Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is such a brilliant classic, I wasn’t sure if I would have anything to add to the multitude of reviews already covering this book, but in the end I decided to capture a few thoughts in this post.
The novel takes us back to New York in the late 19th century where we meet Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lily spends much of her time with a wealthy society set, namely Judy and Gus Trenor, Bertha and George Dorset and other assorted players in the same social sphere. However, Lily is a woman of very limited financial means; she enjoys the finer things in life, but is conscious of the need to rely on the generosity of her friends in return for gracing their social gatherings with her beauty and charm. Above all else though, she fears the threat of poverty:
No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in. (pg. 23, Wordsworth Classics)
Between visits to the Trenors at their Bellomont estate, Lily (an orphan) finds herself dependent on her aunt, the somewhat mean-spirited and passive Mrs Peniston. In order to secure her future, Lily knows she must net a wealthy husband, but Lawrence Selden, the man to whom she is attracted, has insufficient funds to support her desired lifestyle. Nevertheless, Lily is smart enough to see a potential end to her financial worries; she believes she can marry the prosperous Percy Gryce whenever she chooses and although she doesn’t love or desire him, she knows this move would relieve her of a heavy burden:
She would be able to arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate. She would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset. She would be free for ever from the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations of the relatively poor. Instead of having to flatter, she would be flattered; instead of being grateful, she would receive thanks. (pg. 43)
At a fairly early stage in the novel, Lily seems all set to allow Mr Gryce to offer his hand in marriage. However, the reappearance of Lawrence Selden throws Lily off course at a key moment, prompting her to see her situation (and possible future life with Gryce) in a new light, one in which she envisages a desperately dull and boring existence despite the financial security it offers:
How dreary and trivial these people were! Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience:
How different they had seemed to her a few hours ago! Then they had symbolised what she was gaining, now they stood for what she was giving up. That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement. […] She closed her eyes an instant, and the vacuous routine of the life she had chosen stretched before her like a long white road without dip or turning; (pg. 49)
A small spark was enough to kindle Lily’s imagination, and the sight of the grey dress and the borrowed prayer-book flashed a long light down the years. She would have to go to church with Percy Gryce every Sunday. […] There was nothing especially arduous in this round of religious obligations; but it stood for a fraction of that great bulk of boredom which loomed across her path. (pg. 51)
For a variety of reasons Gryce’s proposal of marriage never materialises, and this seems indicative of a certain aspect of Lily’s character; over the years she had squandered a number of opportunities for marriage in the belief that she could do better for herself. As Mrs Fisher, another member of the society set, comments:
‘…An Italian prince, rich and the real thing, wanted to marry her; but just at the critical moment a good-looking stepson turned up, and Lily was silly enough to flirt with him while her marriage-settlements with the stepfather were being drawn up. […] 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 oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.’ (pg. 164)
In The House of Mirth, Wharton gives use a fascinating insight into the workings of this sector of American society at the time, a society in which appearances and others’ perceptions of one’s character are crucial. In fact in many ways, perceptions are more important than the truth in this rather cruel and unforgiving world. At an early stage in the novel, we learn that Lily must be seen to maintain an honourable and unblemished reputation for her to be fully accepted by society. She commits the indiscretion of joining Selden for tea in his rooms and when she bumps into Mr Rosedale (another player in the society set) on leaving Selden’s building, she invents a story to cover her tracks, one that Rosedale suspects is a white lie:
Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to Lawrence Selden’s rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself the luxury of an impulse! This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather more than she could afford. She was vexed to see that, in spite of so many years of vigilance, she had blundered twice within five minutes. (pgs. 13-14)
And it is other society members’ perceptions of Lily that ultimately play a key role in the narrative. Lily is drawn into playing bridge at the Trenors’ Bellomont estate, and as her gambling debts and expenses mount, she asks Gus Trenor to invest her meagre finances in the stock market. At first Lily believes her ‘investment’ to be a wise move as Trenor passes on the profits, but this transaction is far from transparent and Trenor clearly expects more than a little something from Lily in return for his efforts. As the ramifications of this episode unravel, Lily – through no real fault of her own – is once again at the mercy of the perceptions of others; a victim of scandalous rumours, ostracised and virtually abandoned by the society that once embraced her, she finds it increasingly difficult to establish a foothold in life. Lily realises that ‘a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.’
That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot, but it’s a brilliant story and Wharton executes it perfectly – her prose is magnificent. There are so many additional nuances to the narrative that I haven’t even touched upon here, and I can see myself rereading the novel to revisit Lily at some point.
Wharton has created a wonderful character in Lily Bart, one of my favourites this year (along with Cassandra from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding). Lily is a beautiful and fascinating creature, yet she is also frivolous and a little naïve despite her intelligence and wit. There are times when she doesn’t always make the best choice in life, but she seems to emerge with her own scruples intact. Ultimately though, she falls prey to the politics and conventions of society at the time and Wharton dissects this rather harsh culture with great skill, precision and candour. Bertha Dorset, another fully-realised character, is also worthy of a brief mention at this point as it she who plays a key role in Lily’s fall from grace.
Finally, I loved the dynamics of the bond between Lily and Lawrence Selden: their obvious attraction to one another; their knowledge that they cannot marry as Lily must find a wealthy husband; the role of chance and missed opportunities in their relationship. Interestingly, Selden is the one character in the book who is permitted to circulate in society, but also observe it from a distance. Here’s Lily as she studies Selden (at a time when she is still considering marrying Gryce):
It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside of the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden’s distinction that he had never forgotten the way out. (pg. 48)
My copy of The House of Mirth is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy.