The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (book review)

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.

IMG_1741

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)

So there we are; a few thoughts on The House of Mirth, another one for my end-of-year highlights. Cathy at 746 Books and My Book Strings have also recently reviewed this book.

My copy of The House of Mirth is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy.

62 thoughts on “The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (book review)

    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Such a wonderful novel, isn’t it? I loved the complexity and different shades in Lily’s character; she’s very frustrating at times, and yet we’re on her side willing her on.

      Reply
  1. Brian Joseph

    This indeed such a superb work.

    I also run into the dilemma of being at a loss to say anything about a book that is so much a classic.

    The relationship between Lily and Lawrence was so well sketched out. I think that in the end, it was the heart of the tragedy that was this story.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is hard, isn’t it? In fact, I was thinking about your Jane Eyre posts as I was writing this as I think you’re doing a brilliant job of homing in on small scenes, shedding light on the main themes.

      I loved the relationship between Lily and Selden; you’re right, I think it’s at the heart of the tragedy.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      You’re right, Wharton’s prose is so elegant, precise and a delight to read – I must read more of her work. Now might be a good time for me to confess that I’ve never read Henry James!

      Reply
      1. realthog

        Now might be a good time for me to confess that I’ve never read Henry James!

        Oh, that makes me feel better! I was just about to confess that I’ve never read any Edith Wharton. I really must get round to filling that gap, and The House of Mirth sounds as good a place as any to start.

        Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Well, as you can probably guess I loved this one, and it feels like a good introduction to Wharton’s society novels. The only other Wharton I’ve read (so far) is Ethan Frome, also excellent and for a novella it packs a real punch.

          Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      That’s interesting as I’ve never read Henry James, but I’m very keen to read more by Wharton now that I’ve finally got around to The House of Mirth! I have seen the film adaptation as I’m a big fan of Terence Davies’ work. Loved the film.

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds wonderful Jacqui and very thoughtful review – definitely a must-read (and I have this on my shelves)

    Reply
  3. Cathy746books

    I enjoyed this so much, particularly because of how Wharton doesn’t place all the blame for what happens on Lily or on the society she moves in. The final few chapters are incredibly moving.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It’s such a great book, isn’t it, Cathy? It probably doesn’t get much better than Wharton. You’re right, the situation is quite nuanced with a mix of influences at play. Lily makes some poor decisions, but she isn’t the sole architect of her own demise; the aunt doesn’t do her any favours as she could have supported Lily by championing her cause. Much of it though seems to come down to others’ perceptions of Lily, and those who take advantage of her position in some way. Having seen the film adaptation, I was familiar with the nature of the ending, but even so, those final chapters are very moving.

      Our twitter conversation just now reminds me that you must have reviewed The House of Mirth. I’d been avoiding any recent reviews until I’d read the book and written this post, so I’ll head over to yours and take a look!

      Reply
  4. My Book Strings

    I’ve become a big Wharton fan this year. I liked her The Age of Innocence even better than The House of Mirth, but Lily Bart is in my opinion one of the most interesting characters in 20th-century literature.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, that’s great to hear; I have a copy of The Age of Innocence so that’ll be my next Wharton. It’s the light and shade in Lily’s character that makes her so interesting. It sounds as if you may have reviewed these novels so I’ll head over to your blog to take a look.

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I haven’t read that one, Guy, but having enjoyed this novel so much I’ve been looking at Wharton’s other works. The Age of Innocence will be the next one I read (as I already have a copy), but The Custom of the Country sounds excellent. Thanks for the recommendation, onto the list it goes.

      Reply
  5. Susan Wissler

    Hi Jacqui,

    I am writing from The Mount, in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts. It is the home that Edith Wharton designed and built in 1902 and where she wrote “The House of Mirth”. It is one of my favorite novels as well and i think your review of it is excellent!

    Very best and I hope you have an opportunity to visit some time,

    Susan Wissler

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Hi Susan, thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment on my post! Wow, The Mount looks amazing, a very special place indeed. I would love to visit if I ever get the opportunity to take a trip to Massachusetts. Thanks again for your kind words about my review and it’s heartening to see so much interest in Wharton’s work.

