(Click on photo to enlarge.) Read the first lines and see how a nice snobby tone
is established right on page one.
Newland Archer is from “good family” and is about to become engaged to May
Welland, also of “good family.” We are dropped easily into the late 19th C
New York scene and are about to follow the gossip and cares of a few of the
most important people in the social circles of the day.
Enter a disreputable cousin of May’s, the Countess Olenska, and things get
interesting. Add an important hostess who throws a ball once a year–
always on Opera night to prove that she has everything under control. And
spice up this addition a little by making the hostess of “good family” but
penniless, who has married a newcomer to New York society. He has
plenty of money, for she has the only house with its own ballroom,
but he comes from questionable breeding and one might also question
his source of income. (shades of The Great Gatsby)
Still! One goes to a party because everyone else is going to the party and
as long as there is no real evidence of scandal, nothing is said aloud.
When scandal does strike, it is devastating. In this society of Wharton’s,
scandal is dreaded more than disease. When a man’s reputation is
ruined does a wife hasten back to the safe haven of her family, or is
it “her place” to stand by her husband?
And there is some old-fashioned sexist talk as when gossip of a
straying husband illicits a comment from old Mrs. Thorley Rushworth,
“Undoubtedly foolish of the man, but somehow always criminal of the
In the meantime, and All between time, there is the little problem of
Newland Archer and Countess Olenska . . .
It’s a rattling good read and by the end of the book you know them all
on a first name/family basis—especially if you’ve kept little notes as
you go along!
And if nothing else, you’ll know that to give a really good dinner party, you
must hire a chef, borrow two footmen, serve Roman punch, get roses from
Henderson, and have menus on gilt-edged cards. “The Roman punch made
all the difference–in its implications–since it signified either canvas-backs
or terrapin, two soups, a hot and a cold sweet, full décolletage with short
sleeves and guests of a proportionate importance.” Got it?
The Age of Innocence won the Pulitzer Prize in 1920. I loved it.