"The Age Of Innocence"
As a history teacher, the enjoyment of this novel was twofold. The historical element afforded new perspectives and references for life in 19th Century New York; and, the novel was also (although ridiculous by today's standards) worth reading for the characters and their societal, cultural, and emotional involvements.
I taught a unit on the Industrial Revolution to my students called "Engines of Change" for years as part of the curriculum. The focus predominantly was placed on reformers, inventions and immigration. I highly recommend "Five Points" by Tyler Anbinder if this era is of interest. It covers the immigration into New York's Five Points, a chaotic jumble of Italian and Irish Gangs, African Americans, Chinese, prostitutes, drinking establishments, and of course extremely corrupt politicians (Tammey Hall/Boss Tweed). Conversely, "The Age of Innocence" took place roughly six miles away (5th Avenue), but for all practical purposes it was worlds apart and integration of these worlds was nonexistent.
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was a product of this gilded world. Born Edith Jones, her family's name literally spawned the saying "keeping up with the Joneses." Needless to say, she didn't have to spend relentless hours researching for this novel and was an accomplished writer at a very young age. Wharton was one of the few that made the journey from high society to intelligentsia and befriended many accomplished writers and artists (Henry James was a close confidant). She also, in 1921, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for "The Age of Innocence".
The novel is reflective in many ways of Wharton's transition between different two different societies and cultures.
The gradual death of old world customs and the birth of the modern age (Twentieth Century) is metaphorically represented in the characters of Newland Archer, the Countess Olenska, and May Welland. Newland Archer, 19th Century metro-sexual, goes through a myriad of changes as he awakens from a life of slavery to conformity to what is truly important in life. This awakening is caused by his fiances' (May Welland) cousin, the Countess Olenska whose nature is not congruent with Newland's world (a world where a guest could cut off his thumb at dinner with a steak knife and be accused of causing a dreadful scene). Eventually he is ready to throw it all away, his marriage, fortune and prestige for Olenska. This love is vanquished by his marriage and the impending birth of his first child. Archer steps back into the stifling gilded cage that he so desperately wanted to escape and although not entirely miserable, sleep walks through the remaining years of his life. His only consolation a few brief moments in time when he could have been a different man who led an entirely different life.
Again, I appreciate this journey because it provided me the opportunity to experience a novel that had been procrastinated! So life goes....
"The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else." Edith Wharton "The Age of Innocence"