Thursday, March 14, 2019

A House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

I am not surprised in the least that Edith Wharton's A House of Mirth was a smash in the ladies magazines of the early 1900's or that her novel sold over 800,000 copies. Her revelations of the superficiality and machination of the upper class of society must have been quite a mirror for some women to glance into and quite an image for many women to see clearly. Wharton actually took the title for this novel from a bit in Ecclesiastics which says The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. Quite an accusation she is directing at the upper classes! I almost wish I could have been there to see their reactions.

This book was difficult to read entirely due to the stilted, formal language in which it was written. But I enjoyed that because I looked up every single word and French phrase that I didn't know; it was a veritable cornucopia of dated and obsolete language and I'm just the nerd to enjoy that.

To give you a little teaser of the story:

Lily Bart is a beautiful and an unusually intelligent women on the doorstep of the upper echelon of New York society in the early 1900's. She mingles with the wealthiest of the wealthy and plays in their parlors. A wealthy husband would be just the thing for Lily to attain the heights of social standing, but Lily is unwilling to accept any arrangements. At the age of 29, she knows that she is nearing the time when her appearance will no longer afford her the good graces of society and she is exquisitely aware that her finances are dwindling; she must find an arrangement. As Lily explains as to why she craved wealth,
She herself had grown up without any one spot of earth being dearer than another: there was no center of earth pieties, of grave endearing traditions, to which her heart could revert and from which it could draw strength for itself and tenderness for others.

Perhaps with a certain inflated view of her personal worth, Lily lets several important and wealthy suitors slide by, all the while keeping her eyes on various other suitable and eligible wealthy bachelors. In the midst of this play acting, her wealthy female friends play with her attention almost like a pet. They groom her, show her, coddle her, present her as a sign of their own wealth and relevance. All the while, beautiful and charming Lily is skating on thin ice.

I had no idea...
It's a movie!
Several severe financial hits and a few important blows to her reputation, and Lily is in a critical free fall in social circles. One can't help but wonder why someone as intelligent as Lily would maintain such an aspiration as moving in these circles. The emptiness of the relationships (or, as Lily herself thought, Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement), the precarious nature of being a part of the in  group. One can only assume that the wealthiest parlors are pretty heady to elicit such goals in Lily. These same parlors, however, were hotbeds of gossip and illicit business schemes, all of which could brutally tear an unprotected woman down, and they do, all while she had little ability to rescue herself or to recuse herself from accusations.

Without giving much more away, suffice it to say that Lily's story shows the devastatingly tiny grasp a woman of that time held on her own life. She was completely at the mercy of the men in her life, to the elders in her family, and to anyone else who could offer her scaffolding for existence in the city. As a beautiful woman, unfortunately, she garnered the attention of several men who were able to fully tarnish her reputation without Lily herself having any hand in the maintaining of that reputation. And that's not fair!

Furthermore, because of the mores of the time, Lily was utterly powerless to make a living for herself or to better herself in any way. Her entire role as a woman was as an ornament for the man. Several women from the lower class play pivotal roles in the novel. Some of these women held Lily in contempt while others were kind to her, just as some of the wealthy women were scornful of Lily while a few tried to prop her up socially while they could. In the end, nearly everyone is unforgiving. But the differing social expectations and behaviors between the upper class and lower class women was interestingly explored in this novel.

Edith Wharton
Although this story sounds very Austin-esque, do not assume that this book is anything like a Jane Austin novel, though Austin wonderfully explores some of the same issues that women had to suffer. This novel is far more developed, far grittier, far more modern, and far better! The book might be seen as a quintessential feminist novel because Edith Wharton was born into the wealthy and privileged of the upper class of New York City and lived these female roles. In The House of Mirth, Wharton calls out the callousness of those in positions of power. In writing about the mores of the social class to which she had been born, Edith Wharton gained incredible success as a writer.  And I'm so glad.

A few times, while reading A House of Mirth, I literally said out loud MARRY THAT GUY!,  All the while, knowing that Lily couldn't marry that guy and that That Guy couldn't marry Lily. I mention this because I found myself so very drawn in to this book. It was unexpected in the various shades of grey it explored. While I found the writing difficult to read at times, I wish the story was longer because I loved it, which is interesting because I'm not even sure that I like Lily! ...though she did find a way to endear herself to me later in the book where she really got real with herself and her position.

Get this, I read somewhere that Edith, born Edith Newbold Jones, was born into such wealth and privilege that her family actually inspired the phrase keeping up with the Joneses!

Edith Wharton also wrote The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome as well as several novellas and some poetry. Having loved Ethan Frome (set in the complete opposite kind of place), I can confirm that The Age of Innocence is now on my TO READ list! 

For the quality of writing and for the explored depths of the social milieu of 1900 New York City (I love being a sociologist taking a peek into this culture), for the well-drawn lady Lily, and for the exploration of Lily's life and times and relationships, I have to give this book a surprising eight stars!

I always like to post my favorite bits from the books I review. Here are a few quotations that I highlighted on my ereader as I read A House of Mirth:
Everything about her was warm and soft and scented; even the stains of her grief became her as raindrops do the beaten rose.


No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity


Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations. It would not have surprised them to feel a summer breeze on their faces, or to see the lights among the boughs reduplicated in the arch of a starry sky. The strange solitude about them was no stranger than the sweetness of being alone in it together.


[Selden] had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden's distinction that he had never forgotten the way out.


That's Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.


The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of all the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.

Just a few favorites to whet your whistle.

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