Five classics for 2019: The Age of Innocence

We have five classics for you and your students to explore this year. When we read a story, we read so much more than the plot. Stories, and especially classics, open the door to multiple worlds, which can become exciting territories for classroom activities and projects. In this series we give a short overview of our new stories: the author, the plot, the characters, the adaptation, the various classroom learning possibilities and some background information about the creation of the reader. The classroom learning projects are mostly CLIL projects (history, science, geography, literature, philosophy, psychoglogy, art) and language areas. Apart from these short overviews, we also prepare detailed lesson and project plans for each title. Watch out for these posts on our blog.

In this post we introduce The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (Level 5). The adaptation and activities were written by Nora Nagy and the story was illustrated by Simone Manfrini.

The other new titles are:

1 Who is the author?

Facts about Edith Wharton’s life:

  • She was born as Edith Newbold Jones in January 1862, into a wealthy New York family.
  • Edith spent six years of her childhood living in Italy, France and Germany.
  • She studied French and German, and she was tutored at home.
  • Edith had access to her father’s library, where she read and studied a lot.
  • Her first collection of poems was printed privately in 1876.
  • In 1885 she married Edward (Teddy) Wharton, who shared her love of travel.
  • She had a passion for design and gardening.
  • She designed The Mount, the house where she lived for ten years.
  • She had a long love affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton.
  • She sold The Mount in 1912, then divorced her husband and moved to Paris.
  • During World War I, she helped the war effort by establishing workplaces for women, hostels for refugees, and new hospitals.
  • She wrote articles about the war and received the French Legion of Honor for her work.
  • After the war she lived and wrote in a village in the south of France.
  • She died on 11 August 1937, and she was buried in Versailles, next to her long-time friend Walter Berry.

2 What do we need to know about the story?

Wharton wrote the novel in France, just after World War I. The title ‘The Age of Innocence’ refers to a period in American history which
ended with the war in 1914. We revisited her childhood and teenage years in the high society of New York of the 1870s with its balls, dances and rigid rules. This period is also called the Gilded Age, and was a successful time for bankers and investors. The novel tells the story of the engagement and marriage of May Welland and Newland Archer, and the arrival of Ellen Olenska, the bride’s cousin from Europe, whose presence leads to a series of complications. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, making Wharton the first woman to receive the prize. The novel inspired several film adaptations.

The setting

The story is set in New York in the 1870s. We also travel to Boston, and popular holiday destinations like Newport and Rhineback. The characters also visit England, France and Switzerland.

The characters

The characters in The Age of Innocence. Illustration by Simone Manfrini. © Helbling Languages 2019

3 Why did we choose this title for adaptation?

Wharton’s novel offers an ironic and damning analysis of the hypocrisy in New York society during the time when it was written. In a world where race, gender and ability are used to discriminate against people it is opportune to reflect on hypocrisy and the cruelty it generates.

4 How can you use this reader for language learning?

CLIL and discussion topics

Divide the class into groups and get each one to choose one discussion and research topic to explore.


  • New York Society in the 1870s
  • The Gilded Age
  • Second Industrial Revolution
  • ‘The robber barons’
  • Immigration to the United States


  • Marriage, arranged marriages
  • Social classes
  • Social hierarchy
  • Social events
  • Moral values
  • Customs, rituals and traditions
  • Freedom, personal freedom
  • Scandals and gossip
  • Communication


Follow the characters in these cities.

  • New York
  • Boston
  • Newport and Rhineback
  • St. Augustine, Florida
  • Switzerland
  • London
  • Chicago
  • Paris

Watch out for our project lesson plans for more detailed activities based on these topics.

Language stuctures

  • Narrative tenses
  • Reported speech – direct speeh
  • Passive voice

Vocabulary development

  • Phrasal verbs
  • Feelings and body language
  • Degrees of love

5 How did we create the reader?

The original text of the novel was simplified for elementary-level learners, avoiding complex grammar and sentence structures and minor plot strands that may lead to confusion. The vocabulary is only simplified as much as it is necessary to make it comprehensible for language learners at this stage.

The story was illustrated by Simone Manfrini.

Here is a simple chart about our reading levels.

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