In 1920, when The Age of Innocence was published, Edith Wharton stood at the pinnacle of her reputation as the most renowned writer of fiction in America, and also the most highly paid. An heir to a considerable personal fortune, maintaining at times as many as four grandiose homes with large staffs of servants, she also earned many millions from her writing. Publishers fought to have her. Her works were serialized, in the fashion of the times, in numerous leading magazines. Stage adaptations were made of her novels. Hollywood optioned many titles, and made some into films, first silent, then “talkies,” which she never bothered to see.
Edith Wharton knew “everyone”—meaning many upper-class Englishmen, whom she adored, and French aristocrats and literary figures, whom she adored even more; also, a fair number of Americans, almost all from the very best families. Her most prized literary friendship was with Henry James, whom she aided financially in his last years (he died in 1916). While writing diligently every morning, she kept up a frenetic social life. From 1907 on, her principal domicile was Paris.
In Paris in those years distinguished salons were maintained by two celebrated American woman writers: Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. But the two women never met, and their salons did not overlap in the slightest. Gertrude Stein’s favorite artists, such as Picasso, Matisse, and Braque—in short, the modernists—Mrs. Wharton apparently considered riffraff, while her own favorite painters have long since been forgotten. Mrs. Wharton despised T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and she had a very low opinion of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which she thought “unformed & unimportant drivel.” Among American writers, she manifested no interest whatsoever in Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, or John Dos Passos; she once had F. Scott Fitzgerald to tea and pronounced him, in her diary, “awful.” As for Gertrude Stein herself, Edith Wharton did not like lesbians, nor, with a few carefully chosen exceptions (Bernard Berenson), was she inordinately fond of Jews.
Indeed, at the time Edith Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence, she was in the throes of an overwhelming hostility toward almost everything American. She had always denigrated one thing or another about the United States, but in the period immediately following World War I she really went overboard. “I am humiliated to the soul at being what is now known as an ‘American,’” she wrote. “All that I thought American in a true sense is gone, and I see nothing but vainglory, crassness, and total ignorance—which of course is the core of the whole evil.” She was appalled, particularly after the opening of Woodrow Wilson’s Versailles Peace Conference, by the hordes of Americans swarming over Paris (although they were far fewer in number and certainly of a higher social class than those who were to swarm in later generations). She was, she said, becoming acquainted with the “new American cad.”
It was partly the presence of these distasteful Americans that turned her against even her be-loved Paris and drove her from her grand apartment in the aristocratic Faubourg Saint Germain to an even grander establishment some ten miles north of the city, a chateau which she had renovated at great expense and decorated to her demanding taste.
Yet an element of confusion in interpreting Edith Wharton’s work is that she had a tendency to deride everything. (Early in their relationship, Henry James had warned her of her tendency to be “a little hard, a little purely derisive.”) Thus, there is no question that, at the beginning, she wholeheartedly despised the aristocratic New York of the 1870’s as narrow, hidebound, provincial, and, perhaps worst of all, philistine.
As the years went by, however, without abandoning her satirical tone in describing it, she began to see the New York of the 1870’s—what she came to call “Old New York”—as somehow noble, certainly far loftier in its manners and mores than the New York of the “invaders,” such trash as the Astors, Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and other families that came into full social splendor a few years after she made her own social debut in 1878.
In the last 25 years of her life Edith Wharton visited America exactly once, in 1923, to receive an honorary degree at Yale—the first woman to be so honored. Although she continued to write fiction situated in America, she had completely lost her command of the American vernacular. It was in this period, following the Great War, that in retrospect the “Old New York” of her girlhood came to be bathed in a golden glow. Enough of a glow, in fact, that in 1921 the trustees of Columbia University, overruling their own jury, took the Pulitzer Prize for literature away from Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, and bestowed it instead on Mrs. Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. For Lewis’s portrait of the complacency, narrow-mindedness, and hypocrisy of smalltown America had given much offense, and in those days the Pulitzer was explicitly reserved for “the American novel which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.”
Was The Age of Innocence that novel? Yes, and no.
The event which launches The Age of Innocence—both the novel and the remarkably faithful movie version that Martin Scorsese has now made of it—is the meeting of young Newland Archer (played in the film by Daniel Day-Lewis), symbol of Mrs. Wharton’s “Old New York,” and Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the Europeanized American beauty with whom Archer later falls madly in love. Countess Olenska, though born into the same provincial New York as Newland Archer—and Edith Wharton—is a symbol of the sophisticated European society in which, again like Mrs. Wharton, she has spent much of her life.
