Julie Bertagna lives in Glasgow with her husband and daughter. She has worked as a teacher and a features journalist and still writes occasional features for the Scottish press. She writes fiction for young people of all ages and her books Exodus and Zenith, set in a future drowned world, have an adult readership as well. All of Julie's older novels have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal, The Opposite of Chocolate was shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Fiction Prize, and Exodus for many awards, including the Whitbread; it won a Friends of the Earth Eco Prize. Her latest book, Zenith, is the sequel to Exodus, and she's currently working on the third book, Aurora. Here Julie discusses Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.
Julie Bertagna on The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
In Venice a few years ago, the fictional trail that Salley Vickers' Miss Garnet's Angel had cast over the city had become a public hazard. Turn a corner and you'd crash into someone in a daze, eyes cast heavenwards for a glimpse of a stone angel, discovering the city as Miss Garnet does in the novel. But I was on my own literary pilgrimage and one foggy morning I found what I was looking for in an empty, dead-end calle. I stood covered in goosebumps at an oak door with a large, round, brass doorbell engraved with the name 'Curtis'. This was the back entrance to the Palazzi Barbero, owned by the Curtis family whose twin Venetian palaces were once the gathering-place for talents such as Henry James and John Singer Sargent. If I'd had the climbing skills of my own self aged 10 I would have scaled the high wall and dropped into the enclosed garden where James wrote The Aspern Papers, then crept into the palazzo rooms where he set key scenes of The Wings of the Dove. But there was no way in and all I could do was gaze up at the shuttered windows, imagining Milly, Kate and Densher inside. I saw them as if they lived in a fictional membrane co-existing with the real world.
As I stood in the drifting fog, my imagined scene began to feel more real than the hazy, dream-like city around me. And I found myself thinking of Newland Archer at the end of Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Age of Innocence, as he walks away from a shuttered window in Paris, where an imagined reconciliation is 'more real to me here than if I went up'.
Opening an email the other day from my new US publishers, I was suddenly in the company of Newland Archer again for the first time since that day in Venice. The publisher's address was Fifth Avenue, but it wasn't today's Fifth Avenue of Saks and Tiffany's I was imaginatively walking down, it was the post-revolutionary New York of the 1870s where Edith Wharton grew up.
The Age of Innocence is about the old tribal families of New York and the 'dangerous' influx of new people who made it the city it is today. It's the story of how civilization works, how the individual becomes civilized by the human tribe. In Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, Wharton shows the fire of the individual spirit stamped upon, as the would-be lovers are sacrificed to the overriding needs of the tribe to survive and thrive.
It's a deeply compassionate story of the lies and suffering that families and societies are built upon, silent miseries that are as much a part of their foundation as love, protection and happiness. The doomed love between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, whose marriage to a Polish Count has ended in disaster ('the woman you'd have chucked everything for: only you didn't,' Archer's son shocks him by saying many years later, when the wife he did not abandon has died), reveals a brutality at the roots of civilization, a communal instinct that is ruthless when tribal society is threatened by the primitive passion its laws and customs have been designed to control.
In the end Newland and Ellen succumb to tribal law. What's worse, Wharton asks: to be cast out of your world or to surrender your dreams? What is a well-lived life? Is it following our desires and risking everything else? Or killing our dreams to avoid tearing apart family and risking social breakdown? Are dreams and desires at odds with 'real life' or the essence of a fully-lived life?
Wharton drops us into respectable old New York, gathered for a production of Faust in the 'shabby red and gold boxes' of a theatre that is old-fashioned enough to keep away the dreaded influx of 'new people' with new money, new ideas and new ways. Here we have the conflict of the book: Faustian temptation and soul-bargaining; vibrant incomers rattling the stale conventions of the establishment.
Wild, savage imagery invades the sedate drawing rooms and gardens, the operas and the balls, to let you feel just how close the danger of breakdown is - glimpses of vortexes and precipices, pyramids and glaciers, the ladies' furs and 'armoury' and the 'captured curiosities' of the writer and artist tribe. The imagery is precise, inspired and never overplayed. In the last, rending moments Newland and Ellen are ever to spend together, the evening 'sweeps on like some senseless river running and running because it did not know how to stop'.
Ellen, who knows what it means to live in a desperate hinterland, urges Newland to 'look, not at visions, but at realities'. But for Newland - 'dazed with inarticulate pain' - 'The only reality to me is this.' Is reality outside of us or is it what we experience inside? Newland and Ellen's tragedy is that they were born a generation too soon. Newland's children enjoy a loosening of the constricting old ways, brought about by the influence of the 'new New Yorkers' and see fate 'not as a master but as an equal'.
The introduction to my Penguin Classics edition sees Newland, at the end of the book, as a man come to terms with his renunciation of Ellen and a life lived for the common good. What I read is something much more uneasy - a portrait of a surrendered man who has made a dignified struggle to be who he is in a world that won't let him find out. Newland has closed the shutters on his dream of another kind of life and found a way to live in 'the shadow of reality' - by keeping his dreams locked in his imagination. We are left to wonder whether that is his triumph or his tragedy.