The year 2012 marks both the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth and the 75th anniversary of her death. It’s a fact that would appeal to the authoress: her novels are populated by characters for whom each beginning contains the end of what might have been. None exemplifies this doubleness more than The Age of Innocence, Wharton’s ambivalent 1920 eulogy for the New York of the 1870s.
The year 2012 also marks the publication of an updated Innocence, Francesca Segal’s The Innocents. The changed title announces the conundrum of rewriting a story designed as an antique—even in 1920, Wharton’s novel was a meditation on a vanished age. The Innocents is set in a present-day Jewish enclave in North West London, and so Wharton’s rich examination of what is gained and lost when the ordered past becomes the liberated present is necessarily flattened into little more than a love triangle.
Newland Archer becomes Adam Newman, still a young lawyer engaged to a guileless beauty, but now a diehard supporter of Arsenal Football Club. Ellen Olenska becomes Ellie Schneider, Adam’s fiancée’s American cousin who appears in London after being expelled from Columbia’s creative writing program for appearing in a pornographic art film. With this detail, the novel immediately loses credibility points: wouldn’t an MFA workshop welcome a writer with a hobby as memoir-friendly as adult film?
Insular Hampstead provides an apt analogy for Old New York. But while a 1920 reviewer for The Nation wrote that Wharton, in Innocence, chronicled the rites and rituals of her world “as familiarly as if she loved them and as lucidly as if she hated them,” Segal never conjures either extreme of sentiment in her descriptions of the North West London community.
This middle course is disappointing given the ostensible religious resonance of Adam’s observances. The braided challah, the Kol Nidre prayer for atonement, and the Tashlich ritual’s washing away of sins each New Year should be manifestations of Segal’s characters’ relationships to the divine, to thousands of years of persecution and peoplehood, to spiritually informed ethics. Instead they represent little more than the comfort of continuity.
Adam and Ellie’s verbal sparring is frustratingly superficial, as are Adam’s reflections on the community he first wishes to throw over, then frets about leaving: “That something was condemned by North West London’s gossiping mothers did not, he realized, automatically make it brave … But why had that never occurred to him before?” Adam’s unthinking repression cannot be convincingly attributed to the insularity of his community, and Ellie feels less like a Beatrice leading him to a previously unimagined way of life than a mere object of lustful desire.
Wharton knew that loosening social mores, far from liberating authors, only made writing good fiction ever more difficult.
In spite of these faults, Segal’s novel is a far more sensitive updating than Claire McMillan’s Gilded Age, another 2012 reboot of a Wharton classic. Gilded Age is a tone-deaf, weightless retelling of The House of Mirth transposed to Shaker Heights, Ohio, without the wit or moral complexity of the novel that made Edith Wharton’s reputation. Both of these updates pale in comparison to the novels that inspired them; but, while each deliberately trades on Wharton’s name, it is only fair to consider them on their own terms. Putting Wharton out of mind, The Innocents at least recommends itself as a breezy beach read.
Wharton once complained to Henry James that a book she’d read was not as risqué as she had expected it to be. He replied, “Ah, my dear, the abysses are all so shallow”; and she later elaborated his point: “The abysses, which were always so shallow, have grown even more so, now that they are on the itinerary of all the luxury-cruisers.” Wharton knew that loosening social mores, far from liberating authors, only made writing good fiction ever more difficult.
It is an apt observation on this anniversary, when Wharton’s classic plots are being dressed in cruise-line resort wear. Wharton sagely set The Age of Innocence in a bygone era when the abysses were more suggestive simply for being unexplored. They may all now be fully charted, but Wharton is still our surest guide. As her narratives are reincarnated for contemporary times, the best lesson we can heed is to reread the originals.