Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence

Graduate life is proving to be both scary and exhilarating. Just when I finally thought I’d have more time to write and blog, I find myself the busiest ever. It is one of those times when there are so many things I want to do, that I do not know where to even start. But I’m getting better at managing my time, which means I’ll blog more regularly. It also means I have found enough time to go over my past readings, revisit old novels and watch some of my favourite movies, which is why I’m writing about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I believe this is one of those cases in which the movie is just as delightful as the book. But I being no film critic, I’ll content myself with writing about the book.

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The 1920s were for American literature a time of renovation in many ways. It is hard for me to imagine the first decades of the twentieth century without thinking of Gatsby, Art Deco and WWI. Yet amidst the chaos, the glitter and chic haircuts, the rapid changes, there is also the curious, nostalgic figure of Edith Wharton.

Wharton was born in New York in 1862, to a wealthy family. She wrote more than 20 novels and many more short stories between 1899 and 1937, when she passed away. Thanks to her family’s immense library, Wharton was always an avid reader. She was also interested in architecture and interior design—an obsession her writing does reflect—and was an intimate friend of Henry James. Although Wharton entered the spotlight as a writer thanks to her novels Ethan Frome (1911) and The House of Mirth (1905), it was her 13th novel, The Age of Innocence, which won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1920.

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The novel follows the life of Newland Archer, a young man whose life in New York’s elite of the 1870s is seemingly perfect. He’s engaged to May Welland, who is not only one of the most popular and respected heiresses of his social circle, but the very image of innocence and purity. However Newland admires her, he can’t help but feel that there are so many things he can’t discuss with her, such as the new and strange artistic movements making their way from Europe to America, to which Newland feels drawn to and which he would like to explore.

Unlike his friends, Newland finds it amazing that there can be a life so different to his: la vie bohéme, the life of the cafés and the studios, of small apartments and sordid parties. Such acquaintance makes him question his social duties and his relationship with May. His doubts are aggravated by the arrival of May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska. Ellen has spent the last decades in Europe among artists and is now separated from her husband, a situation the New Yorkers find shocking. The way Ellen behaves, disregarding every social rule, represents everything Newland has always wanted, but has been too afraid to try.

In a way, Newland’s dilemma is the dilemma of his times. He is torn between the familiar, a neoclassical word full of beautiful shapes and light, and the unstoppable future, the innovations in art and architecture that can only precede a new conception of the world. While the world he knows is beautiful, he knows the price to pay for it is ignorance, a blissful ignorance every one of his acquaintances seems to get on with by calling it innocence.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

New York in the last decades of the XIX century, the city in which Wharton grew up, is recreated with detail, both in its buildings and streets, as in the hypocrisy of its society. The irony of such conventions is subtly exposed by Wharton through the descriptions of her character’s, specially the lack of communication between them:

 

“What could he and she really know of each other, since it was his duty, as a ‘decent’ fellow, to conceal his past from her, and hers, as a marriageable girl, to have no past to conceal?”

The most wonderful thing about Wharton’s novel is how she exposes the crash  between the old and the new, the classical and the extravagant, mostly through the descriptions of spaces and clothes. Wharton displays a narrative skill that manages to incorporate every detail, every piece of furniture, every door, window or garden of the houses belonging to the upper classes of New York, in her critique of their outdated moral standards. Her descriptions are so precise and exact that they border on the baroque. The spaces in which the novel takes place are a crucial element of the novel, and their configuration through a prolific use of nouns and adverbs manages to establish a sense of saturation and oppression, which helps us understand Newland’s suffocation:

 

“The small bright lawn stretched away smoothly to the big bright sea. The turf was hemmed with an edge of carlet geranium and coleus, and cast-iron vases painted in chocolate color, standing at intervals along the winding path that led to the sea, looped their garlands of petunia and ivy geranium above the neatly raked gravel.” (Wharton, 129)

Newland’s doubts come from his belonging to a rigid social structure from which he can see no way out, which implies certain, strictly defined roles for women, for art, culture and civilization itself.

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Drawing by Dante Ferretti

Wharton also explores the cultural differences between America and Europe. In a time which proved crucial for all arts in the Old Continent, Wharton’s New York seems outdated and decadent. It is a New York isolated by social conventions in which the protagonist’s sufferings come from realising this, a realization which implies a loss of innocence, “that kind of innocence, the kind of innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!”

Much of the charm of The Age of Innocence comes from the use Wharton makes of language: a precise, abundant, a bit snobby yet delightful choice of words awaits in every page—Henry James used to say of Wharton’s personality that it was like a “brilliant hyperbole”—. The book is also a personal testimony, a nostalgic remembrance of a time that was long gone by the time Wharton wrote about it. By the 1920s a rapid wave of change and industrialization had erased the remains of the society in which Wharton grew up. The new century would prove to be, as Newland Archer suspected, thoroughly different.

Have you read any of Wharton’s works? If so, how did you like them?

I am currently reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and I can honestly say I hadn’t enjoyed a novel this much in a while.


