“I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else. What can one do when one finds that one only fits into one hole?”
It feels like an eternity ago that I finished The House of Mirth. This post has been sitting half-written on my desktop since Wednesday, scheduled for a bit of editing and then posting online on Saturday afternoon. In the end, though, I was just a wee bit hungover yesterday, after heavily celebrating the lovely marriage of some friends the day before. It meant I was good for nothing but napping and consuming carbs, definitely not anything involving thinking. (Un)Fortunately I now find myself at work on a Sunday morning (eurgh) with little to do and so the opportunity to post some thoughts presents itself at last…. Better late than never, right?
The House of Mirth is my first Edith Wharton book and it’s one I expected to like. Some of my favourite books were written during a similar sort of time period and I’d heard good things about this particular novel. It’s the story of Lily Bart, a well-born New York socialite with fashionable friends and expensive tastes. She belongs to a privileged clique of men and women who enjoy lavish parties and long summers in the Riviera, but her own money worries are persistent and she knows that she’ll need to marry well in order to maintain this life of luxury. Thankfully she has all the tools she’ll need to perform her designated role as the decorative wife of a rich man: as well as being widely acknowledged as a beauty, she’s known for her impeccable manners, charm and witty conversation. The trouble is that despite being such a big success on the social scene she’s somehow managed to reach the grand old age of 29 without marrying (imagine that!). As her financial problems intensify she’s increasingly forced to risk her reputation in order to get what she wants.
Lily Bart is a wonderful character and so beautifully written. It feels almost like Wharton has placed you right inside Lily’s head and even though you are a little appalled by some of her thoughts you grow to know her well enough to understand why she thinks this way. She’s not always very nice: she can be scheming, ruthless, insincere, conceited and, on top of all that, hopelessly naive. If ever a young woman was in need of a good slap it was Lily Bart… and yet somehow I fell for her. I think one of the strengths of this novel is that you can pity her and be completely exasperated by her at the same time. She’s complex but her incomprehensibleness make her feel very human.
It was the cruelty of Lily’s situation that really had me hooked. Some of her troubles are clearly of her own making but as a single woman alone in this fashionable, materialistic society she’s particularly vulnerable to gossip and backstabbing. Moreover, the ‘crimes’ she’s judged guilty of are actually very minor. There are several male characters who act despicably and with less dignity than Lily but they are excused and forgiven; Lily, on the other hand, is widely condemned. The social position she so desperately clings to is dependent on her maintaining an impossible feminine ideal, one based on good manners, an immaculate reputation and being seen with the right people. Wharton is excellent at making you see just how weak Lily’s foothold is and how much she has to lose if she fails to comply.
It’s probably quite lucky that I knew very little about the plot of The House Of Mirth before I read it. I’ve since seen several online reviews which describe it as a sort of tragic love story and I’m not sure whether that’s an accurate description. It might well have put me off if I’d seen this first (I’m such a coward). This novel is sad in places, I can’t really lie about that, but not in a mawkish or sentimental sort of way. I also wouldn’t regard love as being its centre. It reminded me a little of Anna Karenina but the causes behind Lily’s downfall are very different to Anna’s and her love interest – if you can call Lawrence Selden that – is a bit ambiguous in my eyes. Is he worthy of her? I’m not sure, but their relationship didn’t take centre stage for me.
Wharton really takes her time with Lily. Her fall from grace is gradual at first but when the cracks in the façade start to appear it becomes completely engrossing. The writing is quite restrained and I was surprised by how modern it feels. It has the power of a slow motion car crash that you can’t quite tear your eyes away from. And I mean that in a good way.
I’ll leave you with this, my favourite quote describing Lily:
“He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external; as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine but that circumstances had fashioned it into a futile shape?”