The Age of Innocence
by D. Appleton & Co. 1920. 8vo, vi-j-3G5 pp. $2.00.
The Age of Innocence is a piquant and daring title to be chosen by so skilled an interpreter of the sophisticated, so brilliant an analyst of the subtle and complex, as Mrs. Wharton has always proved herself. But we soon discover that the title is merely a name for that Era of Definite Standards exemplified by the early seventies in New York and elsewhere, and that, by making that special epoch the real subject of her shrewd and searching analysis, Mrs. Wharton has added another victory to her varied triumphs in the field of fiction in which Lily Bart and Madame de Treymes and Ethan Frome still form an incongruous group of conquerors.
In this brilliant picture of New York’s most ‘exclusive’ set in the days of its innocency, Mrs. Wharton has given us a real social document to which the perspective of time will give the value of an historic record. We see the drawing-rooms, the streets, the whole social fabric of 1870, presented with such accuracy of detail, such meticulous, and at the same time such artistic, exactness, that we feel as though the stage were visibly set before our eyes with the discarded properties so familiar to those whose youth was contemporary with the presidency of General Grant.
Perhaps Mrs. Wharton has produced the impression she wished to create by deliberately using the art of the day she describes — for the Age of Innocence is reproduced with the painstaking brush of detailed realism. On this exquisitely painted background,into this perfectly evolved Victorian scene, is boldly sketched, in the modern impressionistic manner, the charming Madame Olenska, bringing with her an aroma of Europe and the great world, wearing a halo of tragedy and romance, and exhaling foreign breaths of mysterious adventures very disturbing to the correct New Yorkers, who ‘ dreaded scandal more than disease’ and who ‘placed decency above courage.’
The contrasting characters of Ellen Olenska and of May Welland, as seen through the eyes of the man they both loved, are balanced and contrasted with subtlety and understanding, for the very human hero of the tale had eyes to see, though he had been blindfolded from early childhood according to the fashion of the day.
The lesser characters in this comédie — or tragédie — de mœurs form a most competent supporting company to the three chief actors. They are completely in the picture, not merely as types, but as real people, and their manners and morals are as true to time as their bonnets and their buttons.
Aside from being an admirable piece of workmanship, this novel holds the absorbed attention of the reader through as many pages as there are days in the year. The age of Grant gives place at the very end to the age of Roosevelt, and the younger generation tries to teach to the elder the salutary lesson of facing facts. The human drama unfolds itself, truthfully and poignantly, to a conclusion so perfect and so inevitable that it grips the imagination of the middle-aged with something of the sense of a personal reminiscence.