Welcome, Reading Buddies! Just a reminder: the June poll is up. Make sure you vote for your pick! Also, as announced last week, in May we’ll be reading Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf.
The House of Mirth is the third novel by Edith Wharton that I’ve read, and I think so far I’m enjoying it most. I’m listening to the audiobook version read by Anna Fields, and while I do think I’m missing the subtler points of writing and character development and such that I’d catch in print, overall the audio is working out just fine. At this point, I’m about halfway through.
My version includes an intro that I found rather fascinating. Wharton, it turns out, was a pretty interesting person. Did you know she was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature, which she received in 1921 for The Age of Innocence? Or that she was a friend of Henry James, who urged her to turn her literary talents toward New York?
Some other interesting facts, from the intro to my edition and from Wikipedia:
- Wharton was born in 1862 in New York City and died in 1937 of a stroke.
- Some say the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” referred to her father’s family.
- She ended up divorcing her husband, Edward Robbins Wharton, after 23 years of marriage. After the divorce she moved permanently to France.
- In addition to being an author, Wharton was a garden and interior designer.
- Published in 1905, The House of Mirth was Wharton’s first novel to focus on old New York.
- The original title for The House of Mirth was A Moment’s Ornament (taken from one of Wordsworth’s poems), and Wharton’s working title was The Year of the Rose. The House of Mirth refers to Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
Lily Bart, the novel’s central character, is one of the few people in the novel I find I really like. Actually, my feelings toward her are rather complicated: I like her spunk, am annoyed by her helplessness, and feel uncomfortable for her as she tries to work out the best path through the society of the wealthy. I admire that she tries to fend for herself, since she does not have a mother, for instance, to arrange a marriage for her, but I get frustrated when social norms and her own instilled beliefs get in her way. She can be so coy and flighty that I feel like I should be fed up with her, yet compared to the women around her — meek and resentful, cold and calculating, uptight and scandalized — she is rather endearing. She is like a single bright spot, floundering helplessly in a sea of uncaring and superficial souls.
The other character I find myself drawn to, of course, is Lawrence Selden. Like Lily with her female compatriots, Selden stands out in sharp relief to the timid Gryce, the overbearing Trenor, and the stuffy, annoying Dorset. I don’t know where the story is going, exactly, but I have a feeling Lily and Selden will be forever missing one another.
I think it’s apparent in Wharton’s writing that she both knows the ins and outs of New York high society intimately and that she does not look upon that society favorably. The things with which Lily feels compelled to occupy her time, the problems with which she concerns herself, the tug-of-war between what she subconsciously wants and what she must outwardly appear to desire create an inner turmoil within Lily that does not reflect well on the society that creates it. There is, for instance, the day Selden turns up at Bellomont: by interrupting Selden and Bertha and then spending the day with the former instead of meeting Percy Gryce, Lily has managed to undo the future she’d been (admittedly half-heartedly) working toward. The consequences are irrevocably fixed before Lily even discovers what she’s done.
Finally, there is the matter of Gus Trenor. I feel so bad for Lily, who is clearly in over her naive little head when it comes to him. I’ve only just gotten to the altercation in the Trenor home between Gus and Lily, so I don’t know how that will play out. He strikes me as the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, circling round and round and slowly closing in on his young prey. And yet at the same time, he’s sort of just a big dumb lout. I marvel at Wharton’s ability to craft these impossibly complex characters.
That’s all for me for today. Over to you: how are you liking The House of Mirth so far?