      Reply
  6. Richard

    I’d hoped to get to this novel earlier in the year after enjoying The Age of Innocence so much last year, Jacqui, but I just haven’t managed to yet. Glad to hear you enjoyed it, though. If you’re thinking about trying Henry James, please consider giving The Ambassadors a try. It’s a tremendous novel, super interesting on a story and a storytelling level, and it will make you understand why the Wharton/James comparisons above re: “elegance” are apples and oranges in nature and hence a little off base: James was more interested in developing characterization through what’s said and what’s not said and in challenging conceptions re: narrative POV than in being an “elegant” writer.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Oh, I’d love to hear what you think of The House of Mirth, Richard. Lily Bart is such a fascinating character, and there’s plenty to get your teeth into with the society set. I’m delighted to hear you enjoyed The Age of Innocence as that’ll be my next Wharton (with The Custom of the Country joining the list on Guy’s recommendation). And I’m very intrigued by your comments on Henry James, so much so that I shall have to try The Ambassadors as some stage!

      Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I feel I’m a bit of a latecomer to Wharton myself as the only other one I’ve read (so far) is Ethan Frome (which is excellent, but very bleak). I loved Mirth and Lily Bart, and from what I can gather The Age of Innocence is even better. If you’re interested in trying Wharton, Cathy (at 746 Books) and I are planning to read The Age of Innocence in February. We’re thinking of doing a readalong, so you’re more than welcome to join if you’re interested and able to fit it alongside your Ph.D. commitments!

      Reply
      1. naomifrisby

        I have a omnibus edition of The Age of Innocence, House of Mirth and Ethan Frome so I may well join you. Your description of Ethan Frome makes me think that would be right up by street too!

        Reply
        1. jacquiwine Post author

          Yay! It would be great to have you along for The Age of Innocence, but you can always see how things stand in February. I think you’d love Ethan Frome, and it’s short!

          Reply
  7. 1streading

    At this point, I need hardly say that (as usual) I haven’t read Wharton. I noticed today I can get three of her novels (including this one) from the Book People for £4.99 so no excuses!
    I particularly congratulate you on being brave enough to take on a classic – more of this needed I think!

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. Reviewing a classic is a little daunting, but I’m trying to plug some of the (many, many) gaps in my reading, hence the desire to cover a mix of modern classics alongside contemporary novels.

      If you’d like to try Wharton, Cathy (at 746 Books) and I are planning a readalong of The Age of Innocence in February. It does sound like a good starting point for her society novels, so feel free to join us (no pressure, though)!

      Reply
  8. Elena

    I haven’t read Wharton, as we discussed on Twitter, but I want to, I need to. I don’t think I can call myself an English and American graduate without having read anything by her. So, thank you for your review, for reminding me what an amazing author she is and why I should read her.

    Reply
  9. Emma

    This is my next Wharton. I love her style.
    I loved The Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence. I laughed a bit at her enthusiasm for French culture in French Ways and their Meaning.

    I’ve seen you haven’t read The Custom of the Country yet: lucky you, you have a great book ahead of you. Undine Spragg is like no other heroin.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Wharton’s great, isn’t she? It’s books like this which have made me much more selective about the contemporary novels I choose to read. So many great classics to explore and I still have The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country to come. I’m very intrigued by your comments on Undine…

      I loved Mirth and can’t wait to see what you make of Lily Bart! I hope you enjoy this one too.

      Reply
  10. Bellezza

    Isn’t it interesting how the classics have the enduring power to speak to us today?

    You said, “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…”

    The part which struck me so forcefully was about perceptions bein more important than truth. I still find this applicable to our 21st century, and I suspect it will always be true. Even The Little Prince lamented that no one saw with his heart any more.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      It is, Bellezza. In fact, Emma (at Book Around the Corner) has just reviewed Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a novel that sadly remains relevant to the US of today.

      I suspect you’re right when you say perceptions will always be more important than the truth. I’m sure we’ve all experienced situations in which misunderstandings or others’ perceptions have affected us in some way. Actually, I’m very interested in the relationship between perceptions and reality as my work involves customer research, and it can be fascinating to try and understand how individuals form certain beliefs about a topic.

