As America inaugurates its new president I’ve been reading Edith Warton’s The Age of Innocence.
The Age of Innocence portrays New York society in the 1870s, just before the advent of the modern age. Life is hemmed in by social niceties. By the end of the book, however, there is proof of the old truth that restrictions we struggle against when young, leave a hole when they are gone. 1870s New York for all its hypocritical tendency to gloss over truth, understands human nature. Citizens in the environs of Washington Square work as a team to corral humanity’s wilder impulses and unpredictability. And of course, within a few decades those wilder impulses were to destroy the Europe where New Yorkers purchased their dresses and took their cultural holidays.
The Age of Innocence is beautifully written, portraying a lost world with a wonderful eye for detail. Like 1870s New York itself, the story plays out elegantly, with huge emotion struggling beneath the surface. That’s what I liked most about the book. I’d just come from a modern story where the emotion was in your face, and the violence graphic. The contrast with The Age of Innocence was striking, and I have to say, welcome. There is violence, but it sits tightly controlled in a social pressure cooker. There is emotion, but it is subdued like a wild horse broken by a trainer. There are victories without cheering, and shattering defeats that pass without tears.
The Age of Innocence New York becomes more relevant to the modern age the further it disappears into the past. It sits there as it did in Newland Archer’s memory, deeply imperfect while he lived it, but providing a counterbalance to the modernity that replaced it.