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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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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