother had told him that his father was `safe because he had given up what he most wanted'.
It was this change between his son's attitudes of openness and taking risks that would make his generation the powerhouse of the American Dream, as we know it today.
When we looked at the United States now, it seemed inconceivable that its society once felt it necessary to protect itself from the waywardness of the individual.