Academic journal article Style

Complicity in the Age of Innocence

Academic journal article Style

Complicity in the Age of Innocence

Article excerpt


Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92), the son of a clergyman schoolteacher, was raised in a large family of modest income. Through talent, ambition, and agreeableness, Reynolds became a grandly successful portrait painter, knighted by the King, elected President of the Royal Academy. Late in his life, as a childless bachelor, he found himself increasingly drawn to children, and he produced several portraits of young people marked by an idealized, almost reverential air. Among these was "The Age of Innocence" (1788), a fetching portrait of a young girl (fig. 1); Derek Hudson, an art historian, believes she may have been the daughter of his favorite niece (201-02). This painting is both touching and cloying. As Hudson notes:

To modern taste Reynolds's children may seem too consistently sweet. Even his London street urchins, so tired that they fell asleep while they posed for him, were idealized by that radiant vision, their rags and poverty refined away. The President of the Royal Academy banished his Whig principles from the painting-room. (150-51) (1)

Thus, enjoyment of "The Age of Innocence" requires that viewers be complicitous with Reynolds in his idealization of childish purity and banish from their mind any knowledge either of juvenile guile or of the brutalities of British class society.

I. The Novel

Edith Wharton began writing The Age of Innocence in 1919, shortly after the close of WWI, whose horrors she had observed closely because she had been living in exile from America in Paris since 1910. She set the novel in the New York of the 1870s, the time of her own youth, when her aristocratic family had returned to New York City after an absence of some years traveling in Europe.

Her story centers on Newland Archer, a gentleman lawyer from one of the best families in Old New York society, who is engaged to marry May Welland, a gracious, beautiful, seemingly naive young woman of his set. May's cousin, Ellen Olenska, returns to New York, fleeing her marriage to a dissolute Polish count, and while she is supported by her family, she is initially rejected by society. In solidarity with his future in-laws, Newland is instrumental in getting the Countess accepted into the appropriate circles, and he becomes her confidante and protector and her lawyer. Under pressure from her family, he advises her not to divorce the Count because of the scandal that may ensue, and although she intends never to return to her husband, she reluctantly agrees. But Ellen is everything that May is not--worldly, passionate, out-spoken, intellectual, artistic--and Newland falls in love with her. Learning of the efforts that Newland has made on her behalf, and seeing in him all the nobility and integrity so lacking in her European marriage, Ellen is equally entranced, but insists that her love is contingent upon their behaving honorably. So Newland goes through with his marriage to May and settles into it with a mixture of complacency and frustration until circumstances bring him back together with Ellen. The two plan an illicit rendezvous, but Ellen breaks it off and abruptly announces her intention to return to Europe. On Ellen's last night in the States, May gives a lavish farewell banquet for her cousin. After the guests have departed, Archer discovers that he has vastly underestimated his wife: May has been cognizant of his passion for Ellen, and she has deftly engineered her rival's departure by confiding in Ellen--prematurely, though her intuition proves true--that she is pregnant. Thereafter, Archer and May raise three children in a placid household, and Newland engages in philanthropy and social service. After May's death, when he is 57, Archer has the opportunity to see Ellen and rekindle their romance, but al though he knows he has missed "the flower of life," he prefers to leave Ellen as a memory or fantasy and hold fast to the precepts of his "old-fashioned" life.

Wharton's handling of this material is rich with allusion and ambiguity. …

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