Saturday, October 16, 2010

Digested Classics: The Age of Innocence

Humor from John Crace in The Guardian:

The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton (1920)

When Newland Archer arrived, the curtain had just gone up. "Darn it," he thought. "I am 10 seconds early." At least New York society had not witnessed his faux-pas.

He gazed towards the divine May Welland, seated in the Mingott box, and frowned when he saw her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, sitting next to her. What would New York think of the reintroduction of the scarlet woman into society? He and May looked into one another's eyes and Newland knew she had understood he wished their betrothal to be announced that very night.

The engagement would normally have been the talk of New York, yet it was the return of Mrs Mingott's other granddaughter, the Countess Ellen, that dominated salon conversation.

"I hear she left her husband," said Mr Sillerton Jackson. "How scandalous these Europeans are!"

"How dare you, sir!" Newland exclaimed. "She left her husband to escape his beatings."

"A New York wife would take a beating in private," replied Mr Sillerton Jackson. "I find myself compromised by our acquaintance as you are to be married to a Mingott."

These sentiments echoed throughout New York until Mrs Archer persuaded her cousins, the Van der Luydens, New York's most powerful family, to invite the Countess to tea.

"Thank goodness for that," New York society sighed.

Newland was irritated to be summoned to see his employer, Mr Letterblair. Newland had more pressing things to occupy his mind than work; how was New York wearing its waistcoats this season? "Mrs Mingott has requested your assistance," said Mr Letterblair. "The Countess Olenska is seeking a divorce."

Archer understood the delicacy of the situation. "New York will expel the Mingotts from society if you pursue this" he said, "and my engagement to May will also make me an outcast."

A maelstrom of emotion coursed through the Countess's bosom. "Very well," she said. "Come and see me for 10 minutes in a few months' time when I am staying in Skuytercliff," she whispered, overwhelmed by feelings that could not be expressed in New York society.

Newland urged his horses on. "Sorry I'm a bit late," he said, though both he and Ellen knew that what he was really saying was he loved her deeply, yet did not want to compromise her by making her his mistress.

"I've got to go," Ellen replied, though both she and Newland knew what she was really saying was that she loved him deeply, yet did not want to compromise him by becoming his mistress.

Newland went to visit May. "We must get married this year," he begged. "I am aware you once had feelings for a Mrs Rushworth," May replied. "If you have any outstanding obligations to her, then I release you." Newland felt a surge of love for May. Particularly as she didn't seem to have guessed his feelings for the Countess.

"Why do we have to honeymoon in Europe?" May inquired. "Because it is our Henry James moment," Newland replied.

Locked in the loveless marriage decreed by New York, Newland was tormented by his passion for Ellen. He hurried to Boston. "It's been two years and I wanted us to spend another five minutes together," he cried. They kissed, a kiss that signalled they might have intercourse some time in the next few years.

"I'm pregnant," said May, having secretly been aware of her husband's feelings for Ellen all along.

"I am returning to Europe," Ellen announced, and all New York breathed a sigh of relief at such a satisfactory conclusion.

Twenty-six years later, Newland stood outside Ellen's Paris apartment with his son, Dallas. May had died some years earlier and Dallas had suggested they visited.

"Come on up," said Dallas.

"No," said Newland.

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