Saturday, March 9, 2019

Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

Here's a book you will find on most Books You Should Read Before College lists, yet, again, I don't agree, at least not at this point in the book. It's Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. 

First, read this summery from 

First published in 1905, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH shocked the New York society it so deftly chronicles, portraying the moral, social and economic restraints on a woman who dared to claim the privileges of marriage without assuming the responsibilities.

Lily Bart, beautiful, witty and sophisticated, is accepted by 'old money' and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears thirty, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing, and to maintain her in the luxury she has come to expect. Whilst many have sought her, something - fastidiousness or integrity- prevents her from making a 'suitable' match.

I'm now nearing the end of the book, so I will be writing a review of it soon but at this point I have a few observations more apropos of a while reading post.

Scribner's for March, now ready.
Everybody is talking of
The House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton in Scribner's.
Are you reading it?

We have the beautiful and flawed Lily Bart, 29 year old protagonist, a young woman moving about through high society on Manhattan at the end of the 19th century. Being of marriageable age, Lily struggles with her strong craving for wealth and status at a time of her life when the truly wealthy matches of her past are long gone. She is aware that her beauty is paling and that her eligible marriageable status will continue to fade as quickly as her reputation is fading. Further, and more importantly, Lily is aware that her internal self is incongruent with this external appearance. 

She is in dire financial straights and is having to balance her strong need to be bailed out with her sincere desire to marry well. She has an exciting and unfortunate growing affection and attraction to Lawrence Seldon, an attorney acquaintance who moves through these upper echelon social circles in spite of being of a lower economic status. Lawrence Seldon is a wonderful counterpart to Lily, being her Devil's advocate, her confessor, someone with whom she can be truly herself. Sadly he does not and cannot offer Lily the financial status and social status that she strongly desires.

Seldon's compelling attraction to Lily elicits hope in the reader. Can he save her? Will he try? Will she be open to the genuine affection he can offer her in a world where people use one another ruthlessly and personal allegiance does not survive social suicide. The reader begins to hope that his willingness to be vulnerable before her will bring her to him. That remains to be seen.

Like any fully-drawn character in the great works of fiction, Lily Bart is a woman of substantial intellectual and emotional force as well as being a woman who is elementally flawed and who, in due time, will be the saboteur of her future. The reader begins to be aware that she will steer her life down the rails of some unsavory arrangement instead toward the man she loves. It is clear that she will destroy any semblance of happiness in her life, as was the tragic reality for a women without means of her own. (Isn't this still so to some degree?) It also seems clear through her internal conversations that she is highly self-aware and does seek to live a life of some ethical choices, but we know that the frisson of the novel occurs between her desired ethics and the reality of what is permissible for her in 19th Century Manhattan high society.

Edith Wharton
and two dogs
I'm over half way through the novel, taking my time, and truly enjoying Edith Wharton's labyrinthine, obfuscating, sly, elaborate writing. Problems are, as in high society, eluded to in complex prose. I have looked up about a hundred words that, for most intents and purposes, have fallen out of the English lexicon. It has been a delight in spite of the obvious plot catastrophes to follow. 

The author, Edith Wharton, drew upon her insider's knowledge of the upper class New York "aristocracy" to realistically portray the lives and morals of Manhattan's Gilded Age. Her family was very wealthy and socially prominent. According to Wiki, despite not publishing her first novel until she was forty, Wharton became an extraordinarily productive writer. In addition to her fifteen novels, seven novellas, and eighty-five short stories, she published poetry, books on design, travel, literary and cultural criticism, and a memoir. I have not read any other novels by Wharton, but I'm interested in Age of Innocence

More to come so stay tuned.

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