Edition: Penguin, 1974
Review number: 252
Edith Wharton's novel of New York Society in the 1870s, the time and background of her own youth, was the product of her experiences during the First World War. It is not a nostalgic backward look at an order that was fast disappearing, even in America; Wharton viewed the artificial innocence (born of a refusal to see unpleasant things) as something better shed. It is perhaps too much to say that she rejoiced in the downfall of the nineteenth century in the battlefields of France, but she certainly felt that it was past time for humanity to move on.
The story basically describes Newland Archer's gradual disillusionment with the society around him, in which every action is circumscribed by the rules of propriety, and where infringement of these rules can be severely punished. Engaged to the extremely conventional May Welland, he becomes fascinated by the beautiful Countess Olenska. She has recently returned from Europe, where she had scandalously left her aristocratic husband when she felt unable to live with his ill-treatment of her any longer.
Because Countess Olenska has spent much of her life in Europe, and has indeed carried out an action almost too scandalous to be imagined (running off with her husband's secretary), she does not just accept New York customs and morality without question, the way the others do. Because of her, Archer begins to see the ideas he grew up with in a different way. This may seem like a necessary part of growing up, particularly after several generations of intense questioning of parental ways of life which precede our own, but Wharton is depicting a society so privileged and sheltered - and cut off, in the days before fast Atlantic crossings, the telephone, when much railway traffic stopped the far side of the Hudson so that a further journey by ferry and carriage was necessary to get to New York itself - that many of its members never went through this process.
The innocence portrayed in this novel has its attractive qualities, but Wharton is more interested to show the reader its stifling and airless nature; it is an innocence only achieved at the cost of the ruthless exclusion of anything that might disturb it.