Modern fiction really began when the ‘action’ of the novel was transferred from the street to the soul,” Edith Wharton wrote in her 1925 book, The Writing of Fiction. “And this step was probably first taken when Madame de La Fayette, in the 17th century, wrote a little story called La Princesse De Clèves, a story of hopeless love and mute renunciation in which the stately tenor of the lives depicted is hardly ruffled by the exultations and agonies succeeding each other below the surface.”
If you’ve had the pleasure of reading The Age of Innocence, that little plot summary will feel familiar, as will the preoccupation with the soul. The book, though famous for its ironic detachment – Wharton described viewing the people in 1870s New York society through “the wrong end of a telescope” to make them appear “small and distant” – it plunges us deep inside the hearts and minds of her characters. We feel their emotion. We see the world as they see it.
When we are introduced to Newland Archer, arriving deliberately late at the opera because it is “not the thing” to arrive early, he is presented as an anthropological study. “What was or was not ‘the thing’ played as a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.”
Yet within a page we find ourselves not so much observing Archer as looking through his eyes. We scan the opera boxes with him, we think what he thinks about members of the audience. And we share in his shock when he sees the “slim young” Countess Ellen Olenska, soon to be the subject of his hopeless love.
From then on, Archer’s world becomes ours. We share his dilemmas. We worry about his destiny. We too are caught up in the question of whether he should give in to his love for Ellen, at the expense of his fiancee May.