GAN Quest: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Walking the high wire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the house of mirth 2Beautiful Lily Bart, trained from birth to take her place in the highest echelons of New York society of the late 19th century, lacks the money to maintain her position in this elite and snobbish group, so must marry well. At the age of twenty-nine her options are beginning to narrow, so she must do it soon before her beauty begins to fade. But Lily has a problem – she is unable to bring herself to marry purely for money and has met only one man who inspires passion – a man who doesn’t possess either the wealth or the desire to live the kind of life Lily must have. This is the story of Lily’s gradual descent through the social classes as a series of bad decisions causes her to lose the one thing more important to this shallow society than beauty – her reputation. Along the way, she will gain some self-knowledge and learn to value her self-respect more than her status. Well, almost…

Original illustrations by AB Wenzell
Original illustrations by AB Wenzell

If only I could have loved Lily! If I could at any point have felt that she were worthy of a week of my life, or a moment of Selden’s (an adulterer, so not a particularly high standard to reach)! It is undoubtedly true that books affect us differently depending on when we read them, and I suspect that had I read this when I was eighteen, it would have delighted me nearly as much as Ms Austen’s books did at that age and, like them, would probably then have remained a favourite. In fact, for a large part of the beginning, I found myself comparing Lily to Austen’s equally unlikeable heroine, Emma. But even in Emma, Austen tempers her view of a society that restricts women to the unpleasantnesses of the marriage mart by having a little humour and some fundamentally decent characters. In The House of Mirth, Wharton invites us to sneer at the characters rather than laugh with or even at them, and the most decent man is an adulterer who then snubs Lily for doing considerably less than he did. Accurate, of course, as a representation of the inequality of women, but hardly likely to make the reader warm towards him. Not this reader, at any rate.

the house of mirth original illustration 3

The book gives a cuttingly brilliant portrayal of this society and of the basic amorality at the heart of it. Money clears the path to good reputation – one can be forgiven anything if one is rich enough. But commit the crime of poverty and one is left balancing precariously on a high wire, without a safety net. And Lily doesn’t have the self-control to stop herself from swaying with each wind that blows. Her fall is described with what feels like great authenticity. She doesn’t plummet to her doom – rather she lands high up on a hill and then slips gradually down. This lets Wharton show the various strata of society, from the established and well-born, through the nouveau riche, to the rich but not quite respectable, and finally to the dinginess of genteel poverty that Lily has been brought up most to fear. Lily has opportunities to break her fall but each time, as she reaches the crunch, her pride won’t let her make the sacrifice that would be necessary.

Gillian Anderson and Etic Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?
Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?

The writing is, of course, excellent, as is Wharton’s insight into the workings of this society and the characters who inhabit it. But I found it a cold novel, without the contrasts that might have lent it some much needed warmth. I liked no-one, and actually I suspect that was Wharton’s intention. Being shallow, however, I need someone to care about to make a novel really work for me – and I couldn’t care about Lily, however hard I tried. Oh yes, by the end I felt sorry for her but, truthfully, not terribly. Her ambitions are so petty, her hardships so cushioned, her decisions so egotistical. She represents everything that is worst about a society where worth is measured by wealth, and just as I wouldn’t regret the passing of that kind of society, I couldn’t get worked up about this one unimportant little hanger-on. Get a job, was my constant cry! But no, Lily couldn’t even manage that. Become a companion to a rich old lady, then, I shrieked at her! No, no, she replied, I must attend parties and look more beautiful than everyone else or my life is not worth living. I felt forced to agree with the latter part of that sentence. And thus, when we wound slowly, slowly, slowly to the inevitable end, I regret to say I… giggled. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to, honestly! I really hoped I’d sob!

the house of mirth original illustration 2

I don’t at all think my reaction means that the book fails, however. Apart from a rather sickly sweet finale (hence the giggling), I suspect my reaction was very much what Wharton intended to inspire. Certainly she wasn’t holding these people up for admiration and, as a social critique, I feel the book works wonderfully well. (I felt at points, though, that Wharton was far from immune from the attitudes and snobberies she was criticising – her depiction of the Jewish Rosedale, for example, and her stereotyping of the ‘poor’.) In the end, the lack of any characters that I could fully sympathise with (poor Gerty, too pathetically good to be true, I fear), meant that, like Emma, my admiration for the book never quite grew into love.

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Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWithout doubt, it gives a brilliant depiction of the various levels of rich society of the time and of the hypocrisy at the heart of it.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I’d say the perspective of a woman falling through the various levels is an innovative way to examine the workings of this society.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – I found the writing curiously cold, but nonetheless penetrating and excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.


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So not The Great American Novel, and with only four stars and four GAN flags, not even A Great American Novel, I fear. But it’s still a good and important novel that I’m glad to have read. The only thing holding it back from being a great novel for me is that I couldn’t learn to love Lily…

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