Posts Tagged ‘novels’

“The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

*** SPOILER WARNING: Please note that although the following does not focus on the plot of the novel, some elements of the plot are inevitably revealed. ***


First of all, the title. Wikipedia tells me that the title is ironic. Perhaps. But if so, it is a rather unsubtle and heavy-handed irony, and somewhat at odds with the subtlety and lightness of touch that are apparent in the novel itself. The title of Wharton’s earlier novel, The House of Mirth, had certainly been intended ironically, but that was very caustic in tone, almost bitter and angry; this, on the other hand, is far gentler, and far more genteel in its manners. So let us, for the moment at least, take the title at face value: let us assume that Wharton is, indeed, depicting an Age of Innocence.

But whose innocence? The two principal characters, Wayland Archer and Ellen Olenska, though both relatively relatively young, are not in the first flush of youth; and neither are they sexually inexperienced. These do not preclude innocence, of course, but if Wharton intends the “innocence” of the title to apply to these two principal characters, then we must look beyond what is seen merely on the surface.

Or perhaps the “innocence” applies to May Welland, Wayland’s fiancée and subsequently his wife. This is possibly more likely, as she really is, at the start of the novel, very young, and inexperienced. However, despite being one of the major participants in the drama, she is rarely allowed to occupy centre-stage, and she plays a quite shadowy (though intriguing) role throughout. One should not rule her out, though: her role, though shadowy, proves vitally important; and throughout the novel, despite her youth and experience, she embodies all the values most prized by the society these characters inhabit: formality, decorousness, correctness. And if the innocence of the title applies to her, it applies also to the society that she and her powerful family represent. And perhaps this isn’t intended ironically either.

The society Wharton depicts is the same society she had depicted earlier in The House of Mirth – the aristocracy of East Coast America, some time late in the 19th century. In the earlier novel, Wharton’s depiction had been quite acrimonious: there’s a sense almost of anger in her portrayal of the various cruelties and hypocricies of a society that, for all its formal and decorous surfaces, heartlessly crushes and destroys the novel’s tragic heroine Lily Bart. However, that earlier novel had been published in 1905; The Age of Innocence, on the other hand, was published in 1920, on the other side of the Great War, when all the old certainties seemed precariously balanced on the edge of extinction, and all values – moral, social, aesthetic – seemed in danger of being turned upside-down. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps not unreasonable to see what had gone before, for all its manifold shortcomings, as being, indeed, an “age of innocence”.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: one may go so far as to call it a “standard plot”, ready-made and off-the-shelf. A man, no longer very young but not yet middle-aged, is engaged to a younger woman who is innocent and virginal; but he falls for a more experienced woman who is closer to his age, and a passion develops; and it all ends unhappily. This is the blueprint for any number of Turgenev stories. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Turgenev to all the proceedings, right down to a nostalgic and regretful epilogue that takes place many years after the main events. And we cannot help but ask ourselves what Wharton was thinking of, at the very time when modernism was on the ascendency and the air was suffused with the excitement of the new, writing a novel of a kind that could very easily have been written some sixty or seventy years earlier. Was it a mere act of defiance, a mere extolling of the values of the past, aesthetic and moral, in the face of their likely demise?

I think that is certainly the case, but only partly. Wharton’s aesthetics and morals were, I think, by nature conservative, but not blindly so. The society she depicts here is still a society of cruelty and hypocrisy: it still values outward show and formality higher than emotional needs, and stability above individual fulfilment. And if someone’s individual needs threaten this stability, then they are crushed. Wharton is still very much aware of all this. At the centre of this novel, after all, is a profoundly sad love story: the love, which grows into a passion, is never consummated, and the two lovers end up apart from each other, living out lives that are empty and hollow. All this Wharton knows; and, what is more, she is sympathetic. And yet, the society which could do all this, the age in which all this could happen, where the turbulence of the inner life is drained to maintain the unruffled nature of the surface, are still, Wharton seems to insist without irony, an innocent society, an innocent age. Social stability may indeed come at a great cost, but at a time when everything seemed up in the air, and the world itself seemed on the verge of turning upside-down, this stability, though dearly purchased, is not something to be easily dismissed.

And if this society is itself essentially innocent, then its representative in this novel (in the sense that it is she who acts to maintain society’s values), May Welland, is also innocent. But this innocence is more complex than it may at first sight appear to the reader. It is certainly more complex than it appears to Newland, who becomes her husband: towards the end of the novel, he is taken by surprise on hearing that, shortly before her death, she had told their son that he could rely on his father, as his father had already made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of his family. In other words, she had known what her husband had felt about Ellen Olenska: she had known the extent of his passion for her, and how much his sacrifice had cost him. And if this knowledge had occasioned in her grief and pain, both had been hidden so perfectly, that not even her own husband had noticed. The external surfaces must, at all costs, remain unruffled: and if her husband has to deny his passion towards this end, May has to deny her injury.

