Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Edith Wharton - The Age of Innocence

For most people, the trouble with classical literature is that it is usually very lengthy and boring in stretches. This is one reason it is not read more often. But then, often opinion differs. There are people (yes there are!) who can read nothing else.

 Even Charles Dickens, one of the most beloved of classical authors, suffers from wordiness. Of course, his manner of producing novels was different. His books were often serialized. He wrote at a time when people had few other forms of entertainment and people preferred a long story.

These days there are multiple claimants on a reader's time. There are television series to be watched, Facebook to be checked, Youtube that beckons. As do movies, memes, twitter, flicker, games. Games on your desktop, laptop, mobile. Older readers usually have taxing jobs, household chores, and responsibilities. Times are no longer leisurely and relaxed.

Only a die hard fan of books reads. And they find it hard, yes, even a fan of the classics like me, finds it hard to go through a tome full of digressions and descriptions and all that. Read half a chapter, a passage slowly, and savor it. It is certainly rewarding. But it is hard for me to glue myself to a long book now. I can read Anna Karenina. I find it fascinating. I can read passages from Pickwick Papers and smile. Jane Austen is fine. She is timeless. But I do find it a pain to go through a very long book at a sitting like I used to.

I received several recommendations for The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. The book constantly peeked out of all must-read lists. But my usual fears about reading classics belonging a century ago stopped me. Classical literature is usually available for very little, even free mostly. That was the clincher. Also the face that this was the book that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1921, the first ever awarded to a woman. I started reading the book.

To my pleasant surprise, the book was an easy read. It is one of the most readable of Classical literature, I feel. The story flows like a smooth river and you glide along the pages without realizing the passage of time. It is a very modern novel of manners and can fool you into thinking its a simple romance. It is not of course. 

The story is set in the background of very upper class New York set of families. They are a small and an exclusive group. Most have links of old money and lineage. They abhor vulgar displays of money or manners. Their exacting standards make them an impenetrable aristocracy of sorts. Without any Royal blood, of course. Royalty, if any, has to come visiting from England or Europe.

These few families have a set behavior pattern as well. Their life is predictable and that is how they like it. Change is slow and imperceptible. It starts when Newland Archer spots the girl he intends to be affianced to, May Welland, sitting in an opera box with her cousin Countess Olenska. Countess Ellen has returned to New York after separating from her husband, a Polish Count. She was aided in this flight from her marital home by her husband's secretary. She lived with him for a while. This is a fresh scandal. It lends a taint to the family of May. The family rallies around Ellen so she may get the support of the Society and also so that the immediate relations of Ellen are able to maintain their social position.

In the backdrop of this quaint social drama, Newland finds himself irresistibly attracted to the beautiful, intelligent Ellen. She is the kind of a soul mate he was looking for. She is fond of the arts and is full of deep humanity that Archer finds lacking in his circle. However, he is already committed to May and he intends to honor his commitment.

Edith Wharton gives us a very intimate, a very detailed glimpse into this Neo-Aristocracy just at the cusp of change. It is still the 1870s when people used a train or a brougham to travel. They communicated using notes, and dressed for dinner, and men smoked cigars in the Library after dinner. It is like a last sigh for fine living as it used to be.

This is the beautiful backdrop in which May, Ellen and Newland play out their little drama, a drama that is barely perceptible to the others. A sense of reality prevents the author, I can only assume, from inserting too much drama in the passion of Newland Archer for Ellen Olenska. Though he yearns for her, and makes his feelings plain to Ellen from the start, it is obvious that something stops him from acting on his desires.

It is May, in my opinion, who really steals the show. She is seen as a shallow, self centered being given entirely to the conventions of her set. Yet she displays flashes of understanding and manipulates the events to her advantage. Rather, it seemed to me, despite being the 'heroine' it is Ellen who pales into the shadows. 

The novel has a fine climax, and an excellent ending. The whole book flows smooth and neat, without any messy digressions. Edith Wharton has a very natural style. The book was written in 1920, which could be a reason why the language is not stilted. Yet, we have to remember she was a contemporary of Henry James. And Henry James is hard to read!

The Men, Women and the Manners of the period are beautifully depicted. It is indeed a must read classic.

I find the social set up of the characters of this book so similar to the one practiced in Middle and Upper Middle classes in India. Saving face, maintaining a hypocritical stance, being anxious about the opinion of others, doing things merely because they are done in the same way for as far as anyone can remember - all these things are very familiar to me. Mothers being picky about the matrimonial choices of their children, nudging them towards the right one is so Indian. It is strange to see that the society has evolved so much in USA and Europe, but not so much in India. Our opinions and reactions are still equal to those adopted by western countries a century ago!


Usha Menon said...

You are correct,Ava that people dont like long narratives.

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