The Age of Innocence tells the story of a forthcoming society wedding, and the threat to the happy couple from the appearance in their midst of an exotic and beautiful femme fatale, a cousin of the bride. Newland Archer (the name makes a nod to James’s heroine Isabel Archer) is a distinguished lawyer looking forward to his marriage to shy, lovely, sheltered May Welland. But when he meets Countess Ellen Olenska, scandalously separated from her European husband, a Polish count, he falls hopelessly in love and blights his marriage to May by failing to break off his relationship with the countess. Meanwhile, in a typical Wharton twist, Newland Archer’s bride may be timid, but she is determined to marry her fiance and uses all the power of New York society to bring him to heel.
As with all her New York novels, The Age of Innocence makes an ironic commentary on the cruelties and hypocrisies of Manhattan society in the years before, during and after the Great War.
Edith Wharton (nee Newbold Jones), who was born into a rich and distinguished New York family in 1862, is perhaps a great city’s greatest novelist. From The House of Mirth (1905) to The Custom of the Country (1913) to her masterpiece The Age of Innocence, Wharton’s subject was the changing scene of New York City, the foibles of its fashionable elites and the ambitions of the “new people” who, she felt, threatened its traditional culture. Wharton was also close to Henry James whom she described as “perhaps the most intimate friend I ever had, though in many ways we were so different.” Together, from 1900 to the end of the Great War, the work of James and Wharton dominates American literature.