We also cannot help wondering whether Wayland had also underestimated her earlier. During their engagement, she had suggested postponing the marriage, so as to give her fiancé the opportunity to change his mind, should he so wish. Wayland had assumed that May had been thinking of a former flame of his, and he had no worries on that score. But, given how badly he had mistaken May throughout his long marriage to her, it seems likely, in retrospect, that he had mistaken her in this also – that, in truth, May had known all along, possibly earlier than he had done himself, of the true nature of his feelings for Ellen. May, for all her innocence, plays her hand perfectly, much as Maggie Verver plays her hand in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl: May tells Ellen that she is pregnant before she is sure of the fact, and, in effect, packs Ellen off, leaving Wayland for herself. May is utterly victorious. We may ask whether she is happy, or emotionally fulfilled by her victory: perhaps not. It is hard to discern what emotional fulfilment there can be when one is married to someone who, one knows, is deeply in love with someone else. But to May, as to the powerful society family she comes from, social norms and formalities, social stability, all take precedence over mere individual fulfilment. And if Wayland has to sacrifice his inner self to this end, so does she. And all of this, Wharton insists, is indeed innocence.

May Welland is rarely in the forefront of the novel, but the more I think about this, the more important her role appears to be. Shadowy though her presence is, it is her actions in the background that determine the outcome. The novel may be read simply as a sad love story; and as such, it is as exquisite as anything by Turgenev. But while it portrays unfulfilled lives with great sympathy, it also raises, it seems to me, uncomfortable questions on whether the price to be paid for personal fulfilment is a price that is worth paying. The gentleness and, indeed, the gentility of the writing cover matters considerably more disturbing.

“Home of the Gentry” by Ivan Turgenev

“Home of the Gentry” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, Penguin Classics


I wonder if it’s the general case that we respond more keenly to tender love stories in advancing middle age than we do in our younger years. Or whether I am merely projecting my own reactions on to others, mistaking what is specific in my case for what is general. Certainly when I first read Turgenev’s Home of the Gentry as a seventeen-year-old, I thought it, to be frank, a bit soppy and sentimental, but excused it on the grounds that the author had gone on to write Fathers and Sons, which dealt with matters that were, as I then thought, of far more serious import. But reading Home of the Gentry again after a gap of nearly forty years, I found myself not merely enjoying the story, but being affected by it. Now, either I have become more soppy and romantic (with a small “r”) with advancing years; or I have become more aware of the importance of private emotions, even when these emotions are not of the kind that are expressed in anguished raging on stormy heaths, but are, rather, quiet, subdued, and gentle – or, as I’d have put it in my teenage years, “soppy”.

The setting is familiar: Russian Provincial – but very different from the nightmare vision of Russian Provincial that Gogol gave us in Dead Souls and in The Government Inspector: Turgenev’s imagination was as far from the Gogolian as may be imagined. The very first sentence sets the tone:

A bright spring day was drawing towards evening; small pink clouds stood high in a clear sky and seemed not so much to float pat as to recede into the very depths of the blue. (Translated by Richard Freeborn)

We are in a world that is gentle and lyrical. There are, it is true, still people in this world who can be foolish and thoughtless and even malicious, and their foolishness and thoughtlessness and malice can certainly create pain and unhappiness; but, in this fictional environment, there is nothing even remotely close to a Gogolian inferno.

Turgenev, having had one full length novel (Rudin) behind him, now knew better than to introduce too many characters too quickly, and expect the reader to remember who they all are and how they are related to each other: he is careful also not to overload so short a novel with too many characters. Here, he introduces the characters one by one, and adopts the simple and nonetheless effective scheme of giving us a couple of pages or so on each character as they are introduced. This certainly slows down the pace, but there is no need to push the pace in this opening section, especially in a novel such as this where the overall tempo, in keeping with the content, is gentle and relaxed; and it means also that the characters are all firmly registered in the reader’s mind: in the first few chapters of Rudin, I had to keep referring to the list of characters to remind myself who was who: here, such a list is not supplied, and is not needed.

The last character to be introduced here is Lavretsky, who, alongside Liza, is the principal protagonist of the novel; and, in Lavretsky’s case, instead of a few pages of background information, we are given a few chapters that contain enough material for a whole series of novels. We are told not only of Lavretsky’s past, but of his family – of his overbearing grandfather; his father, who had defied parental authority by marrying a peasant woman, but who had subsequently lived most of his life in Europe, leaving his wife at home; of the growing and unexpected affection the grandfather develops for his peasant daughter-in-law; and so on. And surprisingly, even amidst all this personal history, a political theme of sorts emerges, though it is not one I had expected from the notoriously Westernised Turgenev: there is a clear contrast between, on the one hand, the traditional Russian values of gentleness and of quiet, uncomplaining fortitude, as exemplified by Lavretsky’s mother; and, on the other hand, the glittering but shallow European values, as exemplified by the dissipated lifestyle led in Europe by Lavretsky’s father. Of course, Turgenev was too fine a novelist to make this dichotomy over-schematic: the grandfather, Russian to his soul, is hardly a pleasant person, despite his growing affection for his daughter-in-law; and his daughter, Lavretsky’s aunt, is presented as a bitter and twisted soul; and, of course, there is still serfdom, which is, in effect, slavery. But the dichotomy is there all the same, and is reinforced in other aspects of the novel. Lavretsky’s father, for instance, when he returns, comes armed with half-digested European ideas, and imposes upon his boy a system of education based on the writings of the European writer Rousseau; as a consequence, Lavretsky’s childhood becomes a living hell. Later on,  Lavretsky’s wife,  shallow, pleasure-seeking, and mendacious, finds her natural element in the bright lights and glitter of Parisian life. Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, we have Liza, a product of the Russian provinces, sincere, loving, and honest, and capable of great depths of feeling. In short, like Tatyana in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, who is an obvious model, she has Russian soul.

