Book Quote Friday: Unlocking the Doors

Some worlds, through their isolation, exclusivity or general elevation from the common person on the street, are closed off to the majority of people and exist as islands, buffeted only gently by the more turbulent wider seas. That is, until someone from within chooses to write a book about them and throws the doors open for all to see. When this happens, more often than not, those inside are outraged and try to drag the doors shut, whilst the excluded crane their necks to see even the smallest glimpse of how the other half live. 'The Age of Innocence' is much like this.

            New York high society in the 1870s was the setting for Edith Wharton’s childhood and adolescence and this book, written in 1920 in a fit of nostalgia, gave the world its first real glimpse of the privileged and closed-off post-European enclave that existed in New York at that time. She unlocked her doors, so to speak. It won her the Pulitzer in 1921 (and she was the first woman to win it) and it was one of her rare bestsellers, so lots of people obviously agreed it was worth writing about. 
The Age of Innocence (Collector's Library)At the start of the novel, the second paragraph of the first chapter, in fact, Wharton uses the metaphor of the old Opera House to describe the inward-looking fearfulness of this ‘world of fashion’, who exist as the cream of and the hostages of the ‘old’ New York that is rapidly being left behind for the ‘New’. All sorts of ‘new people’ are flooding the city, the old ways are being diluted or forgotten and the people concerned are desperate not to acknowledge this or accept change as a positive thing rather than a destroyer. It’s interesting that the ‘old system’ being forgotten is a crystallized version of European aristocracy, with a plethora of dusty Dutch surnames and a custom of ineffectual movement within a microcosm of high culture and inter-marriage, and yet the upset in the story stems from the reappearance of Ellen Olenska, an outsider who has broken with the system and is perhaps representative of a new Europe. (That’s perhaps fodder for another blog post...) In any case, this paragraph is so clever, revealing so much with its talk of the ‘conservatives cherish[ing]…it for being small and incovenient’ and ‘the sentimental cl[inging]…to it for its historic associations’ as a metaphor for high society. In my opinion, it's absolutely superlative: 

‘Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances ‘above the Forties’, of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the  sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the ‘new people’ whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.’

Wharton’s wry style is perfect for exposing the inconsistencies and unquestioned conservatism of her past social circle, and her standpoint, 50 years on, allows her to look upon things with a warm sadness and a knowing eye. So what can we learn from this? Circumstances can be subject matter and a world that might be all you’ve ever known might be novel and fascinating to someone else.  Also, that if there is conflict worth exploring (and there certainly is in ‘The Age of Innocence’) then the person who can achieve both intimacy and distance from it might be the one to convey it to everybody else. That person might be you. Interestingly, it was noted by Carl van Doren that:

‘Mrs Wharton’s triumph is that she has described these rites and surfaces and burdens as familiarly as if she loved them and as lucidly as if she hated them.’

              Therefore, having a beady eye and a slight outsider’s isolation might mean that you can cut your intimate knowledge through with questions and expose what you feel to be the inconsistencies and anomalies of your circumstance. If you do it at a turning point, you can sit atop the fulcrum and comment on both sides; if you do it right, you could end up taking the snapshot of the age.

The House of Mirth (Enriched Classics (Simon & Schuster))              Another thing that really connects me with this book is the ill-disguised linkage to the US show 'Gossip Girl' which is about the same, modern day, strata of society, something they clearly know and exploit to the amusement of the initiated. They actually put on a stage version of ‘The Age of Innocence’ in the second series, with Blair Waldorf playing the wronged Countess Olenska and Serena van der Woodsen aptly cast as May Welland. Also, Newland Archer sounds suspiciously like Nathaniel Archibald (indeed, he played a similar ‘questioning’ role in the first few seasons) and the fact that Lily and Bart Bass were the show’s power couple isn’t a coincidence, considering that their names come to together to make ‘Lily Bart’, the heroine of ‘The House of Mirth’ another of Wharton’s books. ‘Gossip Girl’ lets TV audiences into these privileged New York circles in the way that Edith Wharton’s work did in its day.

            Perhaps this is why the celebrity autobiography is so popular? It could be that the doors we’re desperate to unlock nowadays open onto insider parties, royal yachts and film sets, expensive rehab facilities and the corridors of power…


  1. The Age of Innocence / Gossip Girl connection is spot on! I think the author of the books actually mentioned that she wanted to write a kind of modern day Age of Innocence. I like The Age of Innocence better, but the idea of a modern day Age of Innocence totally appeals to me. Regarding the episode where they do the stage production: I remember that the casting made sense to me at the time (perhaps due to the plot), but now thinking about it, Serena's free-spirited nature seems a bit more akin to Madame Olenska, whereas Blair's tendency to be a more rigid seems a little more in line with May Welland. I think if the school production had been done in season 1, the roles would have definitely been reversed. Nate being Blair's boyfriend but sort of into her more free-spirited best friend, Serena. Serena coming back to NYC as an outcast just like Madame Olenska.

    Have you read The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton? It's very good and underrated! (by that I mean, I don't think it's assigned as much in schools as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth or even Ethan Frome)

  2. Thanks! True about the characters of Serena and Blair being more the otherway around, although Blair is generally a bit more questioning and is willing to go to some darker places (i.e. Chuck), whereas Serena kinda just accepts and breezes through.

    Physically, Serena is very 'Diana the huntress', as is May Welland (tall, leggy, blonde) whereas Blair is very Ellen Olenska/''Juno', as she knows the dark side of relationships much better (again Chuck/Ellen bad European marriage)and can be a little vengeful and jealous.

    Who knows though! I never did any Wharton at school unfortunately (I'm British), but will add The Custom of the Country to the list! How does it compare against House of Mirth and Ethan Frome? I've only read and re-read AoI, so which would be best next?

    BTW, I love that there's someone else out there who loves a thousand high-brow classics and yet can still discuss charcaterisation on glossy US teen shows :)

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