‘The Age of Innocence’ – What Can Writers Learn?

I’ve just read the classic novel ‘The Age of Innocence’ by Edith Wharton. A bit of a departure for me, but I intended to enter that ‘blurb’-writing competition and it was one of 3 books to choose from. Needless to say, I didn’t manage to finish it in time to enter the competition but I still enjoyed the book very much.

‘The Age of Innocence’ was published in 1920 – and won the Pulitzer Prize (the first time a woman had won) – in 1921. But the story was set fifty years earlier, when the world before WW1, was much more conservative and ‘innocent’.

The novel is set in the claustrophobic high society of New York in the 1870s and it took a little while to work out how all the many characters and families related to each other. But once the scene was set, I couldn’t put the book down and, from a writer’s point of view, there’s a lot to learn:

1. Edith Wharton builds the suspense beautifully – and tantalises the reader – by keeping the hero, Newland Archer and the mysterious love-interest, Countess Olenska, apart for big chunks of the story. (If you’re a Jane Austen fan, you’ll know she does that very successfully too, in Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility).

In order for that device to work, you need to keep the missing character ‘alive’ in the minds of the reader by having other characters refer to them – and think about them. I couldn’t wait for Newland and Olenska’s ‘reunion’ and I really didn’t have a clue what was going to happen! Would it be a love story with a happy ending – or a tragedy?

2. The author uses an omniscient (‘all seeing’) narrator to describe many of the details of the setting and characters but most of the story is written from the third person point of view and is seen through Newland Archer’s eyes and thoughts.

Cleverly, she manages to make him something of an unreliable narrator.

I don’t want to spoil the story by telling you too much, but it’s clear to the reader when Newland Archer is deceiving himself and I often felt that I was one step ahead of him. This doesn’t make him foolish – on the contrary, it makes him very sympathetic and ‘human’. Haven’t we all tried to convince ourselves to do the right and ‘expected’ thing at times, when our heart and instinct is telling us otherwise?

Wharton’s insight into human nature is what, I think, makes this book so engaging.
It’s the kind of book that I like best: one that leaves some ‘gaps’ and makes reading the book a two-way process.

3. The author creates a world that you step into when you open the pages of her book and which makes you forget the ‘real’ one. All the best books do this, whether it’s Harry Potter and his world of magic and Hogwarts school or ‘The Help’, that transports you to 1960s Mississippi. Read more about that here.

Ideas to try:
• Build the suspense in a love story by forcing your characters apart – but don’t forget to bring them back together!
• Experiment with using an unreliable narrator.
• Try ‘doing an Edith’ and write a story set 50 years ago, in the early 1960s. There’s loads of information on the ‘60s on the BBC website here. You can even pick a particular year to look at. I love the 1963 “shocker” (not JFK’s assassination but – ‘men with long hair’!)

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