Among her other cosmopolitan vagaries, Madame Olenska has made a disastrous marriage to a dissolute Polish count, a bounder, cad, and rotter (to use Mrs. Wharton’s language). She now wants to divorce him, but her stuffy New York family—the Mingotts—strongly disapproves. Respectable women in that age, of that class, did not divorce. Will “New York” (by which Mrs. Wharton always means the city’s aristocratic families) even “receive” Countess Olenska? Will she be compelled to return to her despicable husband?
The film, like the novel, begins at the opera, where we meet the story’s cast of characters, distributed carefully, box by box in the diamond horseshoe: great ladies, arbiters of good taste; well-groomed bachelors; young wastrels (male); gossips; hypocrites; and pure, dull maidens with a “hard, bright blindness” to the outside world and to all change. Among these insipid maidens is Archer’s beloved, his betrothed, May Welland (Winona Ryder), from a family the carbon copy of his own. But the shocking event of the evening, observed by everyone through opera glasses, is the appearance beside Newland Archer’s own fiancée of her now disreputable first cousin, Countess Olenska. A hushed voice is heard in the bachelors’ box: “I didn’t think the Mingotts would have tried it on!”
Soon after, at a grand party in one of the brownstone mansions of pre-skyscraper New York, Archer spies Countess Olenska. More significantly, Countess Olenska spies Archer. A rigorously adhered-to rule of the time was that a “lady,” once seated in a drawing room, should modestly remain there, exchanging ceremonious badinage with whoever came to pay her tribute. But Countess Olenska rises and, to the collective dismay of the assemblage, strides boldly across the room to seat herself beside Archer. And then, at his departure, with no forewarning or previously issued invitation, she blurts out: “Tomorrow, then, after five—I shall expect you.” Archer is stunned.
Archer works (in the most casual sense) as a lawyer, and he will in time be designated by his firm to explain to Countess Olenska that she must not divorce her cad of a husband. But on his first visit to her, he has not yet been given this mission. Countess Olenska receives him informally in an unconventionally decorated sitting room and speaks to him in an unaffected, straightforward manner he has never before encountered in a lady.
Countess Olenska seems to stand for everything Archer has always wanted from life but never gotten: freedom from his restrictive social world, the wild and intoxicating life of far-off lands, love. He tells her with some difficulty that everyone in New York wants to “help” her, and the Countess sighs. “I know,” she says with a hint of bitterness. “But on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant. The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” She lifts her hands to her face, her slim shoulders shaken by a sob. “Madame Olenska! Oh, don’t, Ellen!” cries Archer, leaping forward and seizing one of her hands. On his way home, as he passes a florist shop, his eyes fall on a cluster of yellow roses and he first thinks (in the novel though not in the film) of sending them to his fiancée. But in their fiery beauty they are too rich and strong for May, and he orders them sent instead to Countess Olenska. The die is cast.
As it dawns on Archer that he is falling deeply in love with the Countess, he dashes down to Saint Augustine, Florida, where his fiancée and her family are “wintering,” and begs her to hasten their upcoming marriage—to remove himself, as it were, from temptation. Sensing something wrong, May, rather nobly, tells him that if there is another woman, and he has “pledged” himself to her, he must fulfill his pledge and she will let him go. “Don’t give her up because of me,” she says gravely. Archer is so overwhelmed by May’s generosity that he is more resolved than ever to marry her, and soon does so.
But the Countess Olenska problem refuses to go away. Married, Archer still yearns for her. He drives his horse and buggy to a country house near fashionable Newport, Rhode Island. She has left for Boston. He takes the train to Boston. He finds her sitting in Boston Common. On a restaurant terrace, with the Boston skyline hazy on the horizon, the tears stream down the Countess’s cheeks and Archer realizes that she loves him. She will, she promises, stay in America; but their love must be pure. If he “lifts a finger” he will drive her back to her husband, the abominable Count Olenski.
Then Archer gets another chance. When Countess Olenska comes up to New York from Washington to visit her sick grandmother, he steals a march and meets her at Pennsylvania Station, at that time in romantic Jersey City. In a torrid moment, in their horse-drawn carriage, Archer sensually unbuttons one of her gloves, and later the Countess says, “Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress?” Shocked by the word, Archer wonders if it has been used familiarly in the Countess’s presence in the horrible life from which she has fled. He cries, “I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist, where we shall simply be two human beings who love each other, and nothing else on earth will matter!”
Countess Olenska sighs, then laughs:
Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there? I know so many who’ve tried to find it and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.
