Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

dscf1362As you can tell from past hauls and past reviews, I am utterly in love with the Penguin English Library collection.  I have my boyfriend to thank for a vast majority of the ones I own, and also an inability to leave any behind when I spot a new one. I will be the first to admit that I have a strong case of collectors mentality.  Having said that, as beautiful as they are, it is not just the owning of these books which I hunger for – I really do want to read them all! One of my biggest passions within the reading world is for books which are deemed as ‘Classic’, and naturally, the Penguin English Library editions also appeal massively to this. Whenever I can’t quite work out what I feel like picking up next, it is usually to this section of my book shelf that I gravitate. The latest result of this came in the form of Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth.

The House of Mirth follows a two year period in the life of Lily Bart, an attractive woman who is a part of the wealthy high society of New York. Although originally born to a family of good social standing, we meet Lily at a point in her life where both her parents are deceased, and her penchant for expensive dresses and gambling at cards has left her in a rapidly increasing financial crisis. Over the two years, we watch as various circumstances affect Lily as she tries to maintain her place in society, striving to marry a wealth man in order to continue her luxurious lifestyle. Yet, in a world where financial means appears to be the biggest contributor to character, Lily’s life does not flow as smoothly as she would hope in such a judgemental section of society.

As you can imagine, the themes of marriage, women, love and money are all  extremely interlinked within this book. For Lily, she has learnt to believe that a woman must marry for money, in order to maintain her position as a well regarded woman of social ranking. As Seldon, a man  whose lack of financial means allows him to perhaps view this society with a greater clarity, shrewdly states:

‘Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?’ (p. 10).

And Lily’s almost defeated reply of ‘I suppose so. What else is there?’ (p. 10) only adds further to the way women are perceived as having one goal in life: that of making themselves into a viable commodity in order to marry and so earn their place in the hierarchy. In the novel, I did not necessarily feel sympathy for the women and the position they possess. Whilst they are definitely under the constraints of a patriarchy, many of the women seem to be active participators, even going so far as to crush their feminine opponents to get what they want. Unless you are Gerty Farish, a woman living off very humble means, there seems to be little room for true affection and care for those of the same sex.

That is not to say that the women are to be wholly blamed, producing a rather complex contradiction. They are, after all a product of what society has made them.  In a very illuminating speech, Gerty states of Lily that:

‘You know how dependant she has always been on ease and luxury – how she has hated what was shabby and ugly and uncomfortable. She can’t help it – she was brought up with those ideas, and had never been able to find her way out of them. But now all the things she cared for have been taken from her, and the people who taught her to care for them have abandoned her too…’ (p. 314).

In the novel, this paragraph is ever the more poignant because it comes from poor Gerty. She is an outsider, not an active participator in the rich world she is excluded from, yet she can clearly see how women like Lily have been conditioned. She, a woman whose life can been seen as a misery, is able to sympathise for those whose lives she is unable to completely join. The novel really did make me hover between the fine lines of condemning these women for the parts they play, and, like Gerty, sympathising with them.

Lily is given a certain amount of leeway, and this is largely suggested to be because of her beauty. Yet her beauty also makes her situation even more perilous. As a beautiful, and unmarried woman, she can easily fall victim to the scandalous rumours following women who do not have the title of wife to protect them. If she were married, it is suggested that Lily would be free to do what she wants, with her morals open to less scrutiny because she has the name and wealth of her husband to fall back upon, as well as the dignified position as a wife. Lily, speaking of marriage, declares that ‘A girl must, a man may, if he chooses’ (p. 13). She knows that ‘the clothes are the background, the frame . . .’ and she is ‘expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop – and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership’ (p. 13). This description suggests that the very act of marriage is a business transaction of mutual gain; the man gets a beautiful woman on his arm and the woman gains the status and protection of being married. By highlighting this, Warton illuminates the hypocrisies of this society.

Through her novel Wharton attempts to provide us with a cross section of the aristocracy of New York. New York high society is not something I am very familiar with (Victorianist through and through!), so it gave me an interesting insight into how this period may have worked. Wharton gives us a diverse character list, ranging from the pompous bourgeois families, to those such as Mr Rosedale who are attempting to infiltrate this inner circle with newly made money. Despite this, I did not feel overly drawn towards the characters, or very invested in their lives and decisions. Looking back, whilst some characters stand out more than others (for both good and bad reasons), I cannot say that anyone in particular, including Lily, really struck me. Except, possibly, for Gerty.

Whilst the novel does follows a coherent time line, I would not say that it has the clearest of plot lines, and it is certainly not designed to be a fast paced novel. The whole point is to bring the reader into a greater intimacy with the working of the society Lily is a part of, and  I do not think that this can be done with great speed. Whilst reading the novel, I did often feel as if the writer was almost reminiscent (intentionally or not), or an Austen novel, recreating an examination of society, and the characters within it. Comparing her to Austen, I think this novel fell quite short, but that is obviously a harsh comparison to make. Likewise, whilst I find the various romantic relations within Austen’s novels to be authentic, I did not care much for any of Lily’s romantic involvements, and did not really see the point or purpose of them, except as an attempt of sorts to show a different side of sorts to her.

Edith Wharton is a skilled writer, following somewhat in the traditions of those great classic novels which are usually so dominated by white middle aged men. She certainly shows her intellect through her writing, but I think this can often verge on becoming overpowering. For me personally, it did not have that smooth flow of prose which I so long for with a classic novel, and I often had moments where I felt the narrative was overindulged with a broad vocabulary. There were also moments within the dialogue where I felt that the conversation became somewhat stilted because of certain word choices, whereas a much simpler approach would often have sufficed with a greater pay off.

I did not dislike this novel, but I did not love it either. Despite my feelings, I do think Wharton is a skilled writer, deserving of her place in the literary cannon, and I would be interested to see how her other novels compare. Have any of you read anything by her? What did you think?

Publisher: Penguin English Library

Rating: 2*/5*


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