The House of Mirth

New York 1905. Lily Bart is unfathomably beautiful. Elegant and graceful she’s welcomed at all the fashionable parties. but while she’s from a good family, her father was ‘ruined’ and now an orphan she must live with her aunt who gives her just enough pocket money to keep up appearances but doesn’t quite cover the expenses of her social calendar. At 29 Lily knows the only answer is to marry well.

The society in which Lily moves is an aristocracy that owes as much to European culture as to wealth, a society that mirrors the world of Edith Wharton’s. And it’s through Lily’s eyes and experience that Wharton sets out to satirise the world in which she felt so trapped. The tight knit group of friends that form Lily’s set, are governed by rules. The year is divided between town and country with weekend house parties de rigueur. Husbands provide the money and their wives adorn and delight, with an edge of malicious indifference.

Lily is infuriating really. She’s intelligent enough to know her situation. She’s been brought up to be an ornament, it’s a life she enjoys and wants and is good at, but no matter how many suitors are prepared for her, she can’t help scaring them off with her misbehaviour – in the case of the aristocratic Italian, she was discovered flirting with his step son. But she’s not a feisty heroine or someone cocking a snoop at the establishment. She’s more a mixture of, on the one hand, overconfidence, always thinking someone better will come along and on the other a shaky morality that there must be something more to life, even that she should be marrying for love. She says she longs for independence and freedom but laughs spitefully at Gerty Farish, the only single women she knows with her own apartment, looking down on her as unmarriageable and dingy.

So, she’s proud, idle, arrogant, vain and snobbish but she’s so well drawn, that with all her human frailties I always cared what was to become of her. Her situation is precarious, with no money in a society where ‘social credit was based on an impregnable bank-account’ she relies on her beauty and her ‘set’ to keep her in the social calendar. She pays her way by writing invitations and doing other dull jobs for her hostesses and is a dab hand at keeping their husbands entertained while they ‘entertain’ other young men. But with rising gambling debts and no security her often poor choices are open to misinterpretation

‘Lily had an odd sense of being behind the social tapestry,
on the side where the threads were knotted and the loose ends hung.’

Of course she could always get a job. The old European order is having to make way for newly wealthy families who are all to keen to employ well connected social secretaries to make introductions for them; this has been a success for Carry Fisher who has accepted her role as a disgraced married women and she organises a family for Lily. But the jealous tentacles of the old order find their way in, gossip is a currency understood at every social level and Lily’s ruin is sealed. ‘The winged Furies were now prowling gossips who dropped in on each other for tea.’

Lawrence Seldon actually works for his living as a lawyer and along with his cousin Gerty Farish (she of the dingy apartment), remain Lily’s friends throughout and it’s through them that Lily sees a more noble way of life. Seldon is often seen with Lily in cosy indoor settings or pastoral outdoor ones, he sees that she is a ‘victim of the civilisation which had produced her. . . the links of (her) bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate’, she admires his sensitivity and as the novel goes on she sees Gerty as the goodness that she is. But pride gets in the way of a really meaningful friendship with Gerty and Seldon can just never quite come up to the mark – is he really, underneath all the talk, just as dazzled by appearances as everyone else? I think so.

Ultimately, Lily is defeated by her society, ‘she’s condemned and banished without trial’ by friends who save themselves without scruple, it’s a tragic story but told with such vividness and wit that it felt fresh and alive.

23 thoughts on “The House of Mirth

  1. Lovely review, Jane! I enjoyed reading this beautiful albeit tragic story. Lily Bart is such a complex and captivating character and her tragic end was inevitable in that ruthless patriarchal society. Edith Wharton is my favorite writer and I just love how she captures the bygone era of old world aristocratic NY. Much as I loved this novel, I preferred The Age of Innocence which she wrote at a later time as a more mature writer. I am also looking forward to reading The Custom of the Country.

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    1. Thank you! I always think a really good character is one that can stand on their own away from their particular book/film, and Lily Bart can certainly do that – this was the first Wharton I’ve read but I’ll certainly be reading more!

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  2. Lovely to read your thoughts on this novel – and on Lily, who is such a complex and conflicted character. I can’t quite recall it exactly, but there’s a passage about Lily being trapped in a gilded cage that seems to sum up her predicament so clearly. A truly wonderful character study and a scalpel-like dissection of the society that ensnares her.

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      1. I read Ethan Frome twice in a row, I loved it so much. I haven’t done that since I was a teenager!
        I started The Age of Innocence last year but couldn’t concentrate on it so put it away again. Some books just need to wait until I’m on annual leave!
        Also in its favour is that Ethan Frome is short 😉

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  3. A bit like Rose I admired Ethan Frome but am leery of reading something else by her which wields the scalpel of her social observations so unflinchingly. And this seems to do just that!

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  4. Your reviews are so good, Jane, thank you! I was totally into reading this as my first Wharton; I have it on my shelves with several others of hers. But then I read of the tragic ending and I think… maybe not right now. But you have added to the growing argument in favour of reading her books. She does sound a marvellous writer!

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  5. What a lovely thing to say Sandra, thank you! Although there is plenty of wit I can’t say it’s a happy book but very readable with lots of social and character analysis without the density of Henry James (although I’ve only read one of his as well!). I hope you’ll find it a good read when you get around to it.

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  6. Ah, you were much more kindly disposed towards Lily than I was – I mostly wanted to hit her over the head with a frying pan screaming “Get a job, you useless parasite!” Looking back at my review I was rather brutal to her, I find, but honestly she deserved it. A brilliant portrayal of the society though, but cold – I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of them,

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    1. I did shout at her a lot to get a job – even in the hat shop she couldn’t work ‘front of house’ in case someone should see her! but I thought she was a very convincing victim of the society she loved so much. I agree that they were all horrible characters!

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  7. A lovely review, Jane. I’ve heard this serialised on the radio, a couple of times, and loved it. It’s high up on my TBR list already, but perhaps now, I’ll make it my summer read.

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  8. Thank you Cath. I didn’t know anything about this before I started reading but now I think it would make a good summer read – all those garden parties and intense emotions!

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  9. Jane, this is a fantastic review. You really “got” Lily and the world she supported that ultimately betrayed her. This book is one of my top 10 of all time and Wharton is one of my very favorite people. I’ve read House of Mirth twice and plan to read it again in October. Wharton was prolific and if you are looking for something else to read, Summer is a good choice. It’s a novella, a form she also excelled in. Publishers often publish Ethan Frome and Summer together.

    Get. A. Job. hahaha, How many times did *I* yell that, even the second time around!!

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  10. Thank you Laurie! It’s sad isn’t it that we can see a job could have been the making of her, the end could have been very different. I’m pleased you recommend Summer because I have a copy waiting, she’s definitely a writer I’m glad to have discovered!

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