Edith Jones was born into a wealthy New York family in 1862. Her family was part of a closely-knit social circle that included all the oldest and wealthiest families in New York. Edith Jones married Edward Wharton in 1885, she had been engaged before, but that relationship had come to grief, and her mother, responsive to the social view that said girls should be married young or risk the fate of the old maid, was eager to see her daughter settled.
The marriage, though not really a love match, was in many ways liberating for Wharton, as from that point on she was free, much freer that the other women of her era because of her independent wealth. It was not until however, the early years of the twentieth century that the marriage came to seem more of a mental and physical incarceration than a bearable misalignment of interests, and, again, a thematic strain that is carried through the body of Wharton’s work concerns relationships in which one partner feels entrapped and restricted by the limitations of the other (Newland Archer and May Welland)
Wharton wrote “The Age of Innocence” just after the First World War, but the novel depicts a society that is in many ways the “antithesis” of war-devastated Europe. “Old New York”, Wharton’s term to describe this wealthy and elite class at the top of the developing city’s social hierarchy, was a society intent on maintaining its own rigid stability. To Wharton Old New York imposed in its members set rules and expectations for practically everything: manners, fashions, and behaviours.
Those who broke the rules were punished by the other members. She was berated in her early work for exposing the secrets of old New York to the attentions of the general public and criticised her in later life for writing about an America that her long residency in France supposedly disqualified her from understanding The Age of Innocence is not only a personal recollection of the culture of Wharton’s youth, it is also a historical study of an old-fashioned world on the brink of permanent change.
Her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, makes extensive use of insights gained from the social and natural scientists, as she commemorates a generation of New Yorkers expiring “the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence” But she also remembers New York with a good deal of scorn as a hidebound world, intolerant of personal freedom and almost cruelly inimical to the spirit of imagination. Many of the themes in “The Age of Innocence” are inspired by Wharton’s life experiences.
One of these themes in particular is the way that women were presented in the elite society of New York towards the end of the nineteenth century. Wharton criticised the society for its dread of innovation and lack of civic responsibility, and through such criticism explores the position of women at their time. Wharton introduces us to many women in “The Age of Innocence” all significant to the part they play in the novel, but the two most significant female characters are May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska. Ellen Olenska is May’s cousin, a non-conformist.
She is daringly sexual: her revealing opera dress looks to one appalled observer “like a nightgown,” and another evening dress, a “bold, sheath-like” red velvet robe, with black fur trim and bare arms raises eyebrows with its sensuality. Newland falls in love with her for her defiance of social convention. Ellen has, to the changing of society, left her husband in Europe for the comforts of her home in New York. However when she returns she finds New York very different from the simple paradise she had remembered.
Ellen Olenska in my opinion represents the alternative, the disagreeable taste of ” happiness brought by the disloyalty and cruelty of indifference… ” Ellen is all that Wharton remembers the old New York of her youth lacking: beauty, passion and danger. Ellen returns home after leaving her morally corrupt husband but old New York does not know how to respond to a woman who might or might not have sexually rewarded the secretary who aided her escape from the Count Olenska’s house. “Belonging to a European tradition, Ellen Olenska perhaps best utilises her “own unique and inherent resources” but she does this at the cost of expatriation…
she is seen through a social filter that reduces her image. ” Goodman Nevertheless her family rallies and decides to champion her cause if she does not demand a divorce. We see pressure from her family in the old New York society here towards Ellen Olenska as they don’t want to be associated with someone who they feel is so “unconventional”, just as I feel Wharton was pressured by her family, in particular her mother, and society in her life. Ellen is decidedly original, deflating stuffy New York conventions “at a stroke,” and scattering her quaint little parlor with fresh flowers, obscure Italian paintings, and avant-garde French novels.