Sadly, I was disappointed with one of Wharton’s earliest works; The House of Mirth. Having thoroughly enjoyed The Age of Innocence, I anticipated another work of art, but, alas, it was not to be. Perhaps it was the unlikable characters or the upper crust tone, but I found myself often annoyed and counting pages whilst I read.
Wharton’s tale is set in 1890’s New York and opens in Grand Central Station where we first meet Lily Bart, a women destined for sorrow. Wharton’s own upper crust upbringing gave her the insider’s view that comes through in this voluminous work.
The rich behave badly, the poor slovenly, with one or two from each class thrown in who show some humanity. Desperately trying to squeeze her way into a life among the elite, Lily sets herself up for failure after failure and as she winds her way down to the life of the working class, finds she fits in nowhere at all.
The breathtakingly beautiful Lily Bart believes it is her right and destiny to live a life of leisure among New York’s aristocrats. Her father dies shortly after acknowledging his state of financial ruin. Lily’s mother instills in her daughter the belief that she is entitled to live luxuriously and that her looks will ensure a marriage to a wealthy man. After mother and daughter live on the kindness of relatives, Lily’s mother dies, but leaves her determined to never live a “dingy” life. Lily is sent to live with her paternal aunt, Mrs.Peniston, only after no other relative claims her. Lily sabotages numerous marital opportunities, falls in love with the unwealthy Lawrence Selden, and spirals out of the society pages into a life she believed herself too good for. Self-absorbed, vain and not one to learn from life’s lessons, it was difficult to find sympathy with a character who could think only of her own agenda.
The only man to win Lily’s heart, Lawrence Selden, was the “poor” lawyer, more interested in collecting books than dinner invitations to lavish parties. Selden is one of those people who is easily liked, but little is really known of him. Not quite sure what he saw in Lily, unless perhaps it was her looks and he was more simple than given credit for.
Bertha Dorset, the rich b**tch, invites Lily to join her on a cruise, but it is only a guise so she can carry on an affair with Ned Silverton while Lily occupies her husband, George. When confronted by her husband after staying away all night, she turns the tables and accuses him of having an affair with Lily. Tongues wag and Lily is cast off and on her way down society’s social ladder. You don’t want to mess with this one.
The homely Gerty Farish is quick to defend Lily at all costs, even though she too adores Selden from afar (and even though she is his cousin, but hey it’s the late 19th century, not the 21st). She is independent and lives on her own and is involved with charitable work and still finds the time to shelter Lily while everyone else has turned their back on her. This could have been a remarkable character, but instead became a self-deprecating wallflower happy to blend into the woodwork while Lily accepted her help with disdain.
The feeling he had nourished and given prominence to was one of thankfulness for his escape: he was like a traveller so grateful for rescue from a dangerous accident that at first he is hardly conscious of his bruises. Now he suddenly felt the latent ache, and realized that after all he had not come off unhurt.
One of the surprises of her unoccupied state was the discovery that time, when it is left to itself and no definite demands are made on it cannot be trusted to move at any recognized pace. Usually, it loiters; but just when one has come to count upon its slowness, it may suddenly break into a wild irrational gallop.
Now I am not quite if Ms. Wharton would look down her nose at me or amuse me over tea and scones. She truly had great skill at writing and I’d love to draw some of her talent inward.
My rating for The House of Mirth is a 7 out of 10.
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Next up, Lawrence Durell’s The Alexandria Quartet.…