Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tuesday Tea and Tomes: Edith Wharton's ' The Age of Innocence', a tale of the Gilded Age

Among  Wharton's great books: The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth

Edith Wharton's 'The Age of Innocence' is a revealing story of the Gilded Age lifestyle. With all its wealth and extravagance, the codified social structure of the well-to-do in the nineteenth century was so stifling it could render a young bride to nothing more than a Stepford wife in a Worth dress. Buck that system and there were consequences.

Edith Wharton knew this system intimately. Wharton was born Edith Jones, to the family that inspired the idiom of one-upmanship  "keeping up with the Joneses" and she  benefited as well as suffered at the hand of the upper-class conventions of her time.

Silver tea service at Ventfort, Gilded Age mansion near Wharton's The Mount

Now, if you know me at all, or have been following my blog for anytime, you know, I'm currently consumed with the Gilded Age. With its many ties to the Edwardian aristocracy, it's a bit of an across-the-pond prequel to Downton Abbey (think Cora's American parents and their outrageous fortune which helped keep the Robert Crawleys and their estate afloat).

Part of my inheritance, amazing books!
I became reacquainted with Edith Wharton when I was unearthing part of my inheritance: my Mom's amazing book collection (see blog . . .make it one for the books). Included in this library were the novels 'House of Mirth' and 'The Age of Innocence'.  Both are great reads, but the latter has a twist - the story's free spirit survives the ostracism of the genteel society she was born into, finally moving to, and finding refuge in, Paris - much like the author, herself, did after her own divorce.

Reading about Newland Archer's visit to St. Augustine while in St. Augustine!

In my pursuit of all things Gilded, this past April I traveled from Florida to North Carolina, stopping at homes and vacation spots of the wealthy Americans of the late 1800's. I was also reading 'The Age of Innocence' on this journey and, I kid you not, I was in St. Augustine the night I was on page 140 when Newland Archer decides to surprise his fiance in the very same city.  During our stay in St. Augustine, we toured Flagler College, which began as the Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1888, a luxury hotel for the very rich. It's very likely that this may have become a vacation spot for the  Archers and their ilk a decade after Newland's impromptu visit to his intended, May Welland.

The Mount (from The Mount's webpage)

There are many more Gilded Age locations on my travel wishlist, including Newport, Rhode Island and Lenox, Massachusetts, both cities where Edith Wharton had homes. My friend, Pam B., just visited Lenox in May and toured several  Gilded Age domiciles including  Ventfort (home of J. Pierpont Morgan's sister) -  where the silver tea service is displayed (photo credit, Pam B) -  and The Mount, a home that Edith Wharton not only lived in but helped design. Per Pam, The Mount was the best of the  Berkshires tour.

Wharton's Gilded Age tales show the underside to the life of leisure, where too much money and not enough occupation left the one-percenters seeking to  outdo each other with lavish parties and ostentatious mansions. If cable TV had been around back then, it could easily have become a reality show, "Keeping up with the Jonses". If only that didn't sound so familiar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Barbara. I will add this to my list of books to read! How informative 🙂- -Barb Tabb