Edith Wharton (1862-1937), The House of Mirth (1905): Virago Modern Classics edition
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes, 7:4)
It’s fitting that I sit down to start writing this piece on the anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth – Jan. 24, 1862. She was born into that ‘aristocracy of wealth and tradition’ that Leon Edel describes in his Life of Henry James, whose influence on Wharton’s writing was immense (they first met in 1903, when she was in her fortieth year and he was 60; he found her refined but ‘a little dry’). She never needed to work for a living, having inherited a large fortune. But her circumscribed world of wealthy cosmopolitan socialites was beginning to succumb to the arrivistes who are represented in this novel by the sinister entrepreneur Rosedale – a Jewish stockbroker/speculator whose depiction as a social climber is tainted by the anti-Semitism considered acceptable at the time.
The privileged, luxurious Manhattan world – ‘this crowded, selfish world of pleasure’– was imbued with a hypocritical sense of traditional decencies, strict social codes based on superficial appearances and good manners whilst murkily compromised deeper down.
At the time of their first meeting in 1903, James was working on The Golden Bowl, his intense and complex psychological portrait of a flawed aristocratic marriage, and its impact on a naïve young woman who learns and grows in maturity as a consequence of her husband’s venality. It’s interesting that Wharton’s House of Mirth, published a year after James’s novel, though set in New York, not England (where James had settled, and where his novel was set), has a plot and themes in some ways similar, but different in important ways. Even her title derives from the same book of the Old Testament.
As I have written in earlier posts, James was interested in the restricted, frustratingly limited prospects of the ‘American girl’ in a society that demanded of her little more than ornamental charms with which she would be expected to snare a wealthy husband, and which deplored any kind of independence of spirit – this would have been considered subversive. The ‘flatness and futility’ of fashionable New York was what Edith Wharton knew intimately; she, like James, opted for the woman’s view of it, but with a unique insight that he could only imagine. She had struggled for moral and artistic independence in a society in which women were more at the mercy of convention than men; she was able to depict a woman who was born to be an ‘artistic object’:
A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implications lie in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer, in short, was my heroine, Lily Bart (quoted by Nina Bawden, in the Introduction to the VMC edition).
The novel opens when Lily is 29 and still unmarried. Her father had foolishly lost his fortune and both he and her mother are dead. She lives with her unloving aunt in New York, who distributes to her niece sufficient to get by, but which is never enough for extravagant Lily, who had been spoiled as a girl, and who naturally assumed that her beauty deserved luxury and indulgence. As a consequence she is ‘horribly poor – and very expensive. I must have a great deal of money’, as she confesses to Lawrence Selden in the opening chapter. She was ‘not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty’, and has a ‘naturally lively taste for splendour’, she reflects later. Selden is the novel’s cowardly hero, and Lily makes the fatal error of believing that his self-satisfied, sanctimonious lectures on the vulgarity and venality of the society in which they both circulate arise from his truly virtuous moral rigour. What she fails to perceive is that this supercilious attitude is a pose; at heart he hypocritically enjoys the social life he outwardly scorns. They share a mutual attraction, but she considers him unsuitable marriage material because he works for a living (as a lawyer), and isn’t rich enough for her needs. When she needs him most he lets her down cravenly.
She confides in him, in this early and ill-advised tête-à-tête (to visit a bachelor unchaperoned in his rooms, smoke his cigarettes and chat intimately like this would be considered ill-bred, ‘fast’ and morally compromising) that her only hope, as her financial situation reaches crisis-point – she has amassed huge gambling debts on top of her usual extravagances with jewellery and clothing – is to ‘calculate and contrive’ to marry a rich man. But her looks are beginning to fade, and her plight is becoming desperate.
That she has failed to catch a rich husband so far is a result of her impetuous nature and naïve habit of pursuing immediate gratification, over-confident that something better will always turn up. Consequently she has let go several big, wealthy fish at the last minute in order to indulge a fleetingly more enticing whim. This childish recklessness is tempered by an intermittent but genuine moral sense of the ‘great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at’, with its ‘vacuous routine’ of trivial parties and rancid gossip. Lily would love to have that freedom which Seldon calls ‘the republic of the spirit’, but as a woman this is not accessible to her.
There are several estimable reviews of this novel online (links at the end), which summarise plot and characters thoroughly. I shall restrict my remarks now to the style of the writing, which in my view is the novel’s strength. The plot, skilfully constructed and pacy, with dramatic reversals and a colourful cast of wealthy, leering men and scheming, treacherous women, is perhaps at times a little contrived and strained: poor Lily’s ‘hateful fate’ is made clear from the start. As Jonathan Franzen suggests in his piece (see below), we read on largely because we sympathise with her, despite her often exasperating selfishness and childish impetuosity, her contradictory blend of an ingenuous naturalness (‘sylvan freedom’, Selden considers it) and shimmering artificiality. There’s a lot of Becky Sharp about her: she uses her charm and beauty to attract a rich man, but lacks the ruthlessness of the other women in her social circle which would provide her with the security she craves. Even in extremity there’s a courageous spirit in her:
Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.
Even though she has the means with which to blackmail her way out of her ultimate crisis, she refuses to stoop to such behaviour – her own destruction is the outcome. When she’s betrayed and cruelly shunned by society, and staring into the abyss, Lily shows a heroic, noble spirit, even when confronting ‘the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations’ of the poverty she has no resources to cope with. As one of her circle, Mrs Fisher, says of Lily’s fluctuating fortunes:
‘Sometimes…I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.’
I’d like to finish with a look at some of the barbed, epigrammatic narrative comments. This is an early description of Lily about to stalk her prey – a shy wealthy dullard called Percy Gryce:
She had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.
Such parallel structures can seem trite, but the chiasmus here is wittily shrewd.
Character portraits are often Wildean in their acerbity: this is the socialite Mrs George Dorset:
…she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.
Finally, a passage which caustically reveals the moral lesson Lily begins to learn at the novel’s midway stage, as her plans go awry and her reputation suffers:
She was realising for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up 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.
There are numerous reviews online; I’d recommend Trevor Berrett’s post at the Mookse and Gripes website, and Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker article. I’ve just read JacquiWine’s post and find I’ve quoted several of the same passages! Hers is a judicious reading of this classic novel.