walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

_The Age of Innocence_, Edith Wharton

I'm not going to say a word about spoilers, because this book has been out for a long while now. Get over it.

It's very readable. The language is a little old-fashioned, filled with the many clauses that we are so unaccustomed to today. There's a bit of french, here and there. This was the November book group selection in Mayberry (<-- not its real name) and my fellow readers tell me they had to look of a fair number of words (I was stymied by "quant a soi" and in the end, the only definitions that really made sense to me were themselves in french so I'm not even going to try. Sorry about the missing accent.). The group's vote on a 1-5 scale at the end was remarkable for its consensus: all 3s or 4s.

I hate vacillating young men with power stories (YES THAT INCLUDES HAMLET. DUH.). I was once a vacillating young woman and my remorse for that means I work to be compassionate to people who are having trouble deciding. But it also means that I find indecision as the basis for a story or as a life choice really, really aggravating.

To modern readers (or at least my fellow book group members), things like the description of opera as experienced in the 1870s at the Academy seem light, tongue-in-cheek and funny. And they condemn the socialites who chatted away during the recitative for not loving music. This is PRETTY FUCKING HILARIOUS COMING FROM PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN TO AN OPERA WITH RECITATIVE, and whose sole example of attending anything similar to an opera is Les Mis. Talking during the recitative was self-preservation. And the description of German operas being sung in Italian was not light, tongue-in-cheek, etc., altho it was kind of funny if you like that kind of viciousness. I don't really.

So that's two marks against _The Age of Innocence_: its viciousness (and it is _relentlessly_ vicious) and the vacillating young man at the center who so comprehensively misunderstands the world around him that he only starts to really figure out how thoroughly he has been led around by the nose at the very end, when his son inadvertently pulls back the curtain on Dead Mama's last manipulations. Oh, wait. That's three.

I should toss something in here about how all the women are pretty horrible. Understandable, sure, but nevertheless, pretty horrible.

But I don't want to distract from the thing I disliked most about this book (and for the record, it's a really well-written, good book -- I gave it a 4). The thing I disliked most about this book is the agonizing over the long engagement. WHICH DOES NOT MAKE A LICK OF SENSE. In fact, in conjunction with May taking two years to get pregnant, really the whole thing starts to take on a suspicious complexion that made me wonder about Edith Wharton. A lot. For a book which is about Family and marriage and other people taking lovers and a possible divorce (which devolves into a lifelong separation instead), there is a mystifying and relentless lack of sexual tension. Our Bookish Hero, Newland Archer, loves a good book and, prior to the events of the book, was apparently led around by the nose for a while by a married woman. But his desire to avoid a year plus engagement (understandable!) requires An Explanation both internally and to a variety of other people. And it is pretty clear that it is his impulsive pressing for it by going down to Florida when Work says he Should Not that relieves a bunch of other people in the social circle that he actually has ... a libido? Unclear. And this guy is supposed to be 27! WTF.

Do not tell me about how Oh Well It Just Used to Be Like That. Yeah, sure and your parents only had sex as many times as they had kids. Pull the other one; it has bells on. Long engagements on the scale described in this book (and apparently Wharton's other books) were never the norm for people in their mid-20s and older. They just weren't. Which means this is probably some sort of closeted thing going on that I am having trouble deciphering. Is Newland asexual? Is Ellen lesbian? We've got some clues going on that indicate that the author isn't real sympathetic to the closeted longings, what with the obligatory derogation of long haired men and short haired women.

If you read it (and you can interpret that verb tense however you like!), and have a theory, I'm interested. Last night I was convinced that Count Olenski was objectionable because he was gay. Having read a little about Wharton's life, I'm now wondering if bipolar disorder should be contemplated as an alternative explanation. I sort of wish that I enjoyed this book -- it's always nice to read an Issues novel from the past that gets into something I care about (women being able to get a divorce in this case). Alas, I didn't. But I finished it, and the book is thought-provoking and really well-constructed.

ETA:

How long should an engagement in the 1870s last? Well, here's a contemporary work!

http://susannaives.com/wordpress/2012/04/how-to-get-married-in-the-1860s-and-early-1870s/

"Between persons who have been intimately acquainted for years, less concealment of the real temper is likely to occur. It is when strangers meet, in unfamiliar circles, that there is danger of overhasty marriages being a source of ultimate repentance. Twelve months’ engagement is considered by most people in the middle circles of society quite long enough."

I suppose you could argue that the characters in _The Age of Innocence_ moved in more rareified than the "middle circles of society", but Wharton indicates that they really were not aristocrats and presumably Cassells writing in a British context would have considered May and Newland "middle circles of society".
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