How Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence showed one middle-aged woman she still has room for more
I visited Edith Wharton’s house The Mount for the first time on a weekend trip to the Berkshires this past August, and the experience was illuminating. I always thought of Wharton for her decorating prowess and her cosmopolitan lifestyle, swanning back and forth from Lenox, Massachusetts to Paris, and other cities in Europe. But I was not aware of her deeply complicated love life until I visited the house and took a tour.
The tour guide, an actor who knew how to spin a story, regaled us with tales of Wharton and her husband Teddy’s tumultuous and unhappy marriage and Edith’s secret love affairs.
Wharton had two great loves. The first was Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, whom young Edith Jones met while summering with her family in Bar Harbor, Maine. She would have married him if he’d only asked, but Teddy Wharton, a more extraverted suitor, swooped in and asked for her hand. Nonetheless, Edith and Walter maintained an epistolary relationship (an emotional affair on her side) for the rest of their lives, and he became her most trusted reader. Her second great love was William Morton Fullerton, an American journalist introduced by her friend Henry James whom she met in Paris in 1906 when she was in her mid-40s, still married to Teddy. Morton was the sexual love of her life, but he liked both the ladies, and the men, and wasn’t about to be tied down. Their affair lasted until 1909.
Before 2020, I had read Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence three times: in my teens in a high school English class, again in my twenties in 1993 when Martin Scorsese’s film came out, and finally in my forties in a book club. You would have thought I had squeezed all I could get out of the pages of this book. Still, after visiting The Mount, and then attending a 100th-anniversary commemorative event at New York’s Symphony Space this January, I was inspired to purchase a new copy and re-read it.
My re-reading was colored by all I had learned about her love life while visiting her house. Here was my favorite fiction writer—an author who I always saw as an intellectual powerhouse, cold, guarded, and immensely perceptive about human endeavors, but who I now recognized as a woman with a great depth of feeling and sadness.
Her protagonist Newland Archer became a completely different character to me this time around. In my opinion, he is the likely “heroine” of the story. He is the one who loved with passion, who pined for Madame Olenska, who was manipulated by his wife’s family, the Mingotts. Archer was trapped by New York society mores but even more trapped by his feelings of unrequited love for his mysterious cousin. He is pinned down by his shortcomings like a butterfly specimen to a velvet mount under glass.
In Wharton’s other masterpiece, The House of Mirth, the main character Lily Bart is a woman buffeted about by society and its limited expectations of her. But in The Age of Innocence, Wharton flips the script on this convention. Newland Archer is the romantic, almost feminine, lead. Unlike the other men in her novel, such as banker Julius Beaufort who aggressively and showily pursues Ellen, Archer demurely communicates in code by sending her yellow roses without a note, hoping she will guess who sent them.
While Ellen and Newland dance around their mutual attraction to each other, Archer is the one who lays it on the line. Halfway through the novel, he visits her at her home before he is married to May and tells her that May is encouraging a long engagement because she thinks he needs time to give up his feelings for another woman. “May guessed the truth,” he said. “There is another woman—but not the one she thinks.”And Ellen responds, “Ah, don’t make love to me! Too many people have done that.”At this moment, he is the one who is ready to jump off the cliff, but Ellen pushes him away.
It is impossible to know if Ellen is struggling as much as Newland because Wharton tells the story from his point of view. Newland tries a few more times, even after he’s married to May, to get Ellen to run off with him, so I venture to say that Newland is deep in unrequited love, and therefore he suffers more.
When I first arrived at The Mount, I was awed by the beauty of the place. The grounds, the gardens, the rooms, and the décor were magnificent. As I toured the house and learned about Wharton’s secret affairs, I contemplated the excitement and intrigue, mixed with shame, that she must have felt by having these clandestine relationships. I knew that she feared the letters would expose her actions and, more importantly, her feelings. I felt the truth of what it is to be a human being—our hearts and minds are hidden and unknowable unless we tell others, and that everyone has secrets, including me.
Once I re-read the book, I pondered the concept of marriage as a trap, both as Wharton wrote about and as born out in her life. Wharton tells her readers who have just experienced the world’s most devastating war, that marriage isn’t the be-all and end-all. The passion that blazes but dies, the broken hearts, the unrequited loves, and the physical longings—these are the life-affirming things one must grasp before it’s too late.
When I read the book as a young person, I felt Ellen Olenska was its heart. I thought she wanted to be with Newland and that he was too weak and cowardly to go to her. But this time around, I see more clearly what Wharton was doing. She has put all her longings and choices, good and bad, into Archer. He is her—a smart, exceptional woman who loved not one, but two men who didn’t return her affections. Archer is Edith Wharton, but she is also all of us who, at middle age, have had our fair share of loves that take up the chambers of our hearts, and yet we still endure.
The Age of Innocence is Wharton’s backward glance. She wrote the book when she was fifty-seven years old, which is Newland Archer’s age at the end of the novel. Reading it when I am fifty-three is my backward glance. It is not to say that I would have done anything differently, but reading this book now is especially poignant as my mind conjures up the ghosts of my past, such as my college boyfriend who I chased to Florida to be with in my Junior year because I loved him.
Reading The Age of Innocence as an innocent teen and twice more as an adult, were essential touchstones in my literary education. But reading it now says to me: your life may be more than half over, but your heart still beats and still has room for more. I am surprised at how much I’ve grown and changed since I last read it, and how much it still had to offer me. Reading it at 100 years old is a gift I will not soon forget.