They never knew what it meant to be tempted, but you did…
People always want to romanticize the past. We like to believe that love was different—more refined, more pure—before Bachelor-style fauxmances and Facebook relationship updates became de rigueur. But was it really?
Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence explores these issues of love, desire, and betrayal against the backdrop of high society New York City in the 1870s. The novel centers on Newland Archer, a gentleman and a member of one of New York’s best families. When the story begins, Newland is engaged to May Welland, a pretty but dim young lady whose social status matches his own. But Newland’s respectable and well-planned marriage match is thrown into question with the arrival of May’s cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, a mysterious and beautiful woman who has fled from her abusive husband.
The Countess’ actions—her separation from her husband, her flouting of the upper class’ stifling codes of conduct—are scandalous to most of New York society, but Newland finds himself intrigued by her freedom of spirit. The two eventually fall into a secret love affair of hushed whispers and stolen moments (and yellow roses!). They long to be together, but the obligations of family and duty weight heavily upon them:
“I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”
She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?”
Edith Wharton knew of what she wrote. Her own marriage was an unhappy one (one of her doctors even advised her to write fiction to relieve her nervous tension—good advice it seems); she eventually moved to France in 1908 and later obtained a divorce in 1913. She was BFFs with literary giants like Henry James and Sinclair Lewis and had various love affairs. Wharton was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Yale and in 1921 The Age of Innocence helped her become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Like the Countess Olenska, Wharton seems to have had no taste for arbitrary propriety, instead choosing to live her life as she saw fit.
The 1993 film adaptation of the novel, directed by Martin Scorsese, stars Daniel Day Lewis as Newland Archer, Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska and a young Winona Ryder at May. Daniel Day Lewis (henceforth known as DDL because I cannot be expected to type his name over and over again) is young and dashing, if perhaps a smidge too serious. I didn’t imagine Newland Archer to be quite so emo when I was reading the novel, but his performance is generally very good. Pfeiffer and Ryder are both great as well; Pfeiffer has just the right blend of charisma and vulnerability, while Ryder effortlessly exudes May’s trusting naivety.
Scorsese, who might seem a strange choice for a period drama about rigid social rules and stifled passions, mostly gets it right with this adaptation. The movie takes itself very seriously (which is to be expected when you combine the Scors’ with DDL), but the Academy Award winning costumes are sumptuous and the art direction is gorgeous. There are montages of glittering jewels, lace handkerchiefs and crisp white gloves, and enough shots of fancy food to make you very, very hungry. The chemistry between DDL and Pfeiffer is as smokin’ hot as the shots of roaring fires that pop up over and over again throughout the film. Chaste hand holding and stolen kisses have never been so sexy—I actually had to fan myself when Newland pressed a kiss against the Countess’ bare wrist.
I could have done without the voiceover narration and many of the other directorial choices (quick inserts of written words, letter texts spoken directly to the camera, DDL superimposed over water in the final flashback montage), but the emotion of the film is pitch perfect. The stiff social rules of 1870’s New York are cruelly apparent and the heartbreak of Newland and Ellen’s thwarted love affair is palpable. As in the novel, May’s feelings largely remain a mystery to both Newland and the viewer until the final moments of the film, when the secret truth of the character comes to light.
The genius of Wharton’s Innocence (and of Scorsese’s adaptation) is that it cuts through the veneer of etiquette to reveal that Old New York society was plagued by the same desires and machinations, comprises and dashed hopes, as we are today. Their wealth, familial ties and manners do not shield any of the novel’s characters from heartbreak; rather, these things exacerbate that heartbreak, forcing people into preordained roles that, while proper, are ultimately hollow.
Despite our tendency to romanticize the past, reading and watching The Age of Innocence made me realize that our modern version of love might not be so bad after all. Sure, we’ve got fake celebrity romances and high divorce rates and sexting (the horror)…but at the end of the day we’re mostly allowed to love whoever we want, rich or poor, divorced or unmarried, Rockefeller or rock star. Things could definitely be worse – just ask Newland Archer.
Check out the trailer for The Age of Innocence below and lose yourself in the delicious angst of repressed passion (and DDL’s glorious mane):
Jill Slattery is an avid reader, writer and consumer of all things pop culture. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and a wonderful pooch named Albus Dumbledog. When she's not writing about romance she's busy writing about desserts over at the Dessert Patrol.