Monday, January 20, 2014

As free as we are

Proud member of the Professional Organization of English Majors (well, not really), I am somewhat abashed to admit that this was my first reading of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. (As a member of POEM, I can't count the movie [although it was very good].)  Wharton's Pulitzer-Prize-winning (this is fascinating, if for no other reason than the description of the book as "wholesome") novel skewers the manners and mores of high society New York in the seventies (the 1870s) from the distance of 1920 through the story of Newland Archer, a member of that society.  Newland thinks he is different from his friends and social equals because he likes architecture and unpopular literature and that he thinks "women ought to be free -- as free as we are." But Newland can't see that he isn't free and so endures a life of restriction and proper behavior that stultifies him as much as it does the women in his life.

At the beginning of the novel, Newland plans to announce his engagement to May Welland, a young woman who he is hopeful of molding into someone who enjoys art and literature the way he does. A cousin of May's has returned to their social circle, the Countess Olenska, disrupting Newland's careful plans. The Countess, Ellen, is fleeing an abusive husband and -- after growing up in Europe -- has returned to her grandmother (also May's grandmother) in the hopes of attaining a divorce that will offer her some financial independence. Divorce and the slightly risque Countess are not quite acceptable in New York society, so May and Newland move up their betrothal announcement to demonstrate their support for her. However, Ellen's allure and her somewhat bohemian lifestyle attract Newland, who encourages a reluctant May to move up the date of their marriage in the hopes of reducing the attraction. Alas, when he realizes that his love for the Countess is reciprocated, May is delighted to say that her family has agreed to immediate nuptials.

And this triangle consumes the remainder of the novel. From Wharton's perspective (as a happily divorced woman), this unconsummated love is a tragedy, from ours perhaps a farce, but what saves this novel is its characters. No one is who they appear, all are operating to serve their own needs. The true innocent is Newland (which makes his dilemma utterly poignant to me rather than farcical), who can see the emptiness of his life and his society, but seems helpless to alter it. Or is he helpless? Perhaps he's lazy. That's the beauty of Wharton's work.

Wharton's descriptions of her characters are delicious and her language reveals so much about them (and how she feels about their selfish and unexamined existence).  Revel in this description of May and Ellen's grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott, from Chapter IV: "The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon."

David Horovitch, an actor with whom I'm familiar from all that British television that I watch, reads the novel. It is an interesting choice to have an English accent as the narrative voice in this American novel, but I enjoy that ironic sang froid Horovitch brings to Wharton's prose. He voices the characters with American accents that almost all suffer from an excessive 'r' that English narrators and actors often give to American characters. The Countess, for example, is O-LEN-sker. 

But I really didn't care about this, as Horovitch's interpretations all dipped beneath the surface of the characters to expose their inner lives. May, for example, is no shrinking violet vocally but has an undercurrent of steel; and the Countess, with a whisper of Eastern Europe in her delivery, has a soft helplessness that rises to an oddly distant passion. The novels many other characters are all portrayed uniquely and consistently, clearly demonstrating that Horovitch paid very close attention to his textual clues.

Audible shows 11 different versions of this novel (two abridgements and two dramatizations, plus a very fast reading from one Mary Sarah). I picked Horovitch because that's the one my library owns, but it would be hard to resist John Singer Sargent's Lady Agnew of Lochlaw hanging in the Scottish National Gallery if there had been any competition.

[Unlike the Countess, Edith Wharton did not have to return to New York begging her relatives for support once she got rid of her philandering husband. She lived the rest of her life in Paris; here is the commemorative plaque noting her home while writing The Age of Innocence, at 53 rue de Varenne. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, this photograph was taken by Monceau.]

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Narrated by David Horovitch
AudioGo (originally from Cover to Cover), 1993.  12:02

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