“Then what exactly is your plan for us?” Archer asks stiffly. “For us?” she replies sharply. “There is no us! We’re only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska’s cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer’s wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of people who trust them!” But, later, she relents and promises to “come to him” for one night of love. Newland’s wife, May, however, manages neatly to obstruct things once again by telling Countess Olenska, prematurely, that she is pregnant. The Countess, unwilling to take a pure-hearted American husband from his devoted, generous, pregnant wife, decides to rush back to decadent Europe.
The film’s next-to-last scene, exactly like the book’s next-to-last chapter, is a grand gathering of “the Family” (which Edith Wharton spells with a capital F) for the first big dinner given by the newlywed Mr. and Mrs. Newland Archer, with gilt-edged menus and borrowed footmen—a farewell dinner for the Countess Olenska, about to depart for Europe. We hear Edith Wharton’s words being read in voice-over (by the actress Joanne Woodward). Archer feels as if he is floating somewhere between the chandelier and the ceiling. It suddenly comes to him in a searing flash that all these fashionable, placid people delicately eating their canvasback ducks have believed for months that he and Countess Olenska are lovers, and that the whole tribe has rallied around his wife while pretending not to know anything. It is Old New York’s way of taking life without bloodshed: “the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes’ except the behavior of those who gave rise to them.”
Feeling himself a “prisoner in an armed camp,” Archer understands that a conspiracy of rehabilitation and obliteration is under way. The silent organization which holds this fashionable world together is also determined to put itself on record as never for a minute having questioned the propriety of Countess Olenska’s conduct, or the completeness of Archer’s own domestic felicity. He catches in his wife’s eyes the “glitter of victory” and—for the first time—realizes that she too thinks he is the Countess’s lover.
In moments he is putting Countess Olenska’s cloak about her shoulders. She calmly holds out her hand with a composed “Goodbye.” “But I shall see you soon in Paris!” he almost hears himself shout. “Oh,” the Countess smiles, “if you and May could come. . . .” In the billowy darkness inside the landau, Archer catches the dim oval of her face, eyes shining steadily—and she’s gone. He has missed “the flower of life.” The love affair is over.
An epilogue is set 26 years later. Newland Archer, now fifty-seven, is a leading if sedate citizen of New York and a good friend of Governor Theodore Roosevelt (as was Edith Wharton). He has been a faithful husband but is now a widower, his wife May having died of infectious pneumonia, contracted while nursing back to health one of their three children. Their long years together had shown him that “it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty. He honored his own past, and mourned for it. After all, there was good in the old ways.” He remembers May, his wife: generous, faithful, unwearied, if entirely lacking in imagination, incapable of growth. Her “hard bright blindness” had kept her horizon forever unaltered. Yet at her death he sincerely mourned her.
Archer and his architect son take a trip to Paris and are invited to visit Countess Olenska, who never went back to her husband, now dead. Nor has the glamorous Countess remarried. There is nothing now to keep her and Archer apart. They are both single, and he is to see her in only hours. Archer finds himself saying, “But I’m only fifty-seven. . . .” Although it is too late now for “summer dreams,” perhaps it is not too late for a “quiet harvest of friendship, of comradeship, in the blessed hush of her nearness.”
Archer and his son walk to Countess Olenska’s apartment in the fashionable Hôtel des Invalides district. Archer thinks of the theaters the Countess must have been to, the paintings she must have seen, the splendid houses she must have frequented, the fascinating people she must have talked with, the “incessant stir of ideas, curiosities, images, and associations thrown out by an intensely social race in a setting of immemorial manners.” Half a lifetime divides Archer from the Countess; during all that time, he has kept alive his youthful memory of her, but as for her, if she remembers him at all her memory must be like a relic in a small, dim, neglected chapel. As Archer and his son arrive in front of the Countess’s apartment, the father is overwhelmed by what his son has just told him: that, before she died, May confessed she had always known Archer had given up, for her and their family, what he wanted most in life. That his wife should have understood him all along, should actually have pitied him, moves Archer “indescribably.” He feels as if “an iron band” has been lifted from his heart.
The son goes up to meet the legendary Countess, while Archer remains seated on a bench in the square, trying to imagine the scene above. He remains rooted to the bench in the gathering dusk, his eyes fixed on her windows. In the novel, Archer hears himself say, “It’s more real to me here than if I went up.” This line is not heard in the film, but instead we suddenly see Countess Olenska fill the screen as Archer pictures her in his mind: still young, gloriously beautiful, in her white dress at Newport, turning and smiling at him. He has done his duty, Archer reflects somberly, but knows he has missed the flower of life. He rises slowly and walks back alone to his hotel.