 
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Where the Wild Books Are

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

—Virginia Woolf

Aging and decay are characteristics that generally have a negative connotation. The first is a consequence of the passing of time; the second one, a consequence of use. People grow old, health declines, buildings deteriorate, old clothes rip, electronic appliances become obsolete. But not books. What we think of as a despicable mark in most objects, functions differently with books—more like the growth rings of a tree, maybe because there’s a genealogic relationship between them. While everything we consume tends to adjust to the principles of the new and novel, while we make efforts to obliterate the signals of time in the things we possess, books carry those marks with pride, like windows to past lives.

Unlike new books that come wrapped in plastic and are exhibited among the most varied stationary, notebooks and pencils, on shiny shelves with their brilliant barcodes—old books prefer gloom, dark and silent places among ripped pages and dust. They show their stripped backs and their washed covers discretely, expectant yet reserved, as if they knew that no encounter is fortuitous.

Old books, “second-hand” books, usually have yellowish pages. This colour comes in different shades and it is due to the decomposition of the organic and chemical substances present in paper. Their pages are also thicker— as if they fed on dust or as if they breathed and held their breath each time they’re read through. They look like thicker and bigger than those other, thinner volumes, with their white and perfectly pressed pages,  the ones we can find in regular bookshops.

Second-hand bookshops, nhave a characteristic smell, something between decay and humidity. Even when there are common smells to all books, each one has its own essence, a particular fragrance. An investigator from London University College, Cecilia Bembibre, gathered information about these smells and found more than thirty aromas, among which were wood, citrus, chocolate, body fluids and musk. Each book’s smell reveals something not just about its paper composition, but also about the use it has been given, the kind of storage it has gone through and maybe even about its most private history.

Some other marks also reveal part of this history. The most interesting are, for me, stamps, names and dates scribed on a book’s first pages, as well as underlined paragraphs and notes on the margins. It is common to find that many books on second-hand bookshops and thrift stores used to belong to a library. To mark this, it was usual to stamp ex libris on the books, a Latin phrase meaning “from among the books of”. This phrase is most commonly found on the first blank page and it is probably the mark that offers most information about a book’s precedence.

Other books have simpler marks— inscriptions on pencil or pen, in the calligraphy of the first owner, maybe her or his name, maybe a date. It is also possible to find books dedicated to someone, as a gift, or editions signed by its author. Even when much data can be inferred from these marks (if the writing is big or small, inclined, thick or thin), notes and underlining are much more revealing. From light underlining with pencil to highlighting in fluorescent ink, asterisks, brackets, notes on the margins—they are all vestiges of first reading, of an specific personal experience in other time and place.

Maybe to go through the pages of an old book and trace with our finger those parts where a pencil or a pen signalled an idea long ago, a revelation, a connexion, is a form of time travelling. With a bit of luck, books that guard other type of testimonies can be found: old papers, bookmarks, postcards, stamps, supermarket receipts. The most enigmatic experience I have had with a second-hand book happened three years ago, in Cambridge. There are several old-books stands in Old Market Square to which I used to go often. Once I found an old edition of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The edition was dated 1986 and had a small stamp on blue ink that read A. N. E. Harris—that is all I realised when I bought it and it took me more than one year to read it, during which the book stayed on a pile with many other books I had bought impulsively.

When I finally opened it again, I discovered a little photograph between pages 250 and 251 in which appeared two people, a young man and a young woman, both with blond hair and similar traits, maybe siblings, wearing thick jumpers, smiling and looking at a point above the camera. The photograph is a bit smaller that a Polaroid and the colour is faded. There are not other marks in the book, except for an underlined quote: “He waited day after day, saying that it was perfectly absurd to expect, yet expecting”.

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If one of those people owned the book, if one of them was A. N. E. Harris, if the picture was there by mistake and was looked for after, if it was there for a specific reason and if it had something to do with the quote underlined, are questions I still ask myself. All those questions lead me to think of the place where I found the book and of the process of selection it must have gone through, to end up between all those other books, piled on tables and inside boxes on the floor. What usually happens with that kind of bazaars is that they also place some empty boxes nearby so people who want to get rid of books can leave them there.

Second-hand bookshops work in a similar way, as refuges for books that have started to overflow their owner’s bookshelves or that have been replaced for newer editions. Sometimes bookshops look actively for them, especially those that specialize on rare editions. Whatever the reasons are for someone to get rid of a book, many of them end up in these temporary homes, organized and classified by booksellers that know every corner of their shops and their inventories, by titles and authors and themes and genres, wonderful people that end up acquiring a mysterious air and a slight smell of humidity.

Many of the biggest bookshops sell almost the same kinds of books; it is easy to go there and find something that we already knew we wanted. But in second-hand bookshops there is no way to know what we will find— it is like the labyrinth like corridors, the dust and smell confound us and take us to books we didn’t know we were looking for. These encounters, unexpected but never casual, allow is to think of reading as an experience and not just as an acquisition. Old books show us the intimacy of the act of reading. They show themselves as permeable bodies, subject to time and atmospherically conditions, bodies in which almost all marks are indelible. Of course it is possible to read on many devices, but it would be naïve to think that where we read from does not affect our experience of the text. Because if we think of a book as a container, we should think of it as a container from which we not only take, but as one in which we also leave things, sometimes accidentally.