The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
Wow, so first week of school + family in town + weekend trip upstate really does = very little free reading time. But I did manage to finish The House of Mirth this week, so that’s good. Edith Wharton is so great; though I didn’t love The House of Mirth quite as much as I did Ethan Frome, I was once again completely bowled over by her smooth, easy, but detailed style. Another book of hers will likely confirm her as one of my new favorite writers.
Lily Bart is a lovely New York City socialite, somewhere in her late twenties, in the early 1900’s. And she is unmarried. Which of course, in her time and place, is a serious problem. Her gambling, her flirtations, and her debts all take on a new meaning under this light. She acknowledges the superficiality of her society, but is addicted to luxury and will do all she can to keep up appearances. She eschews the double standard which allows unmarried men greater agency and confidence than it does to single women, but she also believes that marriage may be the only solution to her growing problems. She is somewhat torn between a well-off but boring new acquaintance, and an old friend, who she loves but refuses to marry, though it seems she would have agreed under better, richer circumstances–but neither of these men becomes her husband. Slowly, then quickly, her friends begin to turn on her, fabricating scandals to save face. A single woman of her age is not to be trusted.
Wharton’s ability to unveil everyone’s social agenda, with every word and every gesture, is uncanny. And oh, the agendas, so minutely executed! Is no one really just friends here? In Lily Bart’s world, anyway, the answer is no. Everyone is somehow being used–for popularity, for money, for looks–by everyone else, at any given time. It’s exhausting, really. But Wharton’s power is in really digging around in there, and making all intricate manipulations clearly apparent to the reader, though they may remain obscured at times to Lily, Selden et al.
The only thing that kept me from Ethan Frome levels of adoration here though, I think, was just that I didn’t really vibe with Lily Bart very well. I’d expect her to do one thing, and she’d do another. Though her agendas were clear, the motivations behind them weren’t always. I didn’t feel I understood her very well. We never seemed to be on the same page. She kept changing her mind about things, which is reasonable of course especially given what she was dealing with, but it was hard to keep up and left me feeling a bit cold.
This was unquestionably a wonderful look at the plight of single women in high society in early 1900’s NY, and a good example of Wharton’s brilliance, but for me it was not the very best of either.
In other news, the Don Quixote read-a-long continues happily, determinedly, for the next few weeks. I will be prioritizing this in my reading, so it may continue to be a little quiet around here for a while.
And now, to tackle my unread blog feeds! Ack!