The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

I am beginning to think that my little faux pas that Edith Wharton was one of the UK’s canon authors, when deciding on the six authors for ‘Classically Challenged’ with AJ, was actually a twist of fate and an accidental moment of brilliance. While I liked Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ and enjoyed Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ (let us gloss over Trollope’s ‘The Warden’) I have to say that ‘The House of Mirth’ simply surpasses them for me by a long stretch and has been the first to set me alight. I think it is probably going to become one of my favourite novels of all time and has reminded me what joys there are in the classics and forget the side that makes you feel like you are back at school. Now though I have the nightmare task of trying to write my thoughts on this book which I know will never really do it justice. Gulp!

***** Oxford University Press, paperback, 1905 (2008 edition), fiction, 368 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In New York in the late 1800’s Lily Bart, at the ripe old age of twenty nine, is in the time of her life where she needs to find a husband. She has had many good seasons living with her rich friends of high society, which is quite miraculous as she herself is made of limited means and no fortune yet Lily is wily. We follow her on her quest to find a husband and the gambles she takes not only with her meagre allowance and cards but in the society she keeps and how she plays them and they play her.

Edith Wharton does some wondrous things in this novel. Firstly Wharton marvellously creates an overview of society at the time. As we meet her Lily actually spends most of her time living off her incredibly wealthy friends. Of course nothing comes for free. It is Lily’s beauty, wit and ability to seem fascinated by anyone and everyone whilst having them fascinated by her that gets her in with the right set. Keeping them as friends and on side however is the really tricky part and one that anyone would find hard to pull off. Lily knows that if she marries someone with utmost wealth she could have everyone at her bidding and the life she has always felt she is her due. This was the plight of many women at the time. When not living off friends though, Lily finds herself living off an aunt, Mrs Penistone, who took her because no one else would after her mother’s death. This relationship I think has a real psychological affect on Lily. She doesn’t want to owe anyone, apart from a husband, anything nor does she want to end up like many of the spinsters that her aunt knows, working in factories and living in boarding houses.

The second wonderful thing about ‘The House of Mirth’ is Lily Bart herself. Lily isn’t really likeable and yet we do like her. She has airs and graces above her station and yet she is witty and does care about people, well overall if we give her the benefit of the doubt. She is the creation of a society at the time along with the aspirations left upon her by her mother’s influence from a young age. There is a real sense of sadness and tragedy underlying her beauty and charm however and I think it is this that while we might not always think she is behaving as we would or correctly makes us like her and root for her all the same. For those of you who have read the book it was her behaviour with a certain collection of letters that showed her true character I felt.

With so much going on it is takes a deft writer to throw in another strand to the story and Wharton does this by introducing, from the very start in a brilliant set of paragraphs where he describes Miss Bart so we are left in no doubt as to her looks and personality, the character of Lawrence Selden. This is another master stroke. He is by no means a rich man having been forced to do the thing that everyone in Lily’s set dreads, work. As a lawyer the rich think he might be useful someday and indeed some of the rich married women of high society, like Bertha Dorset, find his handsome charms might just be the thing to provide some light relief in their lives or all sorts. There is a tension and chemistry between Lily and Selden however, though neither of them really wants it as both know that Lily ideally needs to marry for money, being a woman of no stature. Yet this friction and their love hate relationship are part of what we follow throughout.

‘Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?’
She shrugged her shoulders. ‘You speak as if I ought to marry the first man who came along.’
‘I didn’t mean to imply that you are as hard put to it as that. But there must be some one with the requisite qualifications.’
She shook her head wearily. ‘I threw away one or two good chances when I first came out – I suppose every girl does; and you know I am horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money.’

Their sparing with each other show what Lily is really thinking or planning and why. Also through Selden’s eyes we get this rather brutal and pitying look on Lily and the monster she threatens to become. This was another of the things I loved about this book; the ability of Wharton to flip between Lily’s perception of things and then to the perceptions others have of Lily and her actions, these perceptions of course being based on whether the person has sympathy for Lily or is in some way her rival or superior. This also highlights the calculating nature of a certain group of women, who Wharton was clearly aware of at the time, from the destroyer such as Bertha Dorset and indeed our own Lily in her calculations of how to get a suitably rich husband or live off others, whichever the case may be.

It was not that Miss Bart was afraid of losing her newly-acquired hold over Mr. Gryce. Mrs. Dorset might startle or dazzle him, but she had neither the skill nor the patience to affect his capture. She was too self-engrossed to penetrate the recesses of his shyness, and besides, why should she care to give herself the trouble? At most it might amuse her to make sport of his simplicity for an evening–after that he would be merely a burden to her, and knowing this, she was far too experienced to encourage him. But the mere thought of that other woman, who could take a man up and toss him aside as she willed, without having to regard him as a possible factor in her plans, filled Lily Bart with envy. She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce–the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice–but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.’

