In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.

I cannot remember where I first heard about Edith Wharton, but I’ve been keen to read something by her for a while and managed to pick up this novel in a charity shop at the end of last year. Along with novels such as The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome and The Buccaneers, The Age of Innocence, is one of Wharton’s best known and most highly acclaimed works. It was in fact her twelfth novel and it won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize; the first time the prize had been awarded to a woman.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The back cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition has the following summary of the novel: “In the narrow, elitist world of upper-class New York, Newland Archer awaits his marriage to May Welland, a young girl ‘who knew nothing and expected everything’. Into this potentially delicate situation bursts the mysterious and exotic Countess Olenska – on the run from an appallingly unhappy marriage.”

The novel captures in some detail the lives, manners and sensibilities of the tight circle of exclusive, upper class families of 1870s New York city. Our protagonist is Newland Archer, a young gentleman who, at the opening of the novel, is engaged to the beautiful but sheltered May Welland. This matching is exactly the kind that the other New York families approve of, and one which Newland Archer also believes to be the right thing for him.

However, when May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska, returns to New York after fleeing her Polish husband, everything which Archer has formerly accepted now comes into question. At first he is troubled by the appearance of this strong, independent and vaguely scandalous woman, but as he spends more time around her, he becomes more and more intrigued by her originality and her honesty and begins to doubt more and more whether the respectable, safe marriage everyone else has planned for him is indeed the right thing for him.

The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!

What follows is a gripping, intelligent and expertly written tale of a man caught between his respectable yet totally superficial existence with May and his passion for the exotic, authentic Countess Olenska.

This is a brilliant book, told with great skill. The dialogue is superb throughout and there are moments of incredible psychological insight, as well as superbly constructed scenes and plot twists. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for anyone who has not read the novel before, but I will say that this is a novel that refuses to pull any punches. This is a tale that I shall not forget for many a year. Superb.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (who was a good friend of Edith Wharton’s) or The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.