I’ve tried to read The House of Mirth before. It wasn’t really a very serious attempt; I started reading and thought ‘this is interesting’ and then put it down and read something else. After my last books I ought to read experience, I must admit I’ve been made a little nervous but somehow The House of Mirth seemed like a safe bet. So, girding myself I began.
I suspect there will be one or two people who have read The House of Mirth, so hopefully I’m not giving away any spoilers by talking about the story. The House of Mirth tells the story of Lily Bart, a socialite moving in the circles of the rich and aristocratic American east coast. Lily is 29 years old at the start of the book, a slightly advanced age for a single woman, but she is also unattached from family or riches and she is extremely beautiful and adept at managing her social contacts. She is also in search of a husband not, we come to learn, because she particularly desires it but rather because she needs it if she is to continue to move in the circles she does. At the beginning of the novel Lily is courting the rich and single Percy Gryce, and she appears in with a chance of success, but even here her ambivalence shades her like a spectre as described here:
“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.”
Before sinking her claws into Percy Lily meets Laurence Selden, a single man who is also a lawyer and who hovers on the edge of Lily’s social circle. Selden awakens in Lily all the uncertainties and ambivalence of her position, causing her to question whether a rich marriage is really what she wants, but at heart Lily is a shallow woman, she is all image and impressions, a charming and beautiful woman who has nothing more to offer than her charming and beautiful self. And whilst she might hold some wishful ideals of a different kind of life, she knows she cannot give up her luxuries so a rich husband she must find. There is also the matter of her gambling debts, her expensive taste in clothing and limited resources all of which mean Lily spirals into debts from which she is powerless to extricate herself.
When her chances of capturing Gryce fall through she turns to her friend’s husband Charles Trenor in the hope that he could invest her small capital in such a way as to generate a healthier return. Initially this seems to meet with success, but it soon becomes plain that Lily has become even more indebted and her chance of freedom has slipped further away. In the meantime she has also grown to love Laurence Selden, but their differences in aspect – her clinging to the rich lifestyle, he judging those that do – conspire to keep them at odds with each other. As Lily becomes increasingly desperate and isolated, her prospects of an independent life slip ever quicker out of reach. Soon even her beauty and status seem to turn against her. It becomes plain, all too soon, that things won’t end well for Lily Bart.
The House of Mirth is an excellent book, a well-deserved classic. Initially I admit I felt a little like I was wading through treacle; there is something about the writing of the era – the densely worded prose, the detailed examinations of action and motive – that requires slow and detailed reading and which can feel like an effort poorly rewarded. Yet Wharton has a snappy, sparkling style. She is witty and ironic, cutting and perceptive. The more I read, the more I found myself drawn in by the sad story of Lily Bart. Her world is so ugly, filled with tedious and dangerous people, and there’s a sense that if she wasn’t so dependent on it, had she had more support and care from, frankly, anyone, that she might have had a different life. But Lily Bart, beautiful and charming as she is, has nothing to help her but her beauty and charm. And in a world driven by money beauty and charm are poor currency, easily spent. As the book progressed I felt myself reading more and more as though with one hand over my eyes, peeking through the gaps in my fingers. Lily’s undoing is her very desire for independence, an attribute not available to a young, beautiful woman without means of her own. Much as Virginia Woolf’s writer needs a room of her own, Lily Bart needed an income of her own. An income would have given her choices; she may yet have chosen badly, but the choices would have been hers. Instead she was trapped in a stifling existence which she was ill-equipped to save herself from. And the people around her failed her, from the beginning Lily was on her own. Her few encounters with Laurence Selden showed her another possibility, but a possibility was all it ever was. Not a reality for someone like Lily.
Reading The House of Mirth restored my faith in the whole idea of books I ought to read. It is a book I ought to have read and have now read and it reminded me that the reason I ought to read these books is because they’re excellent and worthwhile. Reading The House of Mirth was like having a long, decadent and strangely healthy meal; it was nourishing and fulfilling whilst being instructive and genuinely sad. I grew fond of the shallow Lily Bart, trapped in her horrible little hothouse of a world and resentful at the way in which it, and everyone around her, failed her. And it’s a testament to Wharton’s brilliant vision that a woman so founded on external appearances should become so very real to me.