Although Scorsese’s film version of The Age of Innocence is scrupulously faithful, gone from it are the elaborate descriptions of household interiors that are a staple of all Edith Wharton’s works and that have led some critics to call her “the poet of interior decoration.”
Gone also, inevitably, is Mrs. Wharton’s predilection for defining her characters by their material possessions. Thus, in the novel, we are meant to feel the attraction of Countess Olenska by her “small slender tables of dark wood, a delicate little Greek bronze in the chimney piece, and a stretch of red damask nailed on the discolored wallpaper behind a couple of Italian-looking pictures in old frames.” We learn that the Countess has two Jacqueminot roses in a slender vase, and that her tea is served “with two handleless Japanese cups and little covered dishes.” A character who has been eliminated from the screenplay is the young Countess’s eccentric aunt, who brought her up in Europe after the death of her parents and appears in New York “in a wild dishevelment of stripes and fringes and floating scarves.”
Mrs. Wharton makes quite a point of her contention that in the 1870’s, before the ostentatious nouveaux riches “invaders” came to dominate New York society, a certain old-fashioned tackiness was the accepted social rule, and to follow too rapidly the latest ladies’ fashions from Paris was thought to be vulgar. Thus, New York’s Academy of Music, where the novel’s opening scene takes place, is described as having shabby red and gold boxes, and the grandest New York ladies of the period, although they order the latest dresses from Paris promptly enough, are reported as leaving them to “mellow” in their delivery boxes for some two years, after which it becomes proper and in good taste to wear them. Most such satirical comments from the novel are gone from the film—although a few are preserved in the voice-over passages read by Joanne Woodward. In general, the novel’s decor has been decidedly upgraded, with wardrobes, grand homes, and even the opera house being of the utmost luxury and opulence.
Nevertheless, most of Edith Wharton’s attitudes are conveyed, and the heart of The Age of Innocence is present almost in full: the love story between Newland Archer and Countess Olenska with all its ins and outs, and a nearly complete cast of characters, including May Welland’s entire family, Archer’s entire family, several other “prominent” families, a complement of wits and dandies, and an obnoxious upstart financier named Julius Beaufort, who Mrs. Wharton denied was supposed to be a Jew (but who has been assumed to represent the age’s celebrated Jewish financier, August Belmont). The older members of New York society are played by an excellent cast of largely British actors—this in accordance with Edith Wharton’s reiterated insistence that in her period such people spoke with purely English accents. Fortunately, Newland Archer, Countess Olenska, and most of the younger members of the cast sound American.
Should Newland Archer have run off with Countess Olenska? Martin Scorsese sticks with Edith Wharton, and has emphasized in interviews that he has done his level best to “follow the book.” He is prepared to accept her judgment. But what is her judgment?
This, as it happens, is a matter of some dispute. The Columbia trustees, in overruling the Pulitzer Prize jury in 1921, doubtless thought that Newland Archer had done the “wholesome” thing. But in the next decade, the influential critic Edmund Wilson rushed forward to contest that view. The Age of Innocence, Wilson insisted, conveys an “active resentment against the pusillanimity” of provincial New York, as well as a special complaint against the “timid American male”—Newland Archer—“who has let the lady down.” According to Wilson, it was the “last irony” of The Age of Innocence that Newland Archer should become reconciled to the stifling moral values of Old New York.
Similarly today, watching the new film and quite in its grip, the novelist John Updike reported (in the New Yorker) feeling a distinct uncertainty as to how it was going to turn out:
There was, for me, a momentary ambiguity at the end of Scorsese’s film. . . . It seemed possible that Hollywood might exercise its prerogative and . . . have Archer do what any red-blooded widower would do, that is, take the ascenseur, give his hostess a hug, and spend the rest of his life with Michelle Pfeiffer.
But Updike went further. Even in Edith Wharton’s novel, he wrote, Archer seems “merely perverse.” And he asked, “In reworking Wharton, how tied should the workers be to the cruel overseer within her who denied her characters happiness after bringing them tantalizingly close to it?”
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Edith Wharton (1985), R.W.B. Lewis of Yale gives a direct rebuttal to all such “romantic” readings of Mrs. Wharton. For her, writes Lewis, “there was no genuine and honorable and emotionally fufilling alternative to the social order. . . . Society was the domain of the values that counted most—loyalty, decency, honesty, fidelity, and the adherence to moral commitment.”
