Edith Wharton died on this day, 78 years ago. Even though ‘The Age of Innocence’ was not on my original New York to-be-read list, it still feels approriate to remember what makes Wharton one of the best writers of this fantastic city. Below is my favourite part from ‘The Age of Innocence’, the moment at which I realised I had to read everything Wharton had ever written:
‘New York, to Mrs. Archer’s mind, never changed without changing for the worse; and in this view Miss Sophy Jackson heartily concurred.
Mr. Sillerton Jackson, as became a man of the world, suspended his judgment and listened with an amused impartiality to the lamentations of the ladies. But even he never denied that New York had changed; and Newland Archer, in the winter of the second year of his marriage, was himself obliged to admit that if it had not actually changed it was certainly changing.
These points had been raised, as usual, at Mrs. Archer’s Thanksgiving dinner. At the date when she was officially enjoined to give thanks for the blessings of the year it was her habit to take a mournful though not embittered stock of her world, and wonder what there was to be thankful for. At any rate, not the state of society; society, if it could be said to exist, was rather a spectacle on which to call down Biblical imprecations—and in fact, everyone knew what the Reverend Dr. Ashmore meant when he chose a text from Jeremiah (chap. ii., verse 25) for his Thanksgiving sermon. Dr. Ashmore, the new Rector of St. Matthew’s, had been chosen because he was very “advanced”: his sermons were considered bold in thought and novel in language. When he fulminated against fashionable society he always spoke of its “trend”; and to Mrs. Archer it was terrifying and yet fascinating to feel herself part of a community that was trending.
“There’s no doubt that Dr. Ashmore is right: there IS a marked trend,” she said, as if it were something visible and measurable, like a crack in a house.
“It was odd, though, to preach about it on Thanksgiving,” Miss Jackson opined; and her hostess drily rejoined: “Oh, he means us to give thanks for what’s left.”
Archer had been wont to smile at these annual vaticinations of his mother’s; but this year even he was obliged to acknowledge, as he listened to an enumeration of the changes, that the “trend” was visible.
“The extravagance in dress—” Miss Jackson began. “Sillerton took me to the first night of the Opera, and I can only tell you that Jane Merry’s dress was the only one I recognised from last year; and even that had had the front panel changed. Yet I know she got it out from Worth only two years ago, because my seamstress always goes in to make over her Paris dresses before she wears them.”
“Ah, Jane Merry is one of us,” said Mrs. Archer sighing, as if it were not such an enviable thing to be in an age when ladies were beginning to flaunt abroad their Paris dresses as soon as they were out of the Custom House, instead of letting them mellow under lock and key, in the manner of Mrs. Archer’s contemporaries.
“Yes; she’s one of the few. In my youth,” Miss Jackson rejoined, “it was considered vulgar to dress in the newest fashions; and Amy Sillerton has always told me that in Boston the rule was to put away one’s Paris dresses for two years. Old Mrs. Baxter Pennilow, who did everything handsomely, used to import twelve a year, two velvet, two satin, two silk, and the other six of poplin and the finest cashmere. It was a standing order, and as she was ill for two years before she died they found forty-eight Worth dresses that had never been taken out of tissue paper; and when the girls left off their mourning they were able to wear the first lot at the Symphony concerts without looking in advance of the fashion.”
“Ah, well, Boston is more conservative than New York; but I always think it’s a safe rule for a lady to lay aside her French dresses for one season,” Mrs. Archer conceded.
“It was Beaufort who started the new fashion by making his wife clap her new clothes on her back as soon as they arrived: I must say at times it takes all Regina’s distinction not to look like … like …” Miss Jackson glanced around the table, caught Janey’s bulging gaze, and took refuge in an unintelligible murmur.
“Like her rivals,” said Mr. Sillerton Jackson, with the air of producing an epigram.”