I adore Edith Wharton. The first novel I read by her was The Age of Innocence, which blew me away. Since then, I have read the marvelous The Custom of the Country as well as her New York Stories, an excellent publication by NYRB Classics. Not surprisingly, The House of Mirth is another brilliant read, fully deserving of its classic status.
The House of Mirth is one of Edith Wharton’s top-tier New York society novels showcasing the social trajectory of its unforgettable heroine, Lily Bart, and the ultimate price she pays for defying convention.
Our protagonist Lily Bart is beautiful, sophisticated, witty – the cynosure of all eyes. In her late twenties, Lily is now an orphan. But despite her impoverished means, Lily is cultured and discerning, a product of her upbringing that values wealth and luxury and abhors dinginess in all its forms.
Being a part of the elite New York social circle – a world of Trenors, Dorsets and Brys – demands verve and personality of which Lily has plenty, and money of which Lily pretty much has none. Lily now resides with her aunt Mrs Peniston, a woman whose ideas of Old New York and its mores are at odds with Lily’s. While Lily relies on the generosity of her well-heeled friends, she is conscious that this can’t be a permanent solution. The only course of action that can relieve her of financial cares and elevate her to an equal footing with her peers is a good marriage.
It seems simple, straightforward enough and Lily even chances upon a potential prized catch – Percy Gryce. Gryce is one of those shy, awkward young men but from a family blessed with immense wealth. Lily is confident of her charms in making Gryce fall in love with her, and even succeeds as per plan. Yet when the time comes to seal the deal, she chickens out.
And this is what makes Lily a complex but fascinating creation – she craves for wealth and security but can’t bring herself to marry if she’s not in love. She is attracted to Lawrence Selden, a lawyer, who does not much care for the trappings of the rich and is content being on the fringes of elite society, but he does not have enough means to cater to Lily’s upwardly mobile aspirations. In a way, Lily is aware that she can’t marry Selden, even if she greatly enjoys their conversations and the playful banter between them. It is precisely one of these encounters with Selden that provides Lily an unflattering glimpse of the likely dullness of her existence were she to marry Gryce, even if it means a secure future for her.
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 over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic…Sometimes, I think it’s just flightiness – and sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for. And it’s the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting study.
It’s an opportunity missed, but Lily takes it in her stride. Lily’s appetite for leisure and luxury, though, does not wane and her proclivity for playing bridge – a wealthy pastime – causes her to amass gambling debts. To pay these off, Lily commits a big blunder, a grievous mistake, the ramifications of which will haunt her for the rest of her life. She turns to Gus Trenor – her friend Judy’s husband – and entrusts her income to him to invest in stocks. Her lack of business experience means that she fails to understand the consequences of her actions before it’s too late.
She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that 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.
The House of Mirth, then, is a scathing portrayal of New York Society in the early 20th century with its ridiculous emphasis on how things ‘appear’ rather than how things ‘actually are.’ Reeking with double-standards, it’s a society governed by rigid moral codes and social customs, stubbornly resistant to new ways of thinking. The newer set that Lily moves in possibly seems more unconventional, atleast when it comes to modes of entertaining and the idea of marriage than what was acceptable in Mrs Peniston’s time. Yet, in many ways, certain viewpoints failed to evolve. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the status of single women.
Men could do as they pleased, their actions were never judged. Even married women enjoyed some license – a married woman could be a harmless flirt, something that was tolerated if her husband did not make a big deal about it. But a single woman had to be tremendously careful and on her guard lest she be judged wrongly. Clearly, it was a society where gender inequality was at its peak, where a single woman could be harshly treated by both men and women alike for even a minor misstep. It also brought to the fore the lack of opportunities for women, their only ambition being to secure a wealthy match for a life of perennial comfort. A woman living independently did not get the credit it deserved.
In this scenario, Lily Bart makes for an unconventional, tragic heroine – vivacious and witty on one hand, and incredibly naïve on the other. Given the aspirations of her mother, Lily’s upbringing has been fed on a diet of how to conduct herself in society, a largely ornamental role with the sole purpose of marrying. Lily knows only how to see herself through the eyes of her social set, and when they unforgivably turn against her, it increasingly becomes a monumental task to rehabilitate herself.
Always accustomed to the rich and their ways, Lily has not learnt to do anything else, and she lacks the aptitude to eke out an independent living. And yet it’s the nuances in her character that set her apart from the social circle she moves in. For one, she is quite self-aware of her position, and secondly it’s the central dilemma plaguing her (whether to marry for love or for money) that makes her so interesting. It’s her uniqueness that attracts Lawrence Selden to her even if he knows that he can’t satisfy her financially.
While reading this novel, I could not help but compare Lily Bart to Undine Spragg of The Custom of the Country. Both heroines want to be a part of the pinnacle of society, but while Undine is driven by blind ambition caring little for how her actions impact others, Lily’s desires are more complex, which is also why she cuts a more sympathetic figure.
Edith Wharton’s writing as ever is marvelous and incisive, and the novel brims with fully realized characters and brilliantly rendered scenes and set pieces. Wharton dissects the inner workings of New York society with consummate skill and precision, and her astute observations on its various hypocrisies are spot on especially the point on how women are always at the mercy of the perceptions of others. A novel of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, Lily’s inevitable downfall takes on a whole new level of poignancy that is quite heart-rending in the final section. All in all, another stunning novel from Wharton’s oeuvre!