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Friday, 14 August 2020

The books The Age of Innocence might have been

I recently had some conversations with 2 friends on Twitter about The Age of Innocence, particularly the ending, which reminded me of a blog post I intended to write long ago but never wrote. 
This is Edith Wharton’s original plan for the novel, as she proposed to her New York publishers, Appleton & Company—according to R. W. B. Lewis: 
“It bore the working title ‘Old New York’ and the scene was laid in 1875. The two main characters, Langdon Archer and Clementine Olenska, are both unhappily married. Falling in love, they ‘go off secretly’, Edith explained, ‘and meet in Florida where they spend a few mad weeks’ before Langdon returns to his pretty, conventional wife in New York, and Clementine to an existence, separated from her brutish husband, in Paris.” 
This is in the introduction of my copy of The Age of Innocence (Oxford Classics). 
The introduction also mentions another version, as described by Cynthia Griffin Wolff: 
“Archer breaks his engagement to May and marries Ellen, but though their honeymoon is magical, when they settle in New York, ‘he and Ellen are not happy together. There is no shared sense of reality; she misses the life in Europe that she has always known; he misses the familiar amenities of old New York; and finally they separate and return to their separate worlds’—she to Europe, and he to a bachelor life again with his mother and sister.” 
The essay “The Composition of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence” by Alan Price (source) includes a more detailed account of this version, from Edith Wharton’s own notebook: 
“… Gradually Archer falls in love with her, & sees that life with May Welland, or any other young woman who has not had Ellen’s initiation, would be unutterably dull. 
It is very painful to him to break his engagement, but he finally has the courage to do so, though he does not tell May why he no longer cares for her. 
She gives him up magnanimously [cancelled: but when she finds that Ellen is the cause she is very bitter, & reproaches Ellen for Ellen too is very much distressed but still] because she has been taught that “ladies do not make scenes”, & she continues to pretend that she does not suspect Ellen of being her rival till the latter’s engagement is announced. Even then May is heroically generous, & is among the first to bring her good wishes to her cousin. 
[…] [Ellen] consents to a hasty marriage; but then, when they come back from their honeymoon, & she realizes that for the next 30 or 40 years they are going to live in Madison Ave in winter & on the Hudson in the spring & autumn, with a few weeks of Europe or Newport every summer, her whole soul recoils, & she knows at once that she has eaten of the Pomegranate Seed & can never live without it. 
She flies to Europe, & Archer consents to a separation…” 
(In this version, Archer is called Lawrence Archer). 
Needless to say, the final version is perfect as it is, and much superior to these alternatives, but do these plans not make you see the novel differently? 
The Age of Innocence is so poignant and moving because Newland marries May, and never has an affair with Ellen—they never get a taste of what it’s like to be together. On the one hand, Ellen becomes more dignified as she refuses the deceitful life as a mistress. On the other hand, Newland would forever be haunted by a “what if?”, though in the end, when he’s finally “free”, he chooses not to see her. 
But in her notes, Edith Wharton has contemplated them being together—for a brief period, and in her mind, in the various versions, Archer and Ellen cannot be truly happy together. 
As I wrote in my last blog post in April about The Age of Innocence, May and Ellen seem to correspond to the 2 sides within Newland Archer—he is drawn to Ellen because of her unconventionality, honesty, and courage, but he himself cannot be unconventional and honest; he recognises the limitations, hypocrisy, and the stifling nature of society, but he is part of it, he shares its rules and hypocrisy. Much as he wants to, Newland cannot rise above conventions, which is why he asks Ellen to be his mistress (without the frankness to use the exact word)—a banal, selfish, and cowardly suggestion. 
So Ellen refuses. 
In the end, both Ellen and May are more admirable, and more in control than Newland.
As the previous versions suggest, Archer and Ellen, in the author’s mind, cannot be truly happy together. Edith Wharton is too fine an artist to write a simple novel about romantic rebellion against society—The Age of Innocence is much more nuanced and complex.
Then, even a finer artist, Edith Wharton develops the novel in a different direction—with “the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime” and a lingering “what if?”, the final novel becomes much more subtle and moving. 
This novel is a masterpiece. 

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