Lavretsky’s turning away from Paris in disappointment after being deceived by his frivolous wife, and finding himself back home and attracted to Liza, a flower of Russian womanhood, clearly has political implications. Lavretsky’s homecoming is more than merely literal: it is also a sort of spiritual homecoming – a homecoming to traditional and unspoilt Russian values. This doesn’t mean that Turgenev was a Salvophile underneath all his well-publicised Western leanings, but it does indicate that, despite everything, he had a profound sentimental attachment to his homeland. If in other works he had expressed his horror for the various monstrous injustices and cruelties practised in Mother Russia, he gives expression here to his sentiment, and both are valid: our attachments are, after all, more complex than we imagine.

This contrast between imported European fripperies and the true depths of the Russian soul seems to be everywhere in Russian literature, once one starts looking for it. Its seeds are clearly present in Eugene Onegin, where Onegin, the restless Byronic hero, fails to recognise the worth of the Russian Tatyana until it is too late. It is clearly present in War and Peace, where the Pierre-Hélène-Natasha triangle (note the French name!) clearly reprises the Lavretsky-Varvara-Liza triangle of this novel. And there is another homecoming, both literal and spiritual, from the bright lights of Paris to Russian Provincial in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, although here Madame Ranevsky is unable either to reject the Parisian fripperies that had ensnared her, or, come to terms with the changing face of the home to which she has returned. But by the time Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard, this theme had undergone many transformations: Home of the Gentry, written nearly fifty or so years earlier in the mid nineteenth century, presents this theme in, as it were, a purer form.

The glittering frivolities of Europe and the true soul of Mother Russia; the return from one to the other, and recognition of deeper values; all these themes are here, but Turgenev, in this novel at least, does not seem very interested in exploring their political implications. This in itself is surprising: at a time when the conflict between Western-looking modernisers and traditional Slavophiles was very marked and very bitter, to introduce such themes without delving into their political implications does seem a trifle odd. It is hard not to get the feeling that Turgenev, whose commitment to Western liberal and democratic values was later to make him so controversial, was drawn into political themes only unwillingly – that, had he had the choice, he would have preferred to have focussed not on big political themes at all, but, rather, on personal emotions; that he would have preferred, in short, to have continued to write delicate and melancholy love stories. Commentators impatient with such matters may focus on those themes that hint at least at a political dimension, but this is not – much to the disappointment of my teenage self – what Turgenev himself seems particularly interested in.

And what he focuses on instead I did not, this time round, find trivial: it is after all the accumulation of all our personal joys and sorrows that make up the full teeming canvas of human life, and to concentrate on one particular corner of that canvas, and depict it with such loving tenderness, does not seem to me an unworthy task even for a great novelist. Well, perhaps not a great novelist quite yet: Fathers and Sons was still to come; but nonetheless, a novelist who, after the partial success of Rudin, now had greater control over his technique, who could create both mood and explore psychological depth, and who could, above all, convey as few other novelists could the sheer sadness of our disappointed and disappointing lives.

In his next novels – On the Eve, and, especially, Fathers and Sons – the political aspects of his themes become more apparent: but the quietly elegiac tone of Home of the Gentry demands to be taken on its own terms. Ad on its own terms, it is as touching and as affecting a love story I think I have encountered. Turgenev was particularly good, I think, at communicating what it feels like to be in love, and, slight though some readers may think it, I found it an unmitigated delight from beginning to end. Turgenev’s authorial presence, civilised and refined, was one I found particularly congenial to my temperament. In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, translator Richard Freeborn writes of the novel:

To present-day tastes its treatment of love may seem low-toned, even a trifle mawkish; perhaps the nightingales have a way of singing a little too appropriately and the stars shine just a little too sweetly for our neon-dazzled eyes.

Perhaps I find myself welcoming the soft, gentle light of Turgenev’s novel precisely because I am tired of the incessant neon-dazzling. But this is not, I think, to imply that that this novel is a sort of escapism, a refuge from an unattractive reality: rather, it depicts, with consummate delicacy of feeling and a mastery of craft, those regions of our human experience that we are perhaps a bit too quick to dismiss as “mawkish”, but which are nonetheless as real as anything lit garishly in neon.