Covering “The Age of Innocence”

By Domenica Di Piazza, Editorial Director, TFCB

Inspired by Elizabeth Bird’s “Top 100 Children’s Novels” entries on her Fuse # 8 blog, I did a little online digging to look at the covers of some of my favorite adult novels. One of the books I reread periodically is Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, first published as a book by D. Appleton and Company in 1920 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize the following year. (Cover of the Grosset & Dunlap 1920 edition below; Wikimedia Commons)


I like stories about the constraints on human lives, whether enforced through psychology, history, or social pressures, and The Age of Innocence is one of those stories. Not only does it look at the price people pay for not being able to break loose from constraint, it also offers a stark appraisal of the price people pay for daring to take the risk to do so. To my mind, the 1920 cover gives no sense of the tale’s romantic turmoil, though maybe the choice of red is a hint?

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: Book Cover

This cover from the Everyman’s Library edition of 2008 shows, albeit rather literally, the cinched nature of women’s lives at the time (the story takes place in high society New York of the 1870s, though this image looks to be from a later era, given the trim, tailored dress and the small straw boater). Look at that tiny waist!

To be fair, the novel is as much interested in the hero’s narrow life as it is in his paramour’s desire to live a more expansive life. They both pay a terrible price, but in different ways.

age of innocence simon and schuster cover

The cover at right, from a Simon & Schuster 2008 mass market paperback edition, is kind of cheesy, but it’s closer to showing the type of garb the women would actually have been wearing in the 1870s.

The Age of InnocenceThe cover at left, from a kindle edition of the book, is the famous John Singer Sargent painting of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (Gertrude Vernon). After Sargent painted her portrait in 1892, she became something of a celebrity beauty.

The painting now hangs in Edinburgh at the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Age of Innocence and Other Works by Edith Wharton (Halcyon Classics)And then there’s the option at right of the author on the cover.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton: Item Cover

Or this one, which hints at the sexual aspects of the story, though in a scrubbed clean sort of way.

These are just a few of the covers I found for this novel. For a really fun progression through cover art history, take a look at the covers of Little Women on the Fuse #8 blog. It’s amazing how our reading of a book, and the images we associate with it, change so dramatically over time, reflecting our preoccupations, quirks, and downright fantasies.

Try a cover search of your own—what do you find?

And don’t forget to check in next week for more from TFCB!