The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Innocence as History

Washington, DC


Edith Wharton courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Age of Innocence is a novel to be sure. But it also reads like a historical document, recreating in remarkable detail New York?s celebrated Gilded Age. Wharton herself grew up among New York?s elite society, which isn?t surprising considering the sense of authenticity which permeates the book. Not only does this prove crucial to the novel's setting, but it has helped preserve a bygone era of splendor and gentility. Below is a section from our audio guide, which details Wharton's portrayal of Newland Archer's world.

Elizabeth Spencer: Edith Wharton knew all the ins and outs. She was brought up in this society. She knew every in and out of it. She was a Jones, and the expression ?Keeping up with the Joneses? literally came from that family.

David Ives: Her mixture of detailed knowledge?

Spencer: Infinitely small things have to be done in a certain way.

Ives: ? along with perspective on how it worked.

Spencer: ? myriad customs?

Ives: If you had Roman punch at dinner it meant you were gonna have terrapin duck.

Copeland: After dinner the men would remove themselves to have cigars and brandy in the gentlemen?s library.

P.J. O?Rourke: He doesn?t show up at the beginning of the opera, not because he doesn?t much like opera, but because it just isn?t the thing for a young man to do.

Stephanie Copeland: And the ladies would return to the drawing room for coffee.

Spencer: Little things like, which dress you wore at four o?clock and what kind of flower you wore to a dance.

Ives: What can you expect of a young woman who was allowed to wear black satin at her coming-out ball?

O?Rourke: Newland?s mother still harks back to an era where gentlemen didn?t smoke anywhere near ladies.

Ives: Those little things, and there are a million of them scattered through the book, make that world come absolutely alive because this is a woman who knew every inch of this.

To hear the entire audio guide, or for more about The Age of Innocence, please visit The Big Read website.

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