      Reply
  11. Claire 'Word by Word'

    This is the next Wharton on my list, I wanted to read Ethan Frome and Summer before getting into her society novels. And I plan to visit her summer residence one day, not far from where I live. She was an interesting character herself, with her alleged matchmaking ways, connecting wealthy young American heiresses with impoverished British landowners – very Downton Abbey :) I think she is similar to Irene Nemirovsky only the cultural landscape is very different. Nemirovsky’s Fire in the Blood is an excellent companion to Ethan Frome and a wonderful contrast in terms of character response.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      I definitely want to read more Wharton and The Age of Innocence will be my next (although I’m very tempted to reread Ethan Frome this winter). I hope you enjoy Mirth and Lily Bart’s company as much as I did.

      Oh yes, you must visit Wharton’s summer retreat if you live nearby. The Mount, her Massachusetts residence, looks quite something from the pictures on the net. That’s an interesting comparison with Irene Nemirovsky, and I’m struggling to comment on it as I’ve only read Suite Francaise. In fact, my memory of Suite is quite fuzzy now which is one of the reasons I’ve started blogging. If nothing else, it’ll provide a means for capturing my thoughts on books! I’ll take a look at Fire in the Blood, I’m sure you’ve blogged it.

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Yes, if I remember correctly I think I review them one after the other. Fire in the Blood is quite a short easy read, as is Ethan Frome, novellas really. Suite Francaise was also before I began blogging and I definitely recall more of the books I’ve written about!

        Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  13. Max Cairnduff

    It does sound fabulous. I’ll repeat the Age of Innocence recommendation which I was (pre-blog sadly) blown away by, though it’s so famous it hardly needs a recommendation. The only other I’ve read so far is Ethan Frome (which is on the blog, not a cheery read I’d say). I’ll probably make this my next and then save back Custom, which I suspect might be my favourite once I get to it.

    Reply
    1. jacquiwine Post author

      Lily Bart is fascinating, and I think you’ll find much to enjoy in the way the society set operate (and I need hardly say that Wharton’s prose is marvellous). I hope you’ll review Mirth when you read it as there’s so much depth and nuance in this novel, plenty to work with.

      Have you read Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker? If not, it might be of interest to you (I reviewed it a month or so ago). The period is much later as it’s set in the early sixties, but Cassandra is another complex character, a bit of of a mess really and full of contradictions. It’s an absolutely brilliant book, another of my favourites this year, and I think you’d enjoy it very much.

      I’m so looking forward to The Age of Innocence (which I’m planning to read in Feb) and Custom sounds fab, doesn’t it? I bought it on Guy’s and Emma’s recommendations so I’ll save that one for a while. I have read Ethan Frome, but it’s been a while and I’m tempted to go for a reread this winter. I loved the prose and the bleakness of it all…

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        Oddly enough I have your Cassandra review open in another window, I’ve not had a chance to read the review yet, let alone the book which without you I doubt I’d have heard of. I’ll definitely review Mirth when I get to it, hopefully before year’s end.

        Reply
  14. Pingback: Reading Bingo | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. Pingback: My Books of the Year – 2014 | JacquiWine's Journal

  16. erdeaka

    nice review, Jacqui :) I think I’ve missed this one. I like the way you described Lily as a character. But then I wonder, is luxury really important at that period of time? Or is it just her desire for glamorous life, prompted by her surrounding society? My fellow Indonesian blogger ever read one of Wharton’s books (I can’t remember which one) & from what she said in her review I gathered that Wharton is really a great author.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ratih. I think it’s Lily’s desire for a glamorous life, to keep up with the social set to which she aspires…it’s all rather tragic. Wharton’s a truly wonderful writer, an acute observer of social situations and dynamics. She’s one of the greats. I hope to read The Age of Innocence in the next month or two.

      Reply
  17. Pingback: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys | JacquiWine's Journal

  18. Pingback: Edith Wharton, 'The House of Mirth' - Tredynas Days

  19. Pingback: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton | book word

  20. Pingback: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s