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19 August 2010

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton


I finished Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth at the Charlotte airport in North Carolina coming back from Dallas on Wednesday.  After I turned the final page, I closed the book and glanced around the airport, taking in the countless travelers passing by, rushing from gate to gate, ordering their coffees or tacos and settling down at a table.  I mostly took in what they were wearing, how they spoke to one another.  Did they wear a lot of expensive jewelry and did they just appear as though they were above it all?  Who looked genuine?  I thought of the story I just finished and I wondered how much has really changed from Edith Wharton's turn of the century society.

Without a doubt, I'm ashamed to admit that it was my very first time reading this classic author.  I did see the film version of the story years ago, starring Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, and I really enjoyed it.  I made a mental note to myself at the time that I needed to pick up the book, and finally, I did.


The House of Mirth is a stunning glimpse into New York society in the 1900s.  Edith Wharton has provided us an opportunity to learn what a privileged society was like at this time, what people dressed in, what they wore, and especially the struggle to stay within the upper crust of society's very thin clasp.  Lily Bart, young and incredibly beautiful, is at the height of her social acceptance -- she has a steady group of incredibly wealthy friends, and although she has a small allowance given her by her aunt, she spends more than she earns in order to have the very things just out of everyone's reach unless they have money.  Respect.  Power.  Friends.  Attention.


Lily really can't be blamed for her shallow side, though.  After all, she's been raised and trained by her father and mother to be nothing more than just, well, beautiful.  That's it.  Lily wasn't taught a single thing to be useful in society, to learn anything about how to be independent in the least.  I've often wondered how people during this time survived if they had no real talents or skills, and I certainly learned with this story.  Lily Bart's real skill was to be the person you could count on to keep your spouse distracted with her sparkling attention and conversation while you went ahead and had an affair.  You could count on Lily to manipulate a conversation or situation to get what she, or you, wanted.  She would play the reserved and socially mannered friend, who knows all the right things to say, knows just how to tilt her head, raise her lips a bit more for a brighter smile, or clip her sentences so that she's just keeping an edge of mystery.  All to control a man or to be the shining socialite in a party, or to simply be invited to spend the summers escaping the New York City heat by traveling to a place by a lake or in the mountains.  But Lily doesn't do these things just to be shifty and control people -- she's truly an innocent, a nice woman who has never had to learn life's tough lessons, and thus doesn't really have anything but this talent of manipulation with her beauty and perfect speech.




To add to this, Lily also has an addiction to money.  She supplements her small allowance by gambling during bridge games, losing her money and winning.  She gambles and shops more, and she sets herself back quite a bit, to the point that she turns to her best friend's husband, who has much more a head for business to ask him to take her remaining money and make more with it.  Little does she know, or expect, that Gus Trenor is actually expecting a favor returned for his "work."


Gossip, confusion, restraint, love, betrayal, debt.  Lily is caught up in it all as her friends are confused by rumors and innuendo and she suffers the worst of it.  Two potential engagements that could save her from the horrible gossip and the debt, gone.  Friends that were there for her, disappear.  And a true love who is confused and hurt,  holds back.  My heart breaks with each page for Lily as she loses everything and she has nothing useful that she can do to pull herself out of the muck of it all.

All of us have felt the fear of not enough money, the sleepless nights with that gnawing despair of bills owed, debt growing.  The fear of friends gossiping about a rumor unfounded and fear of the loss of a true love.  So many times throughout the story I was on the edge of my seat, rooting for Lily to just speak up!  Say the truth!  Defend yourself!  Tell that former friend to suck it!  But, a true lady in New York society doesn't do that.  She is restrained.  And in the end, she has learned all her lessons and is left with nothing but her own dignity.

Though she kept the even tone of the light intercourse, the question was framed in a way to remind him that his good offices were unsought, and for a moment Selden was checked by it.  The situation between them was one which could have been cleared up only by a sudden explosion of feeling, and their whole training and habit of mind were against the chance of such an explosion. (p. 294)

Edith Wharton has truly shared a cautionary tale for high society, young women, and the angst of true friends and true love.  What can you gain by being mired in the need and obsession for wealth?  Surely freedom comes to do the things you want to do, but doesn't fear come along with it?  Fear that one day you might not have freedom?  Friends come and go with the amount of money that you have -- who will be there standing with you in the end?  Do you then truly have the freedom you fought so hard to attain?


Respect.  Power.  Friends.  Attention.  Is it worth it?


I turned the pages quickly and easily.  And I loved that Edith Wharton wrote in another time, 100 years ago, and still her words are relevant today.  Isn't that the story with all the classics, after all? I was beyond speechless after reading this tragic story of Lily Bart and high society.


29 comments:

  1. I haven't read this one - just Ethan Fromme and Age of Innocence. There's something so elegant about Wharton. I like her a lot.

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  2. I'm terrible about American authors. I've never read Edith Wharton (among others), although I know I should. Sounds like this would be a good one to start with!

