It has been only a few weeks since I last read Edith Wharton; I enjoyed Ethan Frome so much I just couldn’t hold out any longer to read The House of Mirth (1905), Wharton’s first major success. I picked up this copy when, almost exactly one year ago this week, my wife and I took a trip to the Berkshires and visited Wharton’s beautiful home, The Mount. I was so struck by the beauty of the surroundings and amazed at the genius of the mind who created them (Wharton was a student of architecture and landscaping) that I thought I’d read the book immediately. As often happens, though, one book led to another . . . But enough of that: I now have read three of Wharton’s books, and I place each of them in my top tier.
The House of Mirth begins Grand Central Station when Mr. Selden spies Miss Lily Bart. Wharton’s skill in the opening is incredible: from Mr. Selden’s few observations we get a sense of who Lily Bart is and how their relationship is. Miss Bart is famous in New York’s high society. Her beauty out-classes them all. Any wealth she hoped to inherit, however, has been lost in prior generations until her mother and father had to live with the fact that they had nothing to pass on. As seemed to be the case in the hardened class system, Lily is able to live off of her family’s reputation for wealth, and, of course, off of her beauty.
Her parents, though, have now been dead for years. Lily lives with her aunt who gives her a generous but irregular allowance. Lily spends the money living among the rich. It is a kind of investment for the one goal she’s always had in front of her, a goal which Mr. Selden brings up during their brief visit together at the beginning of the book: marriage.
She coloured and laughed. “Ah, I see you are a friend after all, and that is one of the disagreeable things I was asking for.”
“It wasn’t meant to be disagreeable,” he returned amicably. “Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?”
She sighed. “I suppose so. What else is there?”
“Exactly. And so why not take the plunge and have it over?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “You ask as if I ought to marry the first man who came along.”
“I didn’t meant to imply that you are as hart 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.”
Selden was not proposing Lily marry himself — he certainly doesn’t have the money she needs, and he knows it. He merely posed the question generally: why isn’t Miss Lily Bart, the handsomest eligible (or ineligible) woman unmarried? Even stranger, she needs to be married if she’s to maintain her precarious position in society. It isn’t getting any easier since Lily is not nearing completion of her third decade of life. Worry, of course, is counterproductive: it just hastens the wrinkles she can’t afford to have.
She remembered how her mother, after they had lost their money, used to say to her with a kind of fierce vindictiveness: “But you’ll get it back — you’ll get it all back, with your face . . . .” The remembrance roused a whole train of association, and she lay in the darkness reconstructing the past out of which her present had grown.
Selden’s question is a very good one. Lily should have her pick of men. Obviously most of them are fools pandering to society, but they are the fools she needs. Early on we understand that Selden is not such a fool; she values his high opinion, knowing that it comes with more heart and understanding than the others’.
She had always been glad to sit next to him at dinner, had found him more agreeable than most men, and had vaguely wished that he possessed the other qualities needful to fix her attention; but till now she had been too busy with her own affairs to regard him as more than one of the pleasant accessories of life.
Selden is often on the fringes of the novel while Wharton eviscerates New York society by showing how ridiculous it is for people to pander to a society they despise only to keep that social structure functioning. Lily is no different here, though she seems more conscious of how ridiculous it is — these games. She can’t quite bring herself to marriage, though, just to solidify her place:
“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.”
Mrs. Fisher paused and looked reflectively at the deep shimmer of sea between the cactus-flowers. “Sometimes,” she added, “I think it’s just flightiness — and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.” She glanced tentatively at Selden’s motionless profile, and resumed with a slight sigh: “Well, all I can say is, I wish she’d give me some of he discarded opportunities.”
This novel shows that it is not as simple as it might seem — and that is where it transcends being just a fabulous story. This social structure has locked itself into place by essentially killing any who oppose it: “it was easy enough to despise the world, but decidedly difficult to find any other habitable region.” Lily cannot simply go out and get a job: she has not been raised to do labor, for one thing, so she lacks basic skills necessary to do what women laborers were doing at the time; for another, a laboring woman then could hardly survive on her wages even if she weren’t nearly killed by the labor itself. If Lily is repudiated by this society, then, she loses the source of living — not just of living the high life, no — of living at all. If she doesn’t marry, she will be forced down the rungs until she dies in the street. What a brutal society. They hated this book, by the way. A great discussion of this social structure as presented in The House of Mirth can be found in one of KevinfromCanada’s first blog posts.
The House of Mirth is strong in every way a good book should be strong. On its basic level, the words Wharton chooses are just perfect, and she arranges them in beautiful sentences that are in and of themselves lessons on rhetoric and wit. Using such sentences, Wharton creates a powerful plot that explores the consciousness of a woman in the early twentieth century who has nowhere to go. I think the writing gets better in Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, but all the skill of observation and presentation to the reader is already well developed in this great book.
I looked for The Custom of the County at a bookshop tonight. They didn’t have it. If they did, I have no doubt I would have put of writing this review in order to begin another great reading experience with Edith Wharton.