The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

The House of Mirth used to be one of my favourite novels, though I found with the second read I didn't love it quite as much as I remembered, but, still, I did enjoy it. It was written by Edith Wharton and published in 1905, and it's a critique of the American upper classes.

Lily Bart, the heroine of the tale, is a beautiful, 'well born', not yet married (she is 29, an age whereby she really ought to be), and she has a gambling addiction. With her parents dead and no fortune to speak of, she lives with her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, and she continues to live her life as an upper class socialite despite not having the money to fund it. She spends much of her time with her friends Gus and Judy Trenor at their Bellomont estate playing bridge and looking for a rich man to be her husband, passing over Lawrence Selden who would be perfect were he not poor.

Lily's socialite status and her being so accustomed to living lavishly is her downfall when she relies too much on others' generosity and the suitors she keeps waiting begin to dwindle as her debts rise. When she crosses her friend Bertha her fall from grace is more or less complete and Lily must find employment to survive when she finds herself dependent on sleeping pills.

It is a very moving novel. Wharton portrays Lily's fall convincingly in both the subtle changes and the shocking twists in Lily's financial situation. In this, and in the character of Lawrence Selden we see the cruelty and lack of compassion behind the façade that is the upper classes, and there is a contrast between the authenticity of Selden with the artificial cirlces who Lily initially surrounded herself with. Lily's love of mirth, her gambling addiction, and the circumstances which she found herself in all contributed to this fall from grace, it's too hard to say definitively if she was a victim or an actor in her life. Whatever the case we see the life of an unmarried woman made yet more vulnerable by her precarious financial situation, and the difference between men and women at the turn of the century.

Comments

  1. I’ve only read this Wharton once; I think Age of Innocence is my favourite with all it’s subtleties, nuances & unspoken angst!
    Lily’s end was just too sad.

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    Replies
    1. It was rather.

      I've seen so so many people say they prefer Age of Innocence - I must read that again. I always preferred this! But I'm absolutely going to try Age of Innocence again, probably very soon!

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  2. On the contrary, I loved The House of Mirth on second reading. And I also had a glimpse of similarities in Wharton's writing with Zola. I always think her as the female Zola. I have read The Age of Innocence too, but I loved HoM much better. It's one of my all time favorite.

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    Replies
    1. I didn't think about Wharton as being like a female Zola, but yes you're right, you're completely right!

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