Tag Archives: Penguin Modern Classic

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was writing about New York high society at the turn of the last century in The House of Mirth. Her themes, however, resonated very strongly when I first read this novel in the 70s. Lily Bart’s  gradual descent from a young woman with prospects of a beneficial marriage to a lonely death in a boarding house reveals many aspects of life: gender, privilege, reputation, selfishness, beauty.

Published in 1905 The House of Mirth is the first novel in my decade project (see below).

The story

Lily Bart is beautiful and since birth has been encouraged to have expectations based on her looks to make a good marriage and we meet her as she puts her plans into effect. Lily has no parents and a very small income. She is 29, and her options are narrowing. When the moment arrives to clinch the rich young man Lily cannot quite bring herself to go through with it. He is dull.

From this point her story traces her gradual decline from full member of the elite rich to her death in a pokey boarding house, probably by her own hand, in less than two years.

Beset by money difficulties she accepts what turns out to be a loan from her friend’s husband. Compromised by this, she is then dragged further into potential difficulties by the machinations of Bertha Dorset, who takes her off to Europe. Here Mrs Dorset abandons her and besmirches her reputation. From there she tries to become some parvenus’ social secretary, but that also compromises her, and then as persona non grata, she tries millinery but on being laid off, because the hat season depends upon the presence of high society, she finally cannot cope.

‘Look at those spangles, Miss Bart, – every one of ’em sewed on crooked.’
From the original illustrations by AB Wanzell

She is frequently supported, not quite rescued, by Lawrence Selden. He falls in love with her, of course, but although he is from her set he hasn’t enough money for her. And although he is a true friend to her he does not save her from her trajectory.

As it turns out she is a good friend to him as well, having incriminating letters in her possession, which she destroys rather than bring him shame.

Lily Bart

Lily is an intelligent woman, with very advanced social skills. She can read and act upon every nuance of a situation. Her chief asset in the New York society is her beauty. She is aware of this, and presents herself accordingly.

We are twice given descriptions of her, both seen through Seldon’s eyes. In the opening chapter he comes across her at grand Central Station. He had not seen her for eleven years.

Seldon had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. (5)

The other moment occurs at a society event. Lily presents herself in a tableau as Mrs Lloyd by Joshua Reynolds, and impresses everyone present.

We learn early on that Lily had a horror of dinginess drummed into her by her mother. But she also has spirit and a certain amount of recklessness, her gambling for example, which prevents her from arranging the marriage that would secure her material future.

She has integrity and a streak of realism. Despite her damaged reputation and her financial obligations she will not become the mistress of the husbands of her friends. Nor will she resort to skulduggery despite having the means to get revenge on Bertha Dorset, her nemesis.

The themes

Lily’s story reveals the class dynamics operating in New York, but also everywhere where people believe that wealth entitles them to use other people and treat them with distain. Lily’s gradual descent through the strati of society reveal to her and to the reader just how damaging this belief in entitlement is.

Gender plays its part. More than once Lily reflects on how being a female curtails and determines what she is and is not supposed to do, and how easily an unmarried woman’s reputation can be damaged. Her friend Gerty asks Lily about the truth of the allegations against her.

Miss Bart laughed. ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that is easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and its convenient to be on good terms with her.’ (228)

The value of beauty is another theme. Lily has been taught to trade on her beauty, but people’s values are actually counted in money, houses and opera boxes. And Lily’s beauty will not last forever, she is already 29.

Lily is trapped by being prepared only for a life of advantaged marriage. As she seeks something a little more worthy of her intelligence and discernment she is punished and excluded. She has not been educated to become independent. She finds her skills limited and her understanding as narrow as anyone’s in her set. She is ashamed at her lack of skill and her inability to acquire it when she works in a millinery shop.

The book

This was Edith Wharton’s second novel and originally appeared as a serial in Scribner’s magazine. She was describing her own social milieu, and her book profoundly shocked many people. However, it sold very well.

The title is from Ecclesiastes 7:4. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. What a cruel word ‘mirth’ is, implying humour at the expense of others. Some translations substitute ‘pleasure’ for mirth.

In her minute observations of social interactions, the meanings of glances, or avoidances, Edith Wharton learned much from Jane Austen. She too is a close chronicler of the events she describes, and this book is not one to be skipped for the story, for the story is in these subtle manoeuvrings and Lily’s ability to read the situations but not to control them.

The novel was made into a film in 2000 starring Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Edition used was from Penguin Modern Classic 1979. 333pp

Jacquiwine reviewed The House of Mirth in October 2014.

The Decade Project

My library had a pile of Reading Passports. I picked one up and it inspired me. To encourage reading your Reading Passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I don’t need a passport or a stamp, but I do like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I have decided to read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and to review them here.

The next decade

I plan to read O Pioneers by Willa Cather for February’s choice for 1910. Please make any suggestions for subsequent decades.

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To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I read To the Lighthouse very slowly over the New Year, taking nearly a week to get through its 237 pages. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. In a slow read I could think about not what happened but how Virginia Woolf created this masterpiece. I wanted to think about the writing, how she achieved her effects. I wanted to think about the process of reading. I also wanted to engage with #Woolfalong on the Heavenali blog.

209 To_the_Lighthouse

The Story of To the Lighthouse

The Window: Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party.

Time Passes: ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe.

The Lighthouse: Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse.

