Saturday, June 28, 2014

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

In 19th century New York, a young woman lets one suitor after another slip away as she dithers over whom to marry in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Will Lily Bart choose wealth and a boring circumscribed life, or else follow her heart and wed Selden... but then be unhappy when he cannot support her extravagant tastes?

My summary doesn't do justice to this novel that was first published in 1905, nor does it capture what I love about it. I responded to the immersion in a particular place and time, the fascinating characters (even though we are kept rather at a distance from them), the stylish prose, the moral issues, and the examination of women's roles in society.

My Two Bichons book club decided to read The House of Mirth partly so that we could compare it to one we had discussed previously: Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings. It was a good pairing. I found Lily Bart as irritating as Julie Jacobson, then gradually came around to appreciate them. The choices they made held my interest from the start.

Not having read anything by Wharton previously, I was surprised to come across a familiar passage. It was used as an example in a book (I can't remember which) on how to write well. The excerpt included this exchange between 19-year-old Lily and her mother, who has shielded her daughter from the realities of household economy:
  'I really think, mother,' she said reproachfully, 'we might afford a few fresh flowers for luncheon. Just some jonquils or lilies-of-the-valley-- '
  Mrs. Bart stared. Her own fastidiousness had its eye fixed on the world, and she did not care how the luncheon-table looked when there was no one present but the family. But she smiled at her daughter's innocence.
  'Lilies-of-the-valley,' she said calmly, 'cost two dollars a dozen at this season.'
  Lily was not impressed. She knew very little of the value of money.
  'It would not take more than six dozen to fill that bowl.' she argued.
Maureen is the only one in our group who had previously read The House of Mirth. While she still loved the book thirty years later, Maureen got completely different things from it this time around. She saw the characters in a new light and noticed far more humour than she had remembered.

Wharton's prose is often witty or satirical. In a restaurant scene amid high society in the French Riviera, journalist Dabham is "wedged in modest watchfulness between two brilliant neighbours" where he can witness wardrobe malfunction.
"Mr Dabham had "leisure to note the elegance of the ladies' gowns. Mrs. Dorset's, in particular, challenged all the wealth of Mr. Dabham's vocabulary: it had surprises and subtleties worthy of what he would have called 'the literary style.' At first, as Selden had noticed, it had been almost too preoccupying to its wearer; but now she was in full command of it, and was even producing her effects with unwonted freedom. Was she not,
indeed, too free, too fluent, for perfect naturalness?"
EPL has hundreds of book club kits.  
While I enjoyed Wharton's style, my initial progress was slow. In the Penguin Classics edition -- which was in the Edmonton Public Library's book club kit -- the lines are tightly spaced, the font thickness is disconcertingly uneven, and the footnotes distracting. I switched to the Blackstone audiobook* (narrated by Anna Fields) and the story took flight. As someone in my book group commented, the ups and downs of Lily's fortunes are reminiscent of something by Charles Dickens.

I will definitely read more by Wharton, although I'm not sure whether that will be The Age of Innocence or Ethan Frome or both. Before that, however, I'll be tackling a different classic. I just finished listening to Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch and then (coincidently) read Zadie's Smith's essay about Middlemarch in Changing My Mind. When I'm ready for another classic, the first one that I'll pick up is George Eliot's Middlemarch.

*eAudiobook downloaded from the Edmonton Public Library's Overdrive collection.


Laura said...

This book is the best. I was so shocked at the end. I loved The Age of Innocence and liked Ethan Frome but have to recommend Summer, which I'd never heard of till I was searching out novellas... great coming of age story, and really dirty, in an Edwardian way of course!

Lindy said...

The ending of The House of Mirth is one of the aspects that makes this book perfect for discussion. (Did Lily intend to do this, or not?)

Thanks for recommending Summer. With such a big TBR pile, I get more excited about shorter books. EPL has two audio editions and I will sample both to see which narrator I prefer. (Lorna Raver or Grace Conlin)