The House of Mirth is another selection from The Atlantic‘s list of books by and about women that men should read. The novel was published in 1905 and examines the fate of a single woman in New York society who has connections but lacks wealth. Miss Lily Bart loves living well and is known for her great beauty as well as her manners. She always knows the right thing to do and say in her social circle, and her presence is desired at society events. Lily’s goal is the same as most other women in her position — to marry a rich husband with the right connections to maintain this lifestyle of travel, parties and finery. To accomplish this goal, Lily must cultivate her friendships so as to stay invited to society’s inner circle. This becomes increasingly difficult as Lily’s lack of money and growing debts put her in a position that jeopardizes her societal ties and her very future.
Wharton’s writing is a joy to read. Descriptions of characters are often amusing and always colorful. One matron of society is “…a monumental woman with the voice of a pulpit orator and a mind preoccupied with the iniquities of her servants.” Lily’s aunt, Mrs. Peniston “… was the kind of woman who wore jet at breakfast. Lily had never seen her when she was not cuirassed in shining black, with small tight boots, and an air of being packed and ready to start; yet she never started.” And on her spinster cousin: “Grace Stepney’s mind was like a kind of moral fly-paper, to which the buzzing items of gossip were drawn by a fatal attraction, and where they hung fast in the toils of an inexorable memory.”
While Wharton’s characterizations of individuals are vivid and entertaining, it’s her dissection of this particular social class that is so illuminating, especially the position of women within the upper class. Lily’s beauty is her power, and she knows it. She has had a few opportunities to capitalize on it and marry well but always seems to undermine her own efforts. Her friend Carry Fisher, a divorcee who lives off the wealth of her friends, says, “…sometimes I think it’s because, at heart, she despises the things she’s trying for.” Lily is very fond of the trappings, the finery of society, but she sees that the milieu in which it exists is a crass and dirty place. Her wealthy married friends are happy to have Lily around, but there is a price to their hospitality, whether it’s writing correspondence on behalf of the hostess or keeping a husband preoccupied while the wife engages in an affair. Because Lily is so beautiful and desirable, and because she becomes financially indebted to one of the husbands, she eventually becomes an object of resentment. This is where the real trouble for her begins and Wharton delineates the rigid standards to which women were held. When gossip of Lily’s debts and supposed involvement with married men reaches the ears of her wealthy but tightfisted aunt, Wharton writes, “It was intolerable of a young girl to let herself be talked about; however unfounded the charges against her, she must be to blame for their having been made.” When her friend Gerty Fisher, an independent but somewhat poor single woman, urges Lily to fight against the accusations against her by telling the truth, Lily replies, “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s the easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine because she has a big house and an opera box, and it’s convenient to be on good terms with her.”
The men is Wharton’s world are largely wealthy, capable of funding their wives’ extravagances. In The House of Mirth, however, there are two men who don’t quite fit the mold and both figure prominently in Lily’s life. Lawrence Seldon is socially connected and financially stable but not rich enough for Lily. They are attracted to one another but Seldon prefers to remain detached from society. Simon Rosedale, on the other hand, is extraordinarily wealthy but lacking in connections. Rosedale, who is a Jewish businessman, is infatuated with Lily, but she and most society women find Rosedale’s presence at their gatherings distasteful. By the end of the novel, the image of Rosedale softens and it is apparent that Lily and Rosedale have quite a lot in common. At one point, he tells her, “Why should I mind saying I want to get into society? … a taste for society’s just another kind of hobby…. But I know the quickest way to queer yourself with the right people is to be seen with the wrong ones….”
Lily at first might seem shallow, but she is introspective and understands that she is a product of her upbringing and environment. Lily recognizes that she cannot be satisfied with less than what she wants, and she realizes too late the mistakes she has made. Lily does have some moral rules, unlike many of the circle she aspires to join, and her adherence to those rules, at personal cost, is both admirable and tragic. While I was ambivalent about her at the beginner of the novel, by the end, I admired and pitied her. The House of Mirth grew on me the more I read and has stayed with me.