‘The House of Mirth’ is a real unflinching and honest lifting of the lid on society and how it worked just before the turn of the 20th century in America and you feel Wharton new exactly what was going on no holes barred. She also looks at the interesting divide of old money and new money and how the latter felt they had to win the other over until the Wall Street crash when roles were reversed. Here the initially, to Lily, odious Mr Simon Rosedale suddenly becomes the man everyone wants to know and many women want to wed. There are so many layers, sub plots and characters to the book I could go on all day, so I shall bring myself to a close and surmise.

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Having had some space from the book and time to mull it over there is very little doubt in my mind that ‘The House of Mirth’ is an absolute masterpiece and could easily be one of my favourite books. I loved Wharton’s prose, her humour and the fact she did completely the opposite of what I was expecting with Lily’s story which alas I can’t discuss in detail for I would completely spoil it for you if you have yet to read it – if that is the case you must go and get it now. Lily Bart walked fully off the page for me and I found myself thinking about her a lot when I wasn’t reading the book. Reading it is an experience, and I don’t say that often. One thing is for sure, I will not be forgetting the tale of Lily Bart for quite some time and I believe I will be returning to it again and again in the years to come.

Who else has read ‘The House of Mirth’ and what did you think? Did anyone else (without any spoilers please) see the end coming? What about Bertha Dorset, did anyone loathe her as much as I found myself doing? Did anyone else think that Selden was a bit of an ineffectual wet lettuce? Which other works of Wharton’s have you read, as I now want to get them all, and you would recommend?

33 Comments

Filed under Books of 2013, Classically Challenged, Edith Wharton, Oxford University Press, Review

33 responses to “The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

  1. So glad you enjoyed this one Simon, I read it when I was a student 30 years ago and it became a real favourite (and ripe for a re-read). The Age of Innocence is also excellent as are her short stories and she is a fascinating woman in her own right. I have a DVD of the film version starring Gillian Anderson which I haven’t watched yet but is supposed to be well done.

    • I have that lovely feeling post reading it of wanting to go and read every book that the author has ever produced that i can get my hands on. I actually thought that The Age of Innocence was a monster of a book but its only 306 pages so that may well be my next read of hers, though that said as it was her prize winner maybe I should leave it till last?

  2. Laura Caldwell

    I have really liked all of the classics so far including The House of Mirth. I read it slowly over the whole month-I don’t think that I would have liked it as much reading it over only a few days. I did start to get a little bogged down toward the end of Book 1, but Book 2 was superb! I felt that I was there Lily throughout the whole story. I did already know the ending before I read the book, but it didn’t lessen my enjoyment. This quotation describes Lily to me: “…there had been nothing in her training to develop any continuity of moral strength: what she craved, and really felt herself entitled to, was a situation in which the noblest attitude should also be the easiest.” Poor Lily’s upbringing did not prepare her for the real world she was going to have to live in. I did like her, and felt sorry for her. I liked Selden too but, oh my! I wish he had been less weak, for her sake. Unfortunately, the other books that I was reading this month had tough competition with this book’s superb writing and were tossed aside. Unfair to them, perhaps. This book is exactly the definition of a “classic” book to me.

    • I think this book is the definition of a ‘classic’ too actually. Interestinly I read it in stints. I read two books between Book 1 and Book 2 as I wanted a break and to let the characters settle. I don’t mean a break because I was bored, as I was far from bored, but because the book was designed to be read in parts. Which is why I plan on reading Middlemarch in sections starting in the next week or so. Eek! My mother has just been praising it and that has got me Eliot excited. I will definitely be reading more Wharton this year though.

  3. I loved The House of Mirth – it then led me on to read more Edith Wharton last year – and I have about four or five more currently TBR.
    I sort of did and didn’t see the end coming – for me there was an inevitability about it. I loved Lily too – she was so real, flawed, beautiful damaged, and as you suggest quite unforgettable.

    • I am still thinking about Lily. I don’t think a character has been that vivid for me in quite some time, she genuinely lived and breathed for me. I am sorry to be parted from her. I didnt expect the ending at all, I had a more Rosedale then affair with Selden version in my head for some reason.

  4. While I have not read this one, I can say the Gillian Anderson movie is wonderful.

    Should you ever find yourself in New England, you really should visit the Wharton home in Massachusetts. It’s well worth the drive.

    • I have got the Gillian Anderson film coming from a certain movie rental website we have here in the UK. I will certainly be visiting her home if I ever get the chance, though I want to read a few more of her books before I become a complete devotee. Ha!

  5. I read Wharton’s Ethan Frome in high school (in New England, it’s practically required reading), but hated it and have avoided Wharton ever since. But this glowing review has me wondering if it’s time to revisit her.

