Although I have lived in America for a long time now, I have not managed to pick up any Edith Wharton this entire time, primarily because I thought it would be a boring high-society book. As I spread my wings in the world of the Classics, I decided to try her first novel, “House of Mirth”, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Yes, it was a New York High Society novel, but there was nothing boring about it. In fact, I had a hard time putting it down and really enjoyed it. I even have her “Age of Innocence’ placed quite high up on the TBR pile now.
Wharton was fortunate to be born into a very rich family – the saying “Keeping up with the Joneses” is said to originate with her father’s family who were…the Joneses. This background proved to be very useful and a mine of information for her writing, and is used eloquently in “House of Mirth.” HoM has a feisty protagonist called Lily Bart, who, although born poor, has a “champagne taste on a beer budget.” She has been taught by her mother to have high materialistic expectations but with no way to make a living, she is forced to live on the largess of her richer friends.
She is also taught that she can be very picky with regard to who she marries, and she can as she is well admired, but she is torn between the desire to have a rich luxurious life or to have a life built on love and mutual respect. She cannot see a way to mingle both of those and so it turns into an “either/or” situation that only gets worse as she gets older.
Having no family money to live on, Lily is forced to live a nomadic life moving from house to mansion to castle of her rich friends’ families. She is successful at hiding her poverty, but as her life becomes more and more precarious as she ages and has no husband, she turns more desperate to find someone. One thing that I really liked about this novel was that it must have been very cutting edge for the time that it was written addressing gender roles and concerns which were not really talked about or admitted at that time.
In the early twentieth century, US and British society was such that the only way for a woman to succeed was to marry a wealthy husband, and as you got older and your chances to do so were reduced, your choices were reduced significantly. Lily was getting close to thirty, and she had rashly turned down some good offers in her earlier years. She is coquettish and immature in how she treats her relationships, always viewing men with the idea of what they can provide her and the women in terms of how they can help her somehow. However much I dislike that from my twenty-first century mindset, I am not sure that I can fully condemn her as her choices were very limited compared to now. How I would know that I would be that different if I was in her situation?
Lily travels and lives in style, but as time goes on, she lives in reduced circumstances and despite offers of marriage, she turns them down always wanting something better. Towards the end of the book, we see how tough life was for a single woman – so few choices. I thought the ending was a let-down, but after having had so edgy a heroine who flaunted societal rules, perhaps that was the “safest” way for her to end up. (I won’t give away the ending though. Wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.)
She is amazingly naïve in many ways, and ends up with some huge problems of (mostly) her own creation, but Wharton seems to have been using her as a foil, a template in some ways, to show the restrictiveness of life for women back then. Lily is a clear demonstration for how tricky life could be at times for single women, and although she is not shown in the best light and is not particularly likeable at times, she is a true to life character.
When it was first published, it was a best seller but some did complain that it didn’t reflect well on the higher echelons of society. Perhaps it was a little true to life for comfort for some people.
Really enjoyed this way more than I had expected, and will definitely read more of Wharton’s work. She was friends with Henry James who is another writer with whom I am not familiar, so will see if his books show potential for me. I love how reading one book can lead you on to another book… It’s like falling down the rabbit hole! 🙂