Wednesday, October 17, 2012

House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

Not long after we first meet House of Mirth's protagonist, the beautiful 29-year-old  Lily Bart, we recognize that Lily has a penchant for making the wrong decision. While Lily has stellar connections in New York society, she has few financial resources--she needs to marry for money (the book is set in the early years of the 20th century). Several times, she has been close to achieving an engagement that will allow her to live in the manner to which she is accustomed (and although she expresses some qualms about the lifestyle, she disdains unmarried women who have had to make lives for themselves, working and living in small apartments or rooming houses). However, every time she is about to grab the monied husband, she cannot make herself do it; instead, she does something to sabotage the arrangement.

Lily fancies herself in love with Lawrence Selden, a young man in a similar situation to Lily's own: he needs to marry a wealthy woman. At some point in the story, each believes their relationship just might work--but they never hold that belief concurrently. Instead, Lawrence watches as Lily's situation worsens, in part due to her own bad decisions, in part because she earns the wrath of some influential women in her set. As the end of the book approaches, her downward spiral accelerates--slanderous rumors circulated by her "frenemies"  cause her aunt to disinherit her; in an effort to pay back money she accepted from a friend's husband (she convinced herself he was investing for her rather than giving her money he saw as paying for her favor), she takes several jobs, none of which work out well. Living in a boarding house far beneath her notion of her rightful place in society, Lily is unable to eat or sleep. She dies from an accidental overdose of a sleeping medication.

Somehow--despite having ended up with 21 English hours as an undergraduate--I missed reading many of the classics in my formative years. Often, when I decide to improve myself by reading from the canon, I am disappointed (sometimes in the book, sometimes in my own shallowness). House of Mirth does not, however, disappoint.  Wharton's depiction of wealthy New Yorkers at the turn of the previous century is keenly observed (she was a wealthy New Yorker herself), as are the effects of living in that milieu on people of various ranks and personalities. Lily is a prisoner of her upbringing--unable to break out of it, but equally unable to force herself to do what is necessary to remain part of it. She is as judgmental and shallow as the friends who betray her; was her fate not so tragic, we might feel little more sympathy for her than we do for the despicable Bertha Dorset, Lily's chief tormentor. Yet we can imagine a different life for Lily--a life she herself cannot truly imagine. Biases of the time are revealed in Wharton's portrayal of Simon Rosedale, a Jewish businessman who is trying to break into high society. While some reviewers believe this bias detracts from Wharton's work, I found it lent it even greater authenticity.

I listened to the audio version of the book, beautifully read by Wanda McCaddon (she also read The Secret Scripture but used such different accents, I didn't even recognize her voice). In fact, I think listening to the book may have helped me to appreciate Wharton's writing in a way I might not have had I read the book.

Definitely recommended!

Favorite passages:
Mrs. Penniston always sat on a chair, not in it.

He was like a traveler so grateful for rescue from a dangerous accident that at first he was hardly conscious of his bruises.

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