Brad Hodges's Reviews > The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
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Mar 18, 2012

really liked it

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the birth of Edith Wharton, one of the key writers of American fiction in the 20th century. Of course, I haven't read any of her books, not until finishing The House of Mirth, her first major success, a few days ago. Written in 1905, it is one of a trilogy that examines the navigation of the upper-crust during New York's gilded age. This book, however, spotlights the downward spiral of one its victims.

Lily Bart was a child of privilege, but her father loses his fortune overnight. She continues to be part of the city's elite, living with her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, and taking weekends in the country. One such weekend visit encompasses much of the first portion of the book. Lily is 29 and unmarried, something of a shocking thing to be back in the 1890s. She is carefully, perhaps too carefully, searching for a husband, but makes a number of missteps that leads to her downfall.

Lily is really in love with Lawrence Selden, but he's not wealthy enough for her. She flirts with Percy Gryce, but he is turned off by her obvious affection for Selden and her gambling debts (she loses quite a bit at bridge). She is relieved to be rid of the obnoxious Gryce, but when she learns of him marrying someone else: "Lily stood staring vacantly at the white sapphire on its velvet bed. Evie Van Osburgh and Percy Gryce? The names rang derisively through her brain. EVIE VAN OSBURGH? The youngest, dumpiest, dullest of the four dull and dumpy daughters whom Mrs. Van Osburgh, with unsurpassed astuteness, had 'placed' one by one in enviable niches of existence!"

To pay off her debts, Lily takes money from an older, married man, Gus Trenor, which she thinks is dividends from investments. Trenor expects something from his money. She then is accused by a major player in society, Bertha Dorset, of flirting with her husband, and ends up being put off a yacht in Monaco. Eventually her aunt hears of this disreputable behavior and refuses to pay her off. The aunt dies while Lily is in Europe, but instead of getting all of her fortune, gets only $10,000, all of which is owed to debtors.

"It seemed to Lily, as Mrs. Peniston's door closed on her, that she was taking a final leave of her old life. The future stretched before her dull and bare as the deserted length of Fifth Avenue, and opportunities showed as meagerly as the few cabs trailing in quest of fares that did not come."

Lily's final stab at marriage comes with Simon Rosedale, rich but vulgar and Jewish. She spurns him once, but a year later, in desperate straits: "'I do believe what you say, Mr. Rosedale,' she said quietly; 'and I am ready to marry you whenever you wish.'

"Rosedale, reddening to the roots of his glossy hair, received the announcement with a recoil which carried him to his feet, where he halted before her in an attitude of almost comic discomfiture."

It seems that Rosedale, social climbing, still loves her, but will not have her, as she is damaged goods. Lily actually has to end up working, first as a milliner, where she can't put sparkles on hats correctly, then as a private secretary to an eccentric worker. But Bertha Dorset, still out for revenge, poisons her with her employers. Lily ends up living alone and nearly penniless. She gains a different perspective when she runs across a woman she had held helped with a charity, who tells her, "YOU in trouble? I've always thought of you as being so high up, where everything was just grand. Sometimes, when I felt real mean, and got to wondering why things were so queerly fixed in the world, I used to remember that you were having a lovely time, anyhow, and that seemed to show there was a kind of justice somewhere."

Wharton's novels about the gilded age are almost anthropological in nature--one feels as one might need a pith helmet to traverse through the jungles of social protocol. "'Ah, there's the difference--a girl must, a man may if he chooses.' She surveyed him critically. 'Your coat's a little shabby--but who cares? It doesn't keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop--and if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.'"

Wharton says this about the perils of socializing with the rich: "'You think we live ON the rich, rather than with them: and so we do, in a sense--but it's a privilege we have to pay for! We eat their dinners, and drink their wine, and smoke their cigarettes, and use their carriages and their opera-boxes and their private cars--yes, but there's a tax to pay on every one of those luxuries."

Wharton is magnificent stylist of language, and the scenes of dialogue, such as when Rosedale turns down Lily for marriage, are thrilling. But I must admit that at times the prose becomes so ornate I lost the thread of the story, and forgot where everyone was. There are also many supporting characters, mostly women, who tend to bleed into one, and I wasn't quite always sure who was a friend to Lily and who wasn't. But there's no denying the power of Wharton's expression of Lily's demise: "It was delicious to lean over and look down into the dim abysses of unconsciousness. Tonight the drug seemed to work more slowly than usual: each passionate pulse had to be stilled in turn, and it was long before she felt them dropping into abeyance, like sentinels falling asleep at their posts."
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