In year 12 I read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton for my English class. By which I mean: I was forced to read The Age of Innocence in order to pass English. I was initially skeptical. On the cover was a picture of a woman in a purple sash doing archery at one of those ridiculous 19th century garden parties, and the whole thing stank of Anne of Green Gables. Obediently, I read it. And then I read the House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome, and then I gave up trying to find the same qualities of The Age of Innocence in Wharton’s other books, and contented myself by reading it over and over again.
Some people are outraged that they have to read and analyse books in English class. Not because reading is stupid or anything like that –it’s the analysis, the picking apart of a text that is unpleasant and ‘ruins the book’. Or merely reading a book not of their own choosing is somehow violating, eg: never would I choose to read this, but if I did choose to I think the experience would have been completely different- I may even have enjoyed it. But there are others who get really into the books they read for school and re-read them years after they have fulfilled the requirements of the course. The words of the text become almost soothing in their familiarity.
I am slightly embarrassed that, for me, The Age of Innocence was one of those comfort-object type novels that you sleep with under your pillow, like The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird, or something by Vonnegut or Orwell.
It’s a society novel set in the late 19th century, all of the characters are mega-rich and it’s a glittery love-triangle and critique of a foreign class and time that I have never been personally offended by, or really thought about in terms of value judgment. Nothing in The Age of Innocence is going to make you kill a president or inspire you to become a lawyer and fight for justice. But I loved it.
The novel is described as a social tragedy and it will surprise no one that it is a love story with an unfortunate ending. Firstly, the lovers never get to have sex. They never fuck. At no point. It’s outrageous. They are thwarted by social taboo, and the protagonist’s wife, and then the wife’s pregnancy, and the genteel distaste that the protagonists’ would-be lover has for the whole situation, that is to say, it all becomes a bit too trashy for her and she escapes to Europe. Meanwhile Wharton’s wholly ironic, wholly sympathetic prose carries the whole thing along, biting when you feel things becoming a bit too sentimental.
That’s not the tragedy. This is the tragedy: in the last dozen pages we skip ahead 30 years. After a long and boring marriage, the protagonists’ wife finally dies one of those convenient 19th-century deaths, and the original couple finally has another chance. But the protagonist blows it, and presumably goes away and dies, or something.
He blows it in a particularly hideous way: he is sitting outside her elegant Paris apartment a few years before WWI. He looks up at her balcony. He considers going up to visit- in fact, she is expecting him. But no, he thinks to himself, I shan’t go. I’m 57 now. My life is over. I shall just think about what it could be like and it will be better that way. So he gets up and goes home. And it’s a bit disappointing but kind of poignant and neat in way that makes you feel like it was the best thing for him to do.
For quite a long time I thought this was the ideal. Don’t you think the best love stories are the tragic ones? I asked a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend. That’s concerning, he said, uh, no? But I thought that these love stories were perfect: there was an unsullied potential that couldn’t be damaged by real life. Because, I supposed, all love stories were tragedies - either they never got off the ground, or they got off the ground, reached amazing heights, and then drifted back down again like a stale helium balloon. So, when my own romantic endeavors flumped back to earth I would console myself with the idea that at least I was doing the thing properly. Or, more often, as I gazed at metaphorical balconies of my own, I would solemnly congratulate myself for having done nothing, as was good and right.
Now I can’t help thinking about how closely The Age of Innocence resembled Wharton’s own life. She was a divorcee, like the protagonists’ lover, and she did live alone in Paris towards the end of her life. Her own love stories were unrelentingly tragic. Perhaps she liked to thinking of someone looking fondly at her balcony and not coming up.
I haven’t read The Age of Innocence for quite some time now. I tried recently, but I didn’t enjoy it was much as I had before: I found the protagonist kind of boring and the basis of his appeal unfathomable. And both women were in desperate need of some kind of hobby. It was like the novel had decayed while I was out learning that ascending the stairs leading to the balcony was rather exciting, even if was sometimes disappointing. Perhaps I should not have been surprised: though my English teacher said that title referred to the time before the First World War, it could also recall the innocence of all the characters, a more general innocence, more closely related to naiveté than virtue.
Jennifer Hauptman is a young writer and medical student living in Warragul, Victoria. You can follow her on twitter: @hauptmania
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.