For all Edith Wharton’s ambivalence about Old New York, the weight of evidence is on Lewis’s side. In fact, in the preliminary outline for The Age of Innocence which Mrs. Wharton sent to her American publishers (under the working title Old New York), her hero, Archer, does indeed run off with Countess Olenska—and the venture ends in failure. The two “meet in Florida where they spend a few mad weeks,” after which Archer remorsefully returns to his wife and conventional life in New York, and Countess Olenska to Paris. In further outlines, Mrs. Wharton even had Archer break his engagement to May Welland and actually marry Ellen Olenska, but that too fails to work out. So, in Mrs. Wharton’s eyes, whether Newland Archer could find happiness with Countess Olenska was not an open question.
One does not need to describe Mrs. Wharton’s moral standards in quite the glowing terms used by R.W.B. Lewis to appreciate that in her work no feverish dashing-off to find romance somewhere over the horizon, or illicit passion of any sort, ever brings happiness. This is even true of an unpublished erotic story, “Beatrice Palmato,” which she composed at about the same time she was writing The Age of Innocence. Mrs. Wharton was quite proud of this highly explicit work, and boasted about it to her friends. Yet it, too, is shot through with darkness. Beatrice’s older sister, who has earlier been seduced by their “half-Levantine” father, kills herself; their mother goes insane, tries to kill her husband, and dies in a lunatic asylum; and the eponymous Beatrice, who has been been having regular sexual relations with her father from the age of twelve, also kills herself.
It was only in the half-finished The Buccaneers that Edith Wharton planned to have her social-climbing American heiress, Nan St. George, run off with a former officer of the Guards and find true happiness—in South Africa. As she declared cheerfully in her outline for the unwritten final passages of The Buccaneers, she meant, perhaps for the first time in her career, to show the triumph of “love, deep and abiding love.” And this is just what the novel does in the version completed for Mrs. Wharton and just published, with highly feminist, upbeat alterations, by Marion Mainwaring. Yet one wonders, given Mrs. Wharton’s acidulous temperament, and, especially, the way she altered her plan for The Age of Innocence, if this “deep and abiding love” would indeed have found fruition had she finished the novel herself.
Perhaps the last word on this matter should be given to the novelist Louis Auchincloss, himself a (much later) product of the New York aristocratic world and one who is generally quite critical of Mrs. Wharton’s “grotesque” (his word) caricatures of American life. To Auchincloss, The Age of Innocence expresses a “sense of apology” for the contempt in which Edith Wharton had held the New York of her early years. This book, writes Auchincloss, conveys absolutely no feeling that, in giving up the dream of love, “Archer has condemned himself and the Countess to an unrewarding life of frustration. The author is absorbed in the beauty of rules and forms even when they stamp out spontaneity.” In the novel, Countess Olenska tells Archer: “It was you who made me understand that under the dullness there are things so fine and sensitive and delicate that even those I most cared for in my other life look cheap in comparison.” Auchincloss glosses: “This is the climax of the message: that under the thick glass of convention blooms the fine, fragile flower of patient suffering and denial. To drop out of society is as vulgar as to predominate; one must endure and properly smile.”
Henry James, the most distinguished of Edith Wharton’s American literary friends, wrote of her work: “We move in an air purged at a stroke of the old sentimental and romantic values.” Many years later, as if mindful of Mrs. Wharton’s challenge to these values, W.H. Auden was to write: “About three-quarters of modern literature is concerned with one subject, the love between a man and a woman, and assumes that falling in love is the most important and valuable experience that can happen to a human being.”
If there is a significant difference between Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary movie, it stems from the fact that, for all the feminist lectures we have had to endure on the virtues of seeking fulfillment outside of man-woman “relationships,” our disposition toward romantic love is still so powerful that it tends to condition our expectations of any narrative art—perhaps above all our expectations of movies. Through the remarkable performances of Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day-Lewis, The Age of Innocence, on screen, builds a romantic momentum that seems absolutely to demand fulfillment.
But it was never Edith Wharton’s intention to provide this fulfillment. She herself had a conventional, virtually sexless, and certainly passionless marriage to the neurotic socialite Teddy Wharton. Her one experience with fierce, passionate love occurred ten years before she was to write The Age of Innocence, and that it was a humiliating episode her abject letters to her lover now bear witness. With Edith Wharton, love never conquers all. Society’s moral conventions conquer all.
Whether or not this is an uplifting process to contemplate, Martin Scorsese leaves it up to the spectator to decide. For Scorsese, who almost alone among American directors has concerned himself with moral dilemmas within tight social groups (most famously, of course, the Mafia), and with the equivocal demands of order, tradition, respect, loyalty, and the fulfilling of commitments, understands this difficult truth about Edith Wharton, and honors it to the letter.