The Age of Innocence, published in 1920, by Edith Wharton won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. She was the first female author to win this award. Wharton, an American writer grew up in New York City. Her parents, George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander, welcomed Edith to the world in 1862. I’m sure a lot of you have heard the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Many believe that it refers to Wharton’s family. Not only were her parents wealthy, but she was also a relation to the Rensselaer clan, one of the most prestigious families during Wharton’s day. She used to travel with Henry James in Europe and was acquainted with Theodore Roosevelt. It’s safe to assume, she knew about the rich and powerful. In 1885, Edith married Edward Robbins Wharton. He came from a well-known family from Boston. They both loved to travel, however, after her husband started to suffer from depression they didn’t travel as much. His mental condition became too much and the couple divorced in 1913. During her life, she published many novels and approximately 85 short stories. In addition to writing, she was an interior designer and a garden designer. How did she find the time?
Her novel, which was her 12th, describes upper-class families in New York City. Newland Archer is from one of the best families and he’s engaged to May Welland. May is also from a well-established family. Newland should be happy with his fortune. Yet, when Countess Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, returns to NYC he begins to question his bride-to-be. Olenska has returned after her marriage to a Polish count fell apart. They are not divorced and there are questions about her separation from the count and her fidelity. Newland wants to support May’s family during this trouble so he befriends Olenska. Most of wealthy families in the city spurn the countess. As he gets to know Olenska, Newland begins to question his relationship with May. He starts to find her sheltered upbringing annoying. Shouldn’t there be more to a marriage and life than manners? What about happiness? As Newland feels stifled by his upper-class upbringing he’s drawn to the one woman who cast aside her bonds in order to be happy.
The action of this novel takes place in 1870s. Many consider this satirical novel to be Wharton’s greatest achievement. I haven’t read many of her works yet (she has six on the 1001 list), but I will say that this novel is fantastic. Is it the best of the bunch? That’s to be determined. Her satire is subtle and effective. I won’t say I laughed out loud while reading. Yet I found myself smiling and pondering what life was like during this time period.
This book is on my 1001 books you must read before you die list and it counts towards my Award Winning Books challenge.