Fat Books & Thin Women

Classic Read: Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth

Lily Bart must be one of the greatest characters in American literature. In her Edith Wharton has created a woman who is rarely aware of her motivations, who prides herself a manipulator of people but lacks the attention span to carry any of her plans to fruition, who is presented time and time again with opportunities for love or a strong marriage, who treats with disdain those who fall outside of her social order but whose occasional disdain for that same social order prevents her from ever fully placing herself in any of her actions.

The House of Mirth, set in 1890s New York, opens as Lily leaves the city for a weekend. This trip provides a template of sorts for Lily’s life: looking for wrinkles in the mirror, balancing her checkbook, pursuing a wealthy young man but being distracted at the crucial moment by someone else. In this case, it’s her pursuit of Percy Gryce being derailed by the arrival of Lawrence Selden, a lawyer for whom she has some romantic feelings, whether she acknowledges them or not. Lily loses Gryce, of course, but until learning of his engagement to another woman remains convinced that she can pull the strings and charm her way out of her errors.

That’s the thing that is at once so endearing and frustrating about Lily: she never seems to believe herself out of control, even when the direction of things says so clearly that she is not in control. She has Gus Trenor, the husband of a friend, invest some money so that she can pay off her mounting bills, and too late realizes that the $9000 he gives her is his money, not hers; she is caught in the midst of a collapsing marriage and ignores the evidence that it is she, not the husband or wife, who will be thrown out of society, until it is too late and her former friends have cast her aside; she lives on the belief that she will be inheriting $400,000 from her aunt, failing to realize that her aunt has no reason to live by this plan the way she does.

Lily isn’t a bad person, but she is one who only ever does things halfway. The event that cements her fall from society, George Dorset’s realization that his wife Bertha is having an affair (a revelation that comes when Lily is accompanying them on a trip, acting somewhat unwittingly to distract George from his wife’s whereabouts and whatabouts), could have been salvaged if she only blackmailed Bertha Dorset with a packet of Bertha’s love letters she possesses. Again, frustrating: Lily believes herself too good a person to do this, until her fall is nearly complete and she realizes that using the letters is her only chance to salvage her position and marry. When another form of salvation presents itself in the form of George Dorset, who is willing to divorce his wife and marry Lily, she turns away, failing to understand that while such a match would be frowned upon by society, she would ultimately be in a better position than she is in without George Dorset at her side.

The same might be said of her relationship with Simon Rosedale, a social climber who proposes marriage just before Lily is invited on the Dorset’s trip. Rosedale is frank about needing a wife who will introduce him to those members of society he can’t reach on his own. It’s not until Lily herself is shunned by these people that she realizes the benefits a marriage with Rosedale could offer; but as with the letters, as with so many things, she realizes the need to act far too late.

Lawrence Selden, the lawyer, is the only man Lily ever feels something approaching love for, but their relationship is repeatedly thwarted by one or the other. Lily sees herself as a better person, or as having the potential to be a better person, when she is with Lawrence, but for various reasons – a tendency to believe gossip, the belief that he is too poor for the likes of Lily Bart – he avoids her for most of the novel.

This is a review not well-suited for someone who hasn’t read Wharton’s novel – writing these sorts of posts seems to be becoming a habit of mine. It’s hard for me to collect my thoughts on this novel, which was (if you are wondering) extraordinary for its portrayal of the inner workings of New York society at the turn of the century. It didn’t take much for a person to swiftly exit the upper echelons of that society, which is something that Lily doesn’t grasp for most of the novel. She always holds herself a little above the rest of society, unable to identify herself with those women, like Carry Fisher, who are “social fixers” and probably the closest approximation to what Lily herself is.

But gosh, gosh, gosh. This is the third book I’ve read by Wharton recently (preceded by The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome), and I like her more and more. Can this woman do no wrong? All writers should take some lessons from her on how to describe but not too explicitly.

Lily: She wanted to get away from herself, and conversation was the only means of escape that she knew.

Different people serve different purposes: Miss Corby’s role was jocularity: she always entered the conversation with a handspring.

Selden on Lily: …he said to himself, somewhat cruelly, that even her weeping was an art.

Mrs. Penisten: …she seated herself on one of the glossy purple arm-chairs; Mrs. Peniston always sat on a chair, never in it.

Lily on truth: “The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s easiest to believe…”

Society and Lily: Society did not turn away from her, it simply drifted by, preoccupied and inattentive, letting her feel, to the full measure of her humbled pride, how completely she had been the creature of its favour.

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Great review, Ellen. I haven’t read this Wharton yet but it’s next on my list. It sounds like Lilly Bart is right up there with Scarlet O’Hara.

Comment by Brenna

This was the very first Edith Wharton that I read and I absolutely fell madly in love with her work. And I adored Lily and was so sad for her aspirations and wanted more for her. I’ve heard that the film version of this work with Gillian Anderson is quite good, and I’ll have to see it again as I saw it when it first came out years ago. This book is one I know I’m going to re-read many, many times in my life.

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

I want to watch the film too, thanks for reminding me. I’m sure I’m going to return to this book too – I love knowing when I finish a book that it’s one I’m going to be revisiting.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I completely added this to my Netflix queue – I can’t wait to see this one again! Fingers crossed that it’s what I remember it to be…!

Comment by Coffee and a Book Chick

Hi Ellen, I completely agree with you about Lily Bart. She’s flat out amazing. I think about her all the time, as strange as that sounds. She’s become like Sancho Panza for me, living well beyond the page. There’s something about her — I think it’s a combination of her integrity and her faults — that’s just so compelling. Very happy you enjoyed HoM. Best, Kevin

Comment by Kevin Neilson

Squee! Isn’t Wharton marvelous?! I’m thinking it’s about time I need to reread House of Mirth. :D

Comment by Eva

amen on this. I really need to get back to Wharton again. I read this when I first started blogging. It’s been too long. I’ve been distracted by Victorian lit.

Comment by rebeccareid

I love this novel. Adore Lily, too. The Custom of the Country is a very good Wharton novel.

Comment by Nicola

I love your detailed review! Just bought this one at Goodwill today, and am really excited about starting it. I read The Age of Innocence at the end of last year and fell in love with Wharton. How would you compare House of Mirth to Age of Innocence? I know HoM was written a few decades earlier…does her writing seem less polished or on the same level as her later work?

Comment by Jenna

the writing is fantastic, just as polished as age of innocence. it’s hard to choose, but i think i preferred HoM (very slightly) to AoI….I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of it. I just started reading wharton too (I think around september) and i’ve fallen in love with her – I’m probably going to read another one of her books soon, it’s just a matter of deciding which one.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

oooooh, lost of spoilers! Fortunately I’ve read it;)

Glad you enjoyed it. I have Age of Innocence on my tbr list. I’ve totally fallen for Wharton and can only hope that she continues to deliver.

If you’re interested, my review is here.

Comment by Monica

ha, writing “reviews” that are really just long lists of spoilers is one of my rare talents. I too have fallen for Wharton – man do I want to read something else by her now.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] for Beginners (03/05/11) Judy Blume – Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (03/04/11) Edith Wharton – The House of Mirth (03/04/11) Dennis Lehane – A Drink Before the War (02/28/11) Gabriel Garcia Marquez – […]

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