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Somewhere in this book, Wharton observes that clever liars always come up with good stories to back up their fabrications, but that really clever liars don’t bother to explain anything at all. This is the kind of insight that makes The Age of Innocence so indispensable. Wharton’s story of the upper classes of Old New York, and Newland Archer’s impossible love for the disgraced Countess Olenska, is a perfectly wrought book about an era when upper-class culture in the U.S. was still a mixture of American and European extracts, and when “society” had rules as rigid as any in history.
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
It was Madame Nilsson’s first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as “an exceptionally brilliant audience” had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient “Brown coupe.” To come to the Opera in a Brown coupe was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one’s own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold–and–gin congested nose of one’s own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery–stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.