When she began writing “The Age of Innocence,” in September, 1919, Edith Wharton needed a best-seller. The economic ravages of the First World War had cut her annual income by about sixty per cent. She’d recently bought and begun to renovate a country house, Pavillon Colombe, in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, where she installed new black-and-white marble floors in the dining room, replaced a “humpy” lawn with seven acres of lavish gardens, built a water-lily pond, and expanded the potager, to name just a few additions. She was still paying rent at her apartment at 53 Rue de Varenne, in Paris—a grand flat festooned with carved-wood cherubs and ornate fireplaces. The costs added up.
Wharton recognized her place in the pyramid of the super-rich: tantalizingly close to the pinnacle, but never quite there. (For her, a difficult financial decision would take the shape of having to give up plans for ornate iron gates at the Mount, her thirty-five-room mansion in Massachusetts.) To continue to live as she was accustomed, she needed a new hit. “The Age of Innocence,” which Wharton produced in seven months, offered her the chance to make money by writing about money—a return to form after four years of war stories that, her publishers frankly told her, weren’t selling. From her perch thousands of miles from the gatekeepers of New York society, and nearly fifty years on from the eighteen-seventies setting she had chosen, Wharton invited the hoi polloi right into the living rooms of Manhattan’s upper crust, for an insider’s exposé. “Fate had planted me in New York,” she writes in her memoir, “A Backward Glance,” “and my instinct as a story-teller counselled me to use the material nearest to hand.”
The Pictorial Review serialized the novel for eighteen thousand dollars; it easily earned out its advance, selling a hundred and fifteen thousand copies in the first year and earning Wharton a total of fifty thousand dollars. Wharton used the influx of cash to buy a second house in France, a former convent with vast terraces and crenellated walls, in Hyères, on the Côte d’Azur. Never one for mixing with locals, she summoned American and British friends to her elegant, immaculate French homes, spending most of the rest of her life there. The money solidified her rank and fortune, and insured that she’d forever command huge fees. She grew richer than ever by offering up her people for derision and envy.
Rereading “The Age of Innocence” now—a hundred years after its publication, and at a moment of increased appetite for eating the rich—is a bizarre exercise in glee. Amid the forging of a second Gilded Age, we have perhaps a surfeit of one-per-cent-focussed entertainment, with “Succession,” “Billions,” “The Undoing,” and “The Crown.” (The next Julian Fellowes production is actually titled “The Gilded Age.”) There’s a perverse satisfaction to taking in the couture, jewel-box dining rooms, and Dutch-still-life feasts that populate these tales of the one per cent. The glamour and excess is bait for readers and viewers who want to admire the trappings of wealth even as they root for the downfall of the wealthy.
“The Age of Innocence” is the direct ancestor of this type of entertainment, but, in contrast with most shows that employ “wealth consultants,” here the author is the expert. From its first scene, the novel is conditioning its readers in how to watch and judge. All the main players are in their opera boxes, observing one another instead of the production of “Faust.” Newland Archer enters the club box at the old Academy of Music, and trains his eye on his fiancée, May Welland. Next to him, Lawrence Lefferts, “the foremost authority on ‘form’ in New York,” swivels his opera glass toward the same box and catches a glimpse of Ellen Olenska, the woman who will poach Newland’s heart. He hands the glasses to Sillerton Jackson, society’s authority on lineage and rank, who takes in the Countess Olenska—freshly returned home to the United States, after a disastrous, abusive marriage in Europe—and proclaims his amazement that she would dare to show her face in public. We’re watching the characters watch one another.
Surveillance is constant. “One can’t be alone for a minute in that great seminary of a house, with all the doors wide open, and always a servant bringing tea, or a log for the fire, or a newspaper,” Ellen complains about Skuytercliff, one of the novel’s grand estates. “Is there nowhere in an American house where one may be by oneself?” Newland and Ellen dash around looking for privacy that they can only find far outside the city, when they lunch along the river outside Boston, or rattle home in a carriage from the train station in Jersey City. Dinner-party guests glance down the table to see what effects their remarks provoke; they spy carriages that are in front of houses they ought not to be; Newland notes that even the “livery-stable-keepers, butlers and cooks” know who is free each evening.
Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of “The Age of Innocence” and weaponized it. And status made her story more than believable—it made the story real. When Wharton showed her dear friend and lover Walter Berry the book, he told her, “Yes, it’s good. But of course you and I are the only people who will ever read it. We are the last people left who can remember New York and Newport as they were then, and nobody else will be interested.” Wharton writes, perhaps half-jokingly, in “A Backward Glance,” that she “secretly agreed with him.” But readers on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties were hungry for glitz, for distraction, for entertainment that ran contrary to their own depleted, weary lives, and that painted the rich as out of touch. With an exacting penchant for real-life details (she researched, for example, what months and years “Faust” played at the opera and what flowers men wore in buttonholes in the evening), Wharton homed in on the details that would make “The Age of Innocence” feel like a tour of a mercifully bygone era.
