Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Genre: Classic fiction
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Read it online through Daily Lit
First line: Selden paused in surprise.
After finishing Wharton’s The Age of Innocence earlier this year, and finding that it was absolutely stunning, I decided I must read everything she wrote. The House of Mirth was another of her books for which the title and premise were familiar, so it became my next foray into the world of Wharton. While I didn’t fall in love with it quite as completely as I did The Age of Innocence, I did love it.
Lily Bart lives in a time where women have few choices. The society of New York City in the early 1900s has many rules, and the rules apply differently to men and women. Lily is a single woman, living under the care of her elderly aunt, expecting to inherit her estate, but in the meantime living on a small allowance that barely keeps her in the clothes she needs to maintain her lifestyle with her wealthy friends. She knows that she is not cut out for a life of privation or work, and therefore must find a rich man and charm him into marrying her.
It shouldn’t be difficult – Lily is mannered, lively, and extremely beautiful. And yet there is a part of her that despises the idea of marrying a man whom she doesn’t love. When she falls for Lawrence Selden, an attorney, she knows that she couldn’t be happy living as his wife without the comforts and luxuries to which she is accustomed. She continues to court her wealthy friends, and when she takes stock tips from the husband of a friend, her actions are misconstrued, and she fears for her reputation. As Lily continues to make choices that keep her in the world of the rich, but away from happiness, her life begins to unravel.
Wharton truly excels at writing both character and setting. While reading The House of Mirth, I became caught up in the world of New York high society. I disliked Lily’s ambition to marry rich, but I couldn’t help but love her character, and feel for her position. The group of people who controlled a person’s reputation were so unjust, so full of hypocrisy. A married woman could carry on a not-so-secret affair with a young single man, as long as they were discreet. But a single woman could never be alone with a married man, no matter the relationship, or her reputation would be destroyed. The machinations and manipulations that women went through in order to reach the top tier were exhausting – and then once they clawed their way to the top, it was almost impossible to stay there. One hint of a rumor, one whisper of infidelity or lasciviousness, and they were shunned by friend and acquaintance alike.
Lily’s story was one that gripped me by the heart, and even though I could see the end coming, it still had me in tears. Wharton is quickly earning a place in my all-time favorite authors list.
Here are some passages that demonstrate her brilliance at wordcraft:
Other cities put on their best clothes in summer, but New York seems to sit in its shirtsleeves.
Her beauty itself was not the mere ephemeral possession it might have been in the hands of inexperience: her skill in enhancing it, the care she took of it, the use she made of it, seemed to give it a kind of permanence. She felt she could trust it to carry her through to the end.
Society is a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man’s heaven; and at present it was turning its illuminated face to Lily.
And the day was the accomplice of her mood: it was a day for impulse and truancy.
“You might as well say that the only way not to think about air is to have enough to breathe. That is true enough in a sense; but your lungs are thinking about the air, if you are not. And so it is with your rich people–they may not be thinking of money, but they’re breathing it all the while; take them into another element and see how they squirm and gasp!”
His habitual touch was that of the eclectic, who lightly turns over and compares; and she was moved by this sudden glimpse into the laboratory where his faiths were formed.
Mrs. Peniston’s horror was genuine. Though she boasted an unequaled familiarity with the secret chronicles of society, she had the innocence of the school-girl who regards wickedness as a part of “history,” and to whom it never occurs that the scandals she reads of in lesson-hours may be repeating themselves in the next street. Mrs. Peniston had kept her imagination shrouded, like the drawing-room furniture.
The look did indeed deepen as it rested on him, for even in that moment of self-intoxication Lily felt the quicker beat of life that his nearness always produced. She read, too, in his answering gaze the delicious confirmation of her triumph, and for the moment it seemed to her that it was for him only she cared to be beautiful.