Source of book: I own this.
One of the gaps in my reading experience has been the “era of pessimism,” for lack of a better term. I read a lot of the Victorians and earlier, and some of the books of the 20th Century, but not nearly as much as I should have. I think there were two reasons for this. First, my parents, who introduced me to authors like Dickens, Twain, and Hawthorne at a very young age (think single digits) weren’t all that familiar with more modern books - perhaps a result of the schooling they received? I mean, there were some - my mom encouraged me to read The Octopus. But for the most part, we read older books together. The other factor was that my literature curriculum was A Beka, which, while in a few cases quite subversive for a Fundie publication, tended to give the 20th Century - that godless era - a rather short shrift.
So, over the last few years, I have tried to read a wider variety of books and catch up on some of the most important ones I missed. To that end, I read my first Edith Wharton novel: The House of Mirth.
The title comes from Ecclesiastes: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
Wharton was born about a decade before the Gilded Age, into a wealthy New York socialite family - like the characters in this book. As such, she wrote from first-hand knowledge of that society. She also was insulated from charges that this book was sour grapes, that she was from a lower class just jealous of the wealthy. Her own background allowed her to write piercing satire from her own experiences and take her shots against her own tribe, so to speak.
Lily Dale is an impoverished but well born beauty who has been raised since birth for one task: to marry money. At the opening of the book, however, she is at the elderly age of 29, and so far hasn’t succeeded. In part this is because she wishes to marry for love. As she discovers, though, the ultra-wealthy guys tend to be...not very nice people. This much remains true. Excesses of money and power do not tend to build good character, and trust fund babies (like, say Il Toupee) grow up to be entitled assholes.
Lily makes a number of missteps that lead to her crashing out of society, and eventually coming to a tragic end. The first is at the beginning, when she visits her friend Laurence Selden, a respectable but not wealthy lawyer. (He is kind of at the fringe of the top society because of his birth, and he lives a comfortable, but not ostentatious life - but he still earns his living working, which keeps him out of the upper echelons.) She is seen leaving by Mr. Rosedale, a Jewish banker trying to rise in society.
Next, she chickens out of marrying Percy Gryce, a wealthy mama’s boy who is at least not a jerk, even if he is insipid.
In debt because of the social expectation that she play at bridge for money, she cannot sustain her lifestyle, and turns to her friend’s husband, a stock speculator, for assistance. She fails to realize that he isn’t just investing her money, he is adding to it with the expectation that his generosity will be...rewarded. And not in a way Lily wishes to.
From there, it is misstep after misstep, and not of the necessarily blameworthy variety. She is “sacrificed” by a friend who wishes to deflect blame for her own affair. She is unjustly accused of trying to get young heir married to her social inferior. (The males who were really involved get off scot free, of course.)
I can’t decide how much of The House of Mirth is intended to skewer upper class society, and how much of it is intended to critique women like Lily, who expect to have wealth and love just because they are well-born and beautiful. Probably both. Wharton also takes on the sexual double standard, where men are free to play without consequence, while women pay the social price. Unless they have money and a scapegoat.
Reading this book left me with ambiguous feelings about it. On the one hand, Wharton is a skilled and witty writer. There are many devastating lines, and her descriptions and psychological explorations are memorable. On the other, her casual anti-semitism is really grating. Rosedale is mostly a stereotype common to the age, and even the little bit of humanity he is briefly allowed is then immediately counteracted by his avarice. In a book with nuanced and conflicted and complicated characters, that one should be “unacceptably Jewish” and assumed to be beyond the pale for a woman of good breeding to consider is disappointing. And while you could blame Wharton‘s time in history, it seems less of a valid excuse when you consider that George Eliot wrote a far better book with Jewish characters, Daniel Deronda, a full 30 years prior.
Another irritating factor for me was that it was hard to find a character to actually like. I guess the closest is Selden, who seems at least normal and decent. But he - quite rightly - realizes that Lily would never be happy with his financial station. So I was hoping he wouldn’t get caught in her snare. Except that he is about the only good thing in her life, and you hate to see her lose that. And Lily herself is the sort of woman that I most hate to deal with in divorce court - aware of their beauty and wearing a gigantic sense of entitlement. I spent more of the book looking on in horror at the unfolding tragedy, but having a hard time sympathizing with anyone. To quote Mercutio: “A plague on both your houses!”
There are some great lines along the way, at least. One comes in the opening scene, where Lily Dale expresses her jealousy of Selden’s modest flat (with a library, though, so I approve.)
“How delicious to have a place like this all to one’s self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman.”
Seldon points out that his cousin gets along fine by herself. But she has no ambitions of marrying, so Lily sees female independence as giving up the dream of marrying money.
I also loved this description of another character, Mrs. Dorset.
She was smaller and thinner than Lily Bart, with a restless pliability of pose, as if she could have been crumpled up and run through a ring, like the sinuous draperies she affected. Her small pale face seemed the mere setting of a pair of dark exaggerated eyes, of which the visionary gaze contrasted curiously with her self-assertive tone and gestures; so that, as one of her friends observed, she was like a disembodied spirit who took up a great deal of room.
There is also a good scene where Lily is still on the fence about Percy Gryce.
She had been bored all afternoon by Percy Gryce -- the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice -- but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.
This is, of course, the dilemma for Lily. Which is more important? To marry for the vast wealth she craves? Or settle for less but avoid the boredom? Lest we forget, this is only the dilemma because Lily is well-born and beautiful - if she were ordinary, she would be forced to take what she could get.
