The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

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!

The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

Many moons ago I had read Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and was blown away by it. It was the novel that earned her the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman to do so. It is one of those novels I plan to revisit sometime soon.

The Age of Innocence is one of the three ‘society’ novels that Wharton is famous for, the other two being The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country, and it was the latter that tempted me first.

The protagonist, or should we say anti-heroine of The Custom of the Country is the uniquely named Undine Spragg, easily one of the most appalling and yet highly fascinating characters in fiction.

We first meet Undine in the Hotel Stentorian in New York where she has recently moved in with her parents. The Spraggs are originally from Apex City (a fictional town somewhere in the Midwest), but they shift to New York so that Undine can realize her ambition of being part of the elite society in the city.

Undine is tremendously beautiful, a fact she is well aware of and knows how to use to her advantage. But there is much she is yet to learn about the codes and customs of Old New York. In the meanwhile, she captures the imagination of Ralph Marvell, who belongs to an old and respectable family in the city and they marry.

Undine is soon to realize that people who constitute Old New York are not necessarily well moneyed. The Marvells live comfortably but they have modest means and it is not enough to whet Undine’s rather expensive tastes. Ralph is a gentleman with no eye for business or work, and aspires to become an author. He receives a monthly allowance from his grandfather, but Undine’s insatiable desire for rich clothes and a decadent lifestyle means that they are also compelled to rely on the support of Undine’s father Mr Spragg.

Ralph and Undine are as different as chalk and cheese, which becomes increasingly apparent during their honeymoon. They travel to Europe. While Ralph is content to be alone with Undine, appreciating the quiet countryside and looking for inspiration to begin his novel, Undine is unhappy. She craves the life of big hotels, of being surrounded by people, dining and socializing. Ralph relents and they head to the Alpine town of St Moritz in Switzerland, where Undine, with her newly acquired set of friends, delves headlong into a life of dining at smart restaurants and umpteen shopping expeditions, a charade that continues subsequently in Paris as well.

As her extravagant lifestyle eats into their finances, despite Ralph’s many attempts to rein her in, cracks begin to appear in their relationship.

During their first days together it had seemed as though pecuniary questions were the last likely to be raised between them. But his marital education had since made strides, and he now knew that a disregard for money may imply not the willingness to get on without it but merely a blind confidence that it will somehow be provided. If Undine, like the lilies of the field, took no care, it was not because her wants were as few but because she assumed that care would be taken for her by those whose privilege it was to enable her to unite floral insouciance with Sheban elegance.

The arrival of their son Paul does nothing to soothe Undine, who feels constrained by their limited circumstances. Ralph, meanwhile, also tries to reconcile himself to Undine’s many moods which keep oscillating depending on the money at her disposal and various amusements at hand.

Then there’s also the looming presence of Elmer Moffatt, a self-made man and a go getter. He is a man from Undine’s past in Apex City – much before she makes her entry into New York society. We are given an inkling of this right at beginning of the novel in a conversation between Mr and Mrs Spragg when they apprehensively discuss Mr Moffatt’s appearance in New York, a man Undine wants to have nothing to do with.

I won’t dwell anymore on the plot, although a lot more happens.

Undine Spragg, meanwhile, is a quite a character. She wants to be at the pinnacle of fashionable society, the talk of the town during the season and finds marriage as the fastest way to do it.

But, alas, while she expects wealth and respectability, she ends up getting only one of them, never both.

She wanted, passionately and persistently, two things which she believed should subsist together in any well-ordered life: amusement and respectability…

Undine believes in the power of her beauty and with it the ability to get what she demands. This takes a toll on Ralph who is driven to dabble in business to support her even though he has no aptitude for it.

On one hand, Undine has a single-minded focus of attaining material possessions and getting them despite suffering various setbacks in the process. Yet her idea of success also depends a lot on how she perceives herself in the eyes of others. She is always yearning for the unattainable with the result that she remains unhappy in most of the situations she finds herself in. She is frankly horrid to poor Ralph, and yet it is perversely fascinating to watch how she takes her failures on her chin and to just move on.

In many ways she has quite a few common traits with Moffatt – both refuse to be bowed down by setbacks and while Moffatt strives for success and wealth in business, Undine aspires for it in her married life.

In this way, Wharton gives a wider view of the newly rich in America and their zeal for money as a key driving force. Undine, in a way epitomizes this, in her wanting to spend the money now, on the spot rather than save it for a distant future. In the later sections of the novel, Wharton also successfully contrasts the American obsession with material wealth with the European ideals of traditions and age old customs. With respect to this point particularly, here is Frenchman Raymond de Chelles speaking to Undine…

‘You come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven’t had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they’re dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have – and we’re fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us.’

Divorce is also a key plot device and a dominant theme in the novel. Wharton subtly encapsulates the implications of ending a marriage for a woman and how it restricts her standing in polite society. Interestingly, this novel was published around the time Wharton herself had just divorced her husband. Clearly, while more and more women had begun to opt for divorce across America, it was still unheard of in Old New York at the time.

Wharton’s prose as ever is top notch, elegant and incisive. This is an incredibly immersive novel where the pace never lets up. It is packed with fully realized characters and Wharton’s keen and subtle insights into society – both American and European – at the time.

Overall, The Custom of the Country is an absolutely brilliant novel and I would place it right up there with her masterpiece The Age of Innocence.