    • I think, though this isn’t a barrel of laughs, Ethan Frome is meant to be one of the most depressing books she wrote and also unlike any other books she wrote. Maybe it was that? Or it could have been the school reading put you off. That is what has been an issue with me ever picking up an E.m. Forster book ever again after studying A Room With a View.

  6. It’s been a long time since I read The House of Mirth, but I do remember deeply resenting Selden for being such a wimp. Lily was so alive and sassy and could have done much better. The ending floored me and, as I was an angsty teen, made me weep and reflect on the cruel realities of life while listening to emo music. This post makes me want to move this up on my reread list… I’m sure I will still weep🙂

    • I thought that Selden was a right wuss, which made the book all the more poigniant in some ways, yet also made me think ‘what on earth does feisty Lily see in him?’. I too was floored by the ending, all the more because I never saw it coming.

  7. I dearly love Edith Wharton and am so glad you enjoyed House of Mirth. It is one of hers I have not read and your review has made me want to run out and start reading it this minute! Age of Innocence, The Buccaneers and Ethan Frome are all wonderful with Ethan Frome perhaps being the odd one out here in terms of subject matter and style. The others brilliantly bring to life what it must have been like, felt like, to be a woman during the time period she is writing. And the relationships she writes are so fraught and emotional without being melodramatic. Yup, definitely need to go track down House of Mirth right now!

    • I have heard a few people mention that Ethan Frome seems to be the odd one out which I find rather interesting. I will have to read it and her other books to see if I feel the same. Do run and get The House of Mirth, it is just wonderful.

  8. Hi, savidgereads! The House of Mirth is one of my favorite reads. In fact, I love it so much that I moderated a discussion about it for my book club. A lot of the members were surprised at the ending. We had a lively discussion about the ending actually.

    • I think that is the only think I missed out on in reaidng this by myself and not including details of the ending in the above… the ending. It moved me and made me so cross, I would have loved to have been able to have had a good chat about it.

  9. I think this might be my first comment here despite enjoying your posts for months. I’m such a lurker. Next fall you should consider The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. I adored them and two in particular stayed with me for a long time after (unnerving too, being about ghosts and all…).

    • I love a lurker, there are lots of you so fear not, I do love it when they do come out of the lurky depths to comment though, so thank you Elizabeth for doing so.

      I am thrilled to learn from you that she wrote Ghost Stories and I will definitely, definitely be looking those up so thank you.

  10. I loved ‘The age of innocence’ when I read it ages ago – ripe for a re-read methinks, but I will read ‘The house of mirth’ first. It’s one of those classics I’ve owned a copy of for years, but never quite got around to. Then I shall watch the film with Gillian Andersen in – apparently it was very good.

    • I think I might save The Age of Innocent until last, as it is meant to be her best and I loved this as a start but might try the lesser known ones in the middle of the two. Ethan Frome could be a next port of call, I know its rather famous, as it is short and supposed to be very different from her oeuvre.

  11. I’m so glad you loved Wharton, especially since she was a sort of accidental addition to your reading list. I went on a Wharton binge a few years ago after visiting The Mount, her home in Massachusetts. My very favorite is The Custom of the Country which I hope you will try sometime.

    • I think the accidental choosing of it was meant to be. I have enjoyed the project of Classically Challenged over all but if one hadn’t really ‘got’ me I would have been quite disheartened. I will certainly be trying more of her in the future and I had spotted your favourite as one of the titles. Seems another book with dark depths ahead.

  12. I am so glad you like Wharton. She is so much more fun than her male counterpart Henry James. The Age of Innocence is also wonderful (although the movie version is awful). For something a little less about the upper end of the socioeconomic ladder you should try Ethan Frome or Hudson River Bracketed.

    • How funny you should say that about Wharton bettering James, Thomas, as that is exactly what my Gran said when we were discussing it on the phone yesterday.

      I saw the film The Age of Innocence when it came out at the cinema. Alas I had not long had a bad fall and torn my cheek off so I remember the pain of that more than the film itself. Ha!

      Ethan Frome might be my next read though it seems it really divides readers!

  13. Sharkell

    I’m really pleased you put The House of Mirth on your challenge. I loved it and it has stayed with me for the weeks since I finished it. It’s like a god wine – it gets better with age! I’m definitely going to be reading more of Edith Wharton.

  14. It was an early CBG read and you can see what I thought of it (under the name “Peter the Flautist”) as well as the comments of many others here:

    http://cornflower.typepad.com/domestic_arts_blog/2008/03/the-house-of-mi.html

  15. ummlilia

    I read this after hearing you mention it in your podcast, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. I did not like the main character much..her sense of entitlement really rankled me , but I suppose she was the product of her upbringing and the era.
    As for the ending..I didn’t see it coming and was actually quite stunned by it. .

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