Famed for her descriptions of upper-class life in late 19th-century New York, author Edith Wharton drew on her own experience of the elaborate social conventions of the so-calledGilded Age. She had spent much of her childhood in Europe, where she learnt German, French and Italian, and gained an appreciation of art, architecture and literature. She returned to America where she unhappily married then took refuge in writing, publishing fifteen novels, seven novellas and eighty-five short stories, plus poetry, books on design, travel and literary criticism.
AT THE OPERA
Originally serialised in the magazine Pictorial Review in 1920, Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence begins at the opera where a young male lawyer called Newland Archer observes the audience rather than the production. Here, social pretention upstages art and music.
[…] An unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences.
“[…] una inalterable y jamás cuestionada ley del mundo musical exigía que el texto alemán de las óperas francesas, cantadas por artistas suecas, se tradujera al italiano para la mejor comprensión de públicos de habla inglesa”.
Archer first admires his fiancée, May Welland, and then becomes distracted by her older cousin, Ellen Olenska. Olenska has recently arrived from Europe after running away from a bad marriage to a Polish count. Archer notices her revealing clothes and her carefree manners. He is intrigued, and begins to question Welland’s authenticity.
That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland’s familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas.
“Aquel aterrador producto del sistema social al que pertenecía y en el cual creía, la muchacha que nada sabía y todo esperaba, le devolvía la mirada como una extraña a través de los familiares rasgos de May Welland; y supo otra vez que el matrimonio no era el seguro refugio en que le habían enseñado a creer, sino un viaje por mares inexplorados”.
Archer realises that he is in love with Olenska, and confesses it to her. He considers the predicament of women, who are more harshly judged than their cheating husbands.
‘I’m sick of the hypocrisy that would bury alive a woman of her age if her husband prefers to live with harlots... Women ought to be free - as free as we are,’ he declared, making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.
“Estoy harto de esa hipocresía capaz de enterrar viva a una mujer de su edad porque su marido prefiere vivir entre rameras. Las mujeres deberían ser libres... tan libres como nosotros —declaró, descubriendo algo cuyas terribles consecuencias estaba demasiado irritado para medir”.
Nevertheless, Archer feels obliged to marry Olenska. He tries to forget Olenska, but his marriage is boring and the social life that he once found fun, now seems pointless.
He had married (as most young men did) because he had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were ending in premature disgust; and she had represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of an unescapable duty.
“Se había casado (como la mayoría de los jóvenes) porque había tropezado con una muchacha realmente encantadora en un momento en que una serie de aventuras sentimentales sin mucho sentido terminaban con prematura repugnancia; y ella representaba la paz, la estabilidad, la camaradería y el seguro sentido de un deber inevitable”.
While on holiday in Rhode Island, Archer meets Olenska, who is considering returning to Europe. He begs her to stay. But when it seems as if Archer and Olenska will finally be together, she announces her departure. The reason becomes apparent: Welland is pregnant.
Decades pass. In that time, the Archers have had three children. Archer, now a widow, travels to France with his son. There, they arrange to visit Olenska at her Paris apartment. However, Archer finds he cannot go.
He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.
“Permaneció largo tiempo sentado en el banco, mientras el crepúsculo se espesaba, sin apartar los ojos del balcón. Finalmente, la luz brilló en las ventanas, y un instante después un criado salió al balcón, bajó los toldos y cerró las persianas”.
Wharton lived the last thirty years of her life in Paris, where she died in 1937. For decades after, Wharton was regarded as a less superior author to modernists such as Henry James. However, biographies and movies, especially Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of The Age of Innocence (1993) starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, changed that. Scorsese revealed that Wharton’s world was a place of mafia-like rituals, where the polishedoutward manners of society contrasted with its cold inward machinations.