Saturday, 30 June 2001
Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth (1905)
Review number: 852
There are many novels about breaking into high society; fewer about falling out of it. Wharton's tragic story is about how Lily Bart gradually loses her place in the New York smart set, sliding lower and lower until her death in a common boarding house. The basic problem is money; Lily's family are not really rich enough any more to maintain their position, and it is her beauty and social graces which have let her continue to be accepted even until the beginning of the novel.
The obvious solution to Lily's problems is marriage to a rich man, and she seems to have plenty of opportunities, even if at twenty nine she is considered a bit old to do so. The problem is that she can never quite bring herself up to scratch, so that she schemes and works to entrap a man only to pull out at the wrong moment, put off by a vision of a lifetime of boring conversation or whatever the bad points about him happen to be. She also has a tendency to get into completely innocent situations which are then disastrously misunderstood, for example alienating two of her closest friends who think she is having affairs with their husbands. (In one case, this is particularly unjust; Bertha Dorset invites her on a trip to Europe on the understanding that she will distract Bertha's husband from her own affair, only for Bertha to turn neurotically suspicious and jealous.)
The interest of the novel is in its inversion of the typical romantic society plotline, and it is the characterisation of Lily which makes it successful and tragic. It is not full of mirth by any stretch of the imagination. (The title sounds like it is a quotation, but the nearest I could find, which reflects the spirit of the novel, is from an anonymous poem, On the Life of Man: "What is our life? a play of passion, / Our mirth the music of derision, / Our mothers' wombs the tiring houses be, / Where we are dressed for this short comedy".)