Lust. Desire. Hunger. Need.
Edith Whartons’s 1921 Pulitzer winner, The Age of Innocence, is a horny horny tale all about the problems of misplaced desire in a repressed, rigid society. As Wharton – a successful career novelist – neared her 60s and tried to work out how to write about the recent horrors of the First World War, she instead allowed herself to be distracted by nostalgia, and wrote a novel about the aristocratic New York society of her youth and childhood, set in the 1870s (she was born in 1862). Part hagiography of the mutual support, community and camaraderie of this long-desiccated milieu, part evisceration of its cloying conventionalities, Wharton evokes a complex but very dated (even when writing) social world, its mores, its habits and its expectations. The Age of Innocence offers a deeply human exploration of desire and repression in a savagely dishonest set. Well, dishonest in terms of self-awareness: The Age of Innocence is as full of people in deep self-denial as it is full of people who tell shitloads of lies.
The Age of Innocence centres on the relationship between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska. He is an affluent, young aristocrat, she is his wife’s cousin who has just returned to New York after separating from her adulterous, European, husband. She brings with her a whiff of scandal, not only because of her potential divorce, but also because rumours circulate that she may have had an affair after she had left her husband. When Newland and Ellen meet as adults (they knew each other briefly when children) there is an immediate attraction, an immediate intensity. So spooked by his desire, Newland gets his marriage pushed forward by about six months and then slips into an awkward domesticity with May, a woman he thought he wanted but a woman that, alas, he really doesn’t.
Wharton writes desire and repression with a rich intensity, and the book is kept taut by the rare scenes in which Newland and Ellen are alone together. They sit apart, on opposite sides of rooms, too scared to get close in case desire overtakes them, They kiss a couple of times, but then run away from each other, desire and passion building and building and building until the sexual tension is so fucking tight it seems miraculous that they aren’t banging relentlessly by the book’s end. But they cannot, because they both want to be more respectable, more alive, than they can be. This passage from near the end of the novel, when neither is in denial about what they want but cannot have, I found particularly powerful:
‘Don’t be afraid of me: you needed squeeze yourself back into your corner like that. A stolen kiss isn’t what I want. Look: I’m not even trying to touch the sleeve of your jacket. Don’t suppose that I don’t understand your reasons for not wanting to let this feeling between us dwindle into an ordinary hole-and-corner love-affair. I couldn’t have spoken like this yesterday, because when we’ve been apart, and I’m looking forward to seeing you, every thought is burnt up in a great flame. But then you come; and you’re so much more than I remembered, and what I want of you is so much more than an hour or two every now and then, with wastes of thirsty waiting between, that I can sit perfectly still beside you, like this, with that other vision in my mind, just quietly trusting it to come true.’ (p. 182)
Newland is trapped by the rigid rules of his society. There are men he knows who cheat on their wives and he sees it as undignified. He himself, when a younger man, was the lover of an older woman, and he seems quite affected by shame. He has known desire and passion, but in his wife he seeks a relationship that will be stable. There is no discussion of sex within his marriage, however as May becomes pregnant towards the end of the book it is clear that there has been some. It is this direct discussion of marital sex that, alas, ages the book. Although Newland’s marriage is not the relationship the book is about, to fail to engage with the marital bed leaves a hole within the novel. The way he and Ellen want each other is riveting and overpowering, and Wharton’s writing evokes hot desire with a real fucking intensity. If she can do that, then I’m sure she would have been able to write tepid, dutiful, love-making with the same accuracy. There is almost an implication that the Archers’ marriage is chaste, though obviously it cannot be, for that would be too unconventional. Newland thinks of his wife as virginal long after their honeymoon, an adjective that he never uses in reference to Ellen, who he knows that he wants, and he wants her real fucking bad.
The following quotation comes from about halfway through the novel, and is Newland’s thoughts in response to overhearing one of the cads of his social set expressing disinterest in May:
The fact that a coarse-minded man found her lacking in attraction was simply another proof of her quality; yet the words sent a faint shiver through his heart. What if ‘niceness’ carried to that supreme degree were only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness? (p.133)
The lack of excitement Newland feels for May is emphasised here: it was not lust that led to their early marriage, well, not lust for her, anyway. Newland is motivated by an urge to experience more than the conventional in his life, but his own mores and self-interest get in the way. He is affluent by birth and untroubled by any concerns, and in denying his desire, in denying the mutual desire between him and Ellen, he is removing from himself the opportunity for a more fulfilling relationship. He doesn’t want to want the things that he wants.
The lesson for me to take away from this work of fiction (in regards to my own personal development) is the validity and importance of mutual desire: it is not something that can be ignored. Lovers who are never excited by each other will not become so, desire must arrive organically, it cannot be forced by circumstance. One should follow ones instincts more, and – thankfully – society has grown up enough in the last century and a half to understand that divorce is a lot better than long term domestic unhappiness.
The Age of Innocence is a beautiful, very well-constructed novel, tragically exploring the impossibilities of happiness in a society ruled by tradition and comportment rather than feeling or individuality. I will probably read more Wharton, and I will take the lesson onboard about the centrality of desire to happiness. People who repress themselves are unhappy, and likewise people whose lust overshadows everything else in their lives are, still to this day, distrusted and gossiped about. It is the middle ground I seek, one denied to Newland and Ellen due to their community, but one that is not impossible in this, our more liberal, age.
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