It isn’t until we have the stage set pretty well that we get to hear of Lily’s upbringing. Of her mother who was good at spending and raised her daughter to be the same. Of her father who did what was expected - bring home the money - until he didn’t, and at that point, he might as well be dead. Wharton sneaks this poisonous line in:
She [Lily] had not been deceived by Mrs. Bart’s words: she knew at once that they were ruined. In the dark hours which followed, that awful fact overshadowed even her father’s slow and difficult dying. To his wife, he no longer counted: he had become extinct when he ceased to fulfil his purpose, and she sat at his side with the provisional air of a traveller who waits for a belated train to start.
I have seen too many of this kind of woman in my divorce practice. Sure, they aren’t in the upper crust of society, but the idea that the function of a man and the measure of his manhood is money very much persists. It is the same dynamic: woman leverages her beauty and “purity” into a marriage to a man with sufficient income. Life happens, and his income decreases, and she dumps his butt and slanders him to everyone as lacking manhood (aka money).
Here is another cutting line, from Lily’s analysis of Mr. Gryce’s nature.
He had the kind of character in which prudence is a vice, and good advice the most dangerous nourishment. But Lily had known the species before: she was aware that such a guarded nature must find one huge outlet of egoism, and she determined to be to him what his Americana had hitherto been: the one possession in which he took sufficient pride to spend money on it. She knew that this generosity to self is one of the forms of meanness, and she resolved so to identify herself with her husband’s vanity that to gratify her wishes would be to him the most exquisite form of self-indulgence.
That’s just so good. Wharton does indeed capture that dynamic - the man who loves to spend on his wife as he would on another hobby that gratifies him. To see her dressed finely (or, in the modern case, to see her driving an Land Rover) gratifies his ego, and is that “exquisite form of self-indulgence.”
Later in the book, Lily has found herself in the uncomfortable position of accompanying a wealthy friend and her husband on a European trip - and the expectation is that she will keep the husband occupied so he doesn’t notice his wife having an affair with a much younger man. But things fall apart (and Lily is eventually blamed for it.) I like this line in the middle of a longer contemplation of the situation.
All her concern had hitherto been for young Silverton, not only because, in such affairs, the woman’s instinct is to side with the man, but because his case made a peculiar appeal to her sympathies. He was so desperately in earnest, poor youth, and his earnestness was of so different a quality from Bertha’s, though hers too was desperate enough. The difference was that Bertha was in earnest only about herself, while he was in earnest about her. But now, at the actual crisis, this difference seemed to throw the weight of destitution on Bertha’s side, since at least he had her to suffer for, and she had only herself.
Wharton’s wit is definitely the best part of the book. I wonder if she was as rapier-sharp in person as well.
After the crisis, Bertha blames Lily, and tells tales about her. Lily’s poorer and do-gooder friend asks why Lily can’t just tell the truth about it all and clear her name.
“The whole truth?” Miss Bart laughed. “What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that’s 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.”
Lily is right, alas. We see this play out every day, where those with money and power are able to control the narrative. (Although the Me Too movement is pushing back - a welcome development.) In fact, I can point to my wife’s experience as a teen as an example of this. It was more convenient to believe she was a Jezebel gunning for the young men than to challenge those with power in the group.
There is one final observation I want to look at. As Lily falls further in social status, it becomes clear that her specific skill set isn’t well adapted to changing circumstances.
Having been accustomed to take herself at the popular valuation, as a person of energy and resource, naturally fitted to dominate any situation in which she found herself, she vaguely imagined that such gifts would be of value to seekers after social guidance; but there was unfortunately no specific head under which the art of saying and doing the right thing could be offered in the market, and even Mrs. Fisher’s resourcefulness failed before the difficulty of discovering a workable vein in the vague wealth of Lily’s graces.
Wharton puts it particularly well, but the problem is simple enough: Lily hasn’t learned how to “do” anything productive. She has learned how to perform a role in a particular society. She knows how to look pretty, dress well, say witty stuff, and make people of a similar social class enjoy her company. But, failing to leverage these skills into becoming a rich man’s wife, she has nothing else really to offer. And when she is forced to actually earn a living, she is worse off than the average working-class girl.
Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock.
I have had this discussion with a number of people of the white Evangelical persuasion - typically parents of children or teens - about whether it is wise to train female children with the goal that they will be stay-at-home moms. For the cult in which my wife was raised, this was the only acceptable choice - and she was ostracised because she went to college to learn a skill.
But really, isn’t this very much like Lily Bart? Sure, the social stratum is lower - the white middle class - but the idea is the same. A woman is to be trained to perform a particular social role. “But what about caring for children and keeping a home?” I hear all the time. Sorry, I do not consider caring for children and doing housework to be a particularly unusual skill. I believe it is a basic life skill that all people - men included - should have. Kind of like knowing how to bathe and dress one’s self. Like Lily’s ability to charm, they aren’t that marketable in a pinch. And, given how many “stay-at-home moms” I know and have known who send their kids to school and have a housekeeper come in and clean, I am thinking the essence of the role isn’t actually the kids and house: it is fulfilling a particular social role in a particular social stratum. And if you fall out of that stratum for whatever reason, it’s a hard landing without other skills to fall back on.
In the end, Lily’s desire to marry for love isn’t a bad one. But combined with her insistence that it come with money, and her lack of a plan B, mean that she has zero margin for error - or even bad luck. Anything less than the “perfect” man coming along means she will fail. In contrast, Wharton portrays the working-class women, who grow up expecting to work, and hoping for a marriage to a decent if poor man. And so, if love doesn’t come, they can work, and if it does, they work to provide for the family. There is the resilience of lower expectations and greater diversity and suitability of their skill sets.
So, I guess in the end, I did rather enjoy this book. The wit and perceptive portrayal of the issues won me over, despite the lack of likeable characters.