Themes include family relationships, grief and loss, creativity, internal impressions, the effects of time.

Writing To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse was begun in 1925 and published in 1927. In the extracts from her diaries, edited by her husband Leonard after her death and published in 1953, Virginia Woolf recorded the three-part structure of the novel very early on (July 1925) with a sense of doing something new and challenging.

…and then this impersonal thing, which I am dared to do by my friends, the flight of time and the consequent break of unity in my design. That passage (I conceive the book in 3 parts. 1. at the drawing room window; 2. seven years passed; 3. the voyage) interests me very much. A new problem like that breaks fresh ground in one’s mind; prevents the regular ruts. (20 July 1923. 80-1)

Her diaries record writing ‘with speed and certainty’ and this pace became a reference point for her later writing. She records some of her challenges.

Yesterday I finished the first part of To the Lighthouse, and today began the second. I cannot make it out – here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing – I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to; well I rush at it, and at once scatter out two pages. Is it nonsense, is it brilliance? Why am I so flown with words and apparently free to do exactly what I like? When I read a bit it seems spirited too; needs compression, but not much else. Compare this dashing fluency with Mrs Dalloway (save the end). This is not made up; it is the literal fact. (30 April 1926. p88-9)

By September she was trying to find a satisfactory completion of the narratives of Lily Pascoe and Mr Ramsay at the novel’s conclusion. As she finished her redrafting she reflected on her feelings.

I feel – what? A little stale this last week or two from steady writing. But also a little triumphant. If my feeling is correct, this is the greatest stretch I’ve put my method to, and I think it holds. By this I mean that I have been dredging up more feelings and characters, I imagine. But Lord knows, until I look at my haul. This is only my own feeling in process. (101)

She goes on to worry about criticisms, of technique without substance, and the persistent fear of being perceived as sentimental. (I go in dread of “sentimentality”. p101) She can’t relax until Leonard says it is her best work yet, and describes it as ‘a psychological poem’.

And a few weeks later on 21st March 1927 she notes

Dear me, how lovely some parts of Lighthouse are! Soft and pliable, and I think deep, and never a word wrong for a page at a time. This I feel about the dinner party and the children in the boat; but not of Lily on the lawn. That I do not much like. But I like the end. (106)

The book was published in May 1927 and it was so well received that the Woolfs were able to buy a car.

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Reflections from the slow read

The novel was considered a pioneer in the technique called ‘stream of consciousness’. She captures the interior experiences of her characters, multi-layered, profound and everyday thoughts, repetition, responses to worries and surrounding people. But the phrase is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading. I remember my first reading, and my fear that I would find a stream of consciousness novel hard. I remember reflecting that actually it was easy to read, not always to understand or follow, but to read because it represented the way in which everyone experiences the world – at many levels, simultaneously, repetitively and interruptedly.

Another feature of the writing is its lyrical qualities. I considered her use of poetry, especially in the dinner party scene, in a recent post about poetry in fiction.

Mrs Ramsay dominates the novel and her perceptions carry much of the first section. She knits, sits and reads to her youngest son, argues with the gardener, goes on errands to the village, checks on her children and presides at the dinner table. She is beautiful, in her deportment and in her perceptivenes and interactions with people. Here is an example, as she concludes the book she reads to James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

A few pages later, James having gone off, Mr Ramsay passes, and wants her to assuage his discomfort – as he so often did from women. The next few lines reveal much about their marriage.

And again he would have passed her without a word had she not, at that very moment, given him of her own free will what she knew he would never ask, and called to him and taken the green shawl off the picture frame, and gone to him. For he wished, she knew, to protect her. (76)

The flow of the sentences in those two passages makes reading a pleasure. In contrast Mrs Ramsay, having permeated the first section, is dispatched in parenthesis in a section that jars.

[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.] (146-7)

227 To Light cover

To the Lighthouse is a delight. Its techniques, challenges, solutions make one wonder, how did she do that? In an essay on how to read, in The Second Common Reader Virginia Woolf wrote

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a writer is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words. (Brain Pickings blog)

It’s also worth noting that Virginia Woolf was writing from her experiences: of annual holidays (at St Ives not Skye), of a dominating father and beautiful mother, and of the challenges of creativity. Virginia Woolf was close to her sister Vanessa Bell, a painter as was Lily Briscoe. The parental stuff was therapeutic as she wrote later

I used to think of him [father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back, but differently. (I believe this to be true – that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act) (November 1928. P138)

Other stuff

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

Not everyone finds her as inspiring. I was rather shocked to read Hilary Mantel saying,

I’ve never read my way through a Virginia Woolf book. (Paris Review: Art of Fiction #226)

My copy is falling to bits.

I had included Mrs Ramsay in my list of older women in fiction. But since her youngest son was only 5, albeit she had eight children, I think she must have been in her early 50s. She does, however, have the poise and wisdom of many older women.

Did Virginia Woolf really use so many semi-colons in her diary, or is this Leonard’s editing?

For the next phase of the #Woolfalong in March/April I will be probably reread The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first novel.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) by the Hogarth Press. Pages numbers refer to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1964 237pp

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. The edition used in this post was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Related posts

Heavenali’s post on To The Lighthouse, part of the #Woolfalong project on her blog, for which many thanks.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

In Step with Virginia Woolf about the ballet WoolfWorks

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Filed under Books, Reading, Virginia Woolf