I hardly know where to begin praising Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Normally, there is one aspect of a book that stands out to me as its superlative. In this case, mastery is suffused across every page.
Prose is beautiful. Pacing is efficient. Characters are deep and fresh.
Because I would never be able to stop pulling excerpts to show what Wharton does right, I will provide a few to show what she does technically, and gloriously, “wrong.”
The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his betrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidance. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing The Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of the The Lotus Eaters). She was straightforward, loyal, and brave; she had a sense of humor (chiefly proved by her laughing at all his jokes); and he suspected, in the depths of her innocently-gazing soul, a glow of feeling that it would be a joy to waken. But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product.Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and deferences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.
The paragraph above comes near the beginning of the book. It employs a shocking number of adjectives and generally flouts one of the rules with which writers are often strictured: “show, don’t tell.”
If Edith Wharton concerned herself with “showing, not telling,” she wouldn’t have had the confidence to include that paragraph—or many of the other gems in The Age of Innocence. Fortunately, Wharton transcends the rule by showing and telling.
She shows meaning through concrete examples and poignant similes and metaphors. What she shows makes her writing vivid, beautiful.
She tells meaning through adjectives and piercing omniscient narration. What she tells makes her writing concentrated and gives it remarkable clarity.
The combination is exquisite. I highly recommend that you read this book and experience it for yourself!