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The Sunday Salon: The House of Mirth

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in the Berkshires (Massachusetts), with a group of LibraryThing friends.  While there, we toured The Mount, Edith Wharton's estate built in 1902. While living at The Mount, Wharton wrote The House of Mirth, which I just finished reading this morning.  So for today's Salon I present to you my review.  Next week I'll share my June and second quarter wrap-up, and a preview of my Orange July reads.   Have a great week, everyone!
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The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton
462 pages

She usually contrived to avoid being at home during the season of domestic renewal. ... She had so long been accustomed to pass from one country-house to another, till the close of the holidays brought her friends to town, that the unfilled gaps of time confronting her produced a sharp sense of waning popularity. It was as she had said to Selden -- people were tired of her. (p. 149)

Such is the plight of Lily Bart, the tragic heroine of The House of Mirth. At twenty-nine, Lily finds herself unmarried and, upon her mother's death, left without visible means of support. She realizes a husband would provide much-needed security, not to mention the income required to maintain her lavish lifestyle. Yet Lily is so self-absorbed, she unknowingly ruins just about every marriage opportunity presented to her. Lily is terribly naive about the effects of her behavior on others. When she slights a potential suitor, she brushes it off as a matter of little consequence. She is both surprised and hurt when the gentleman abruptly leaves the party. Lily is also completely ignorant of financial matters. After losing a large sum of money at bridge, she allows a friend's husband to invest what was left of her money in the stock market. The investments are profitable, but Lily's appetite for luxury still exceeds the available funds. And, to make matters worse, the investor has definite ideas as to how Lily should "repay" him. Lily has only a couple true friends, notably a young man named Lawrence Selden. Selden's love for Lily is obvious to the reader, but not to the characters. Lily treats him more like a big brother, dismissing thoughts of marrying Selden and setting her sights on wealthier prospects.

In the second half of the novel Lily's relationship and financial difficulties only get worse, and while Lily has a vague idea that things are not as they should be, she prefers to keep her head in the sand. This made for difficult reading; many times I wanted to take Lily by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Then, about 50 pages from the end there was a juicy bit of foreshadowing. The rest of the book was like watching a horror film with partially-covered eyes. Was Wharton really going to do what I thought she'd do? Well, I won't say any more on that ... I'll just say that the ending was fitting.

Edith Wharton is known for her portrayal of New York society at the turn of the 20th century. Much of her work also addresses the rights of women, and in particular the impact of divorce. In House of Mirth, Wharton echoes Virginia Woolf's message that a woman must have "a room of her own and 500 pounds." Lily lacked both, making her extremely vulnerable. And, she had virtually no ability to change her circumstances. Add to that a frivolous attitude, and you have a cautionary tale indeed. ( )

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Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
literaryfeline
Jun. 28th, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
Thank you for your insightful review, Laura. I haven't read any of Edith Wharton's writings but this is one that has been on my radar for awhile now. The turn of the 20th century was an interesting time, especially for women.
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