Although Wharton spent her youth observing people like these up close, a series of unusual decisions—her broken engagement to the son of a déclassé social climber; her marriage to the down-and-out, unstable Teddy Wharton; her pursuit of a public career—pushed her further and further outside the nest. She didn’t mind much. By the time she moved to France, in 1910, Wharton occupied a strange place among the moneyed—still respected, but just enough of a wild card to get away with living however she pleased. She modelled Mrs. Manson Mingott, who lives in a strangely furnished mansion “in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park,” after her great-aunt Mrs. Mason Jones, but it’s hard not to see shades of Wharton herself—remote, imperious, unflinching—in the character.
Wharton was the kind of woman who employed a canine couturier to make custom-knitted coats for her beloved dogs. She directed her publisher, Scribner, to secretly send eight thousand dollars of her royalties to her dear friend Henry James, disguised as an advance for his novel “The Ivory Tower.” She lodged for several weeks each year at Paris’s legendary Hôtel de Crillon, formerly the palace of King Louis XV, while her servants closed one of her French houses and opened the other. In France, she employed a butler, a housekeeper, a chef, a chauffeur, a maid, a footman, and a staff of gardeners and kitchen workers. She searched for twenty years, as Janet Flanner explained in a 1929 Profile in this magazine, for “some eighteenth-century Chinese Chippendale wall paper of which she originally possessed a fragment.” She loathed anything remotely tacky—her first book, “The Decoration of Houses,” is a treatise on how to avoid turning one’s palatial estate into a gilded grab bag of colliding European styles, as newly minted millionaires were wont to do in their nineteenth-century McMansions. Overdecoration didn’t simply violate her aesthetics; Wharton popularized the theory of “the morality of taste,” that one’s home indicates one’s rectitude. (Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous film adaptation of “The Age of Innocence,” from 1993, is such a wild success, in part, because of its near-fetishistic attention to household detail—Mrs. Wharton would have expected nothing less.)
Wharton’s taste is what makes the minutely chronicled interiors of “The Age of Innocence” such artful character assassinations. The general style is for what Wharton cuttingly calls “a grim harmony of cabbage-rose-garlanded carpets, rosewood consoles, round-arched fire-places with black marble mantels, and immense glazed book-cases of mahogany.” May’s drawing room, which is considered “a great success” by her peers, features “sofas and armchairs of pale brocade . . . cleverly grouped about little plush tables densely covered with silver toys, porcelain animals and efflorescent photograph frames.” It’s cloying and claustrophobic, a silly, rich woman’s folly. Julius Beaufort’s hastily built, “boldly planned” mansion is so overloaded it might as well be neon, with every expense put on display for maximum effect. Even the plants are expensive; in the conservatory, “camellias and tree ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.” When Newland imagines himself trapped in his future marriage to May, it’s the house that he pictures: “a Pompeian vestibule into a hall with a wainscoting of varnished yellow wood,” “purple satin and yellow tuftings,” “sham Buhl tables and gilt vitrines full of modern Saxe.” A stilted life of repetition and tchotchkes.
In “A Backward Glance,” Wharton railed against cramming “every room with curtains, lambrequins, jardinières of artificial plants, wobbly velvet-covered tables littered with silver gew-gaws, and festoons of lace on mantelpieces and dressing-tables.” She knew that these private homes were practically sacred to their owners, and that unveiling and ridiculing them publicly was aggressive, even forty years on. But their proportions and embellishments are also awe-inspiring—malachite fireplaces, Corinthian porticoes, three drawing rooms in a row (one done in sea-green, the next in crimson, and the final in “bouton d’or”). These are houses we now visit in their new iterations as museums and post to our Instagram feeds as markers of culture. The sheer bounty of stuff is impressive to most, but not to Wharton.
Nobody in Wharton’s novel is financially punished; that would spoil the fun—making them too much like us. (Besides, Lily Bart, in “The House of Mirth,” already met exactly that kind of tragic, impoverished end.) Newland and May maintain their status as keystones of the Manhattan élite. Even after a Madoff-level financial scam, Beaufort lives out his days in glittering European cities. Ellen sails for Paris, where thirty years later, in the novel’s fiendish, poignant coda, a widowed Newland stands outside her building—situated, not accidentally, on a similar Seventh Arrondissement street as Wharton’s Rue de Varenne—but cannot bring himself to visit her. The book offers striving readers the chance to imagine ourselves as better actors, more appreciative and deserving of the riches on display. But, in the end, it shuts us out, alongside Newland, as “a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.” The glittering rooms can be viewed only on Wharton’s terms.
2020 in Review