The love triangle: that endless source of artistic inspiration. For centuries this simple romantic entanglement has been a fruitful theme for literature, perhaps because it remains a common predicament for people in all walks of life. Edith Wharton, however, makes this archetype fresh and compelling in a novel that grips you firmly by the shoulders from the first page and refuses to let you go.
The Age of Innocence is, to put it simply, a great yarn. Much significance is placed on the crafting of beautiful sentences – and don’t get me wrong, Wharton is adept at that too – but there is still something to be said for great storytelling. We all love to be enveloped in a gripping narrative, picked up and placed in another world; that sense of being transported is the main reason that many people read. And Wharton is, above all, a consummate storyteller.
Her wonderful narrative centres around Newland Archer, a respectable young man from a respectable New York family, obediently following the path that has been laid out for him and abiding by all the unspoken rules of old Manhattan society. He is engaged to the pretty, seemingly perfect May Welland, but someone is about to shake things up. The arrival of May’s socially shamed and unconventional cousin Ellen Olenska turns the heads of all New York – Newland’s head in particular.
From here this could be a straightforward tale of the fickle man being seduced away from his saintly fiancée by the exotic seductress, but Wharton is much more sophisticated than that. Ellen is far from the femme fatale; fragile and essentially good, she does everything she can to resist the mutual, undeniable desire that builds between her and Newland. May, meanwhile, for all her sweetness and innocence, is not as simple as she looks when it comes to hanging on to her man. Newland, to complete the trio, is neither dastardly philanderer nor entrapped fool, though he certainly lacks conviction. In other words, none of Wharton’s characters are perfect, but any authorial judgement remains wisely suspended.
While the ‘will-they-won’t-they’ plot between Newland and Ellen is relentlessly enthralling, one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its depiction of the pettiness and fakery of New York’s high society. It is this endless routine of social engagements and the suffocating expectation to stick to social norms (which are, ironically, far from natural behaviour) that makes Ellen’s way of looking at the world so refreshing. If the novel has any hero then it is Ellen, and the reader is as fascinated by and drawn to her as Newland is.
On the flip side, May is equally intriguing in her seemingly blind conformity. She is the physical embodiment of the society from which Newland feels the impulse to rebel, raised for the sole purpose of attracting a husband and trained to be blithely accepting and submissive. It is a worrying portrait, and one that becomes even more unsettling when May is unmasked as having more between her ears than we might have supposed. May is contentedly complicit in the existence that has been plotted out for her, doing everything in her power to trap a husband who she knows very well wants to get away from her.
All in all, The Age of Innocence achieves two of those golden rules of a great read: it is (to use a frequently abused but in this case justified cliché) impossible to put down and lingers in the mind after the last page has been turned.