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  3. I really enjoy Wharton's work, except for Ethan Fromme. Ugh. I wanted to pluck my eyes out when I read that one in high school.

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  4. This sounds so good. I will be on the look out for this one. :D

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  5. I love your new look!

    This was a really great review and now I'm trying to remember if I've read this or not. Hmm. Sounds vaguely familiar. I'll have to look at the library. Which reminds me... how was your trip?

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  6. Hey Natalie, for a moment there i thought i clicked on the wrong blog. I like the changes that you've made. Very nice. As for the House of Mirth. I haven't read this one yet so i guess i'll have to make room for it on my to-read pile. Thanks for sharing : )

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  7. I've always wanted to read Wharton and have been a bit intimidated - maybe I'll start here. Thanks for the review!

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  8. Thanks for stopping by. How fortunate you were to live in Greece for awhile...I know the area where you lived, nice! Hope you get to return. And, I also love your blog. I'm a new follower!

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  9. @ Caitlin -- I agree, the writing of Wharton is elegant. Her subject matter is thrilling and engaging, and I'm excited to read the next one!

    @ Jenny -- This is my first Edith Wharton novel, and I'm really kicking myself for not having read this before. ry this one, it's a great read, and I'd love to get your thoughts!

    @ Connie @ SogniESorrisi -- Ha! Plucking your eyes out while reading Ethan Fromme! :) I had the same feeling on several books from high school, but I wonder if I should try some of those again now? Try reading this one -- you might like this one!

    @ Sheila (Bookjourney) -- Let me know what you think!

    @ Picky Girl -- I hired a great blog designer to redo my site in the next couple of months, so I've been playing around with all of the templates on Blogger! Very fun to try a new "outfit" on every now and again on here! And thanks! Check and see if you've read it before, I'd love to get your thoughts! The trip was good, but very quick, just an easy in and out to Dallas for a meeting. The best thing about it, though? Airplanes and plenty of time to read! :)

    @ Bookventures -- Thanks! I've been playing around with the Blogger templates since the site will get a blog-over in a couple of months! It's kind of like my living room, I like to change it around every now and again, the couch over here, maybe over there...I'm just restless! :)

    @ Kerry -- This is definitely not one to be intimidated by. I thought so at first, and I always have some form of apprehension when opening up a classic, but I can tell you that it's a very easy read, and really pretty sad. Let me know what you think!

    @ Kitty Howard -- Thank YOU for coming by to my site! I love your blog, and have just started following you this week as well! And I would pack up a bag (and the husband and the dog and cat, too!) and move to either Greece or Italy any day!! :)

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  10. I've never read any of Wharton's work - I'm intimidated by it. I remember when my sister had to read Ethan Frome and all the whining she did and I've been scared ever since. I'm glad to see you enjoyed this!

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  11. I found this enjoyable too but of the two I've read I prefer the Age of Innocence which was just gorgeous and unforgettable. I just read a review for Ethan Frome somewhere that mentioned it is very beautiful. I think I'm going to read that one next.

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  12. That's a lot to think about while in an airport. This was a great review. I'm looking forward to finish reading it myself.

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  13. I read this book years ago in college and remember being very affected by it.

    I'm glad it's held the test of time for another generation of women readers.

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  14. What a great review! I love Edith Wharton, absolutely love her, although this one tore my bleeding heart from its ribcage, it has such a terrible ending. I haven't read a book of hers I've disliked yet, and can also recommend The Age of Innocence and The Custom of the Country.

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  15. I've not read a single book by Wharton, although I have this one as well as The Age Of Innocence sitting on my bookshelf. I really should read one of them soon - this book sounds interesting, and yeah, it is amazing how timeless some things are, and how relevant they are in every society through the ages.

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  16. I've yet to read anything of Whatron's, but I did just buy Ethan Frome today. Thanks for you're lovely review. This sounds like a fantastic novel.

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  17. @ bermudaonion-- I've heard Ethan Fromme was tougher, but I can assure you that The House of Mirth was wonderful -- and I always get intimidated by classics, but this is a good one!

    @ Mrs. B -- I cannot wait to read The Age of Innocence!!

    @ Whitney -- I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the airport thinking of all of this; much better than how I normally spend my time while on business travel: running from one gate to another, grabbing something to eat before my cell phone rings and I have to answer it...! Yikes! I had a little more relaxed time with an hour and a half layover! And I can't wait to read your review!

    @ ravenousreader -- Yes, it definitely held the test of time for me, I really enjoyed it!

    @ litlove -- I know, that ending was absolutely heart-wrenching, and I felt so awful for all the loss! But, it certainly won't keep me from reading all of Wharton's other novels, right? :) It really surprised me how easy this was to read, and how much I loved her work -- and I have either Summer, The Buccaneers, or The Age of Innocence to start next -- perhaps The Age of Innocence!

    @ anothercookiecrumbles -- I would love to hear your thoughts, do pick up The House of Mirth!!

    @ Brenna -- Ooh, let me know what you think of Ethan Fromme; I've heard that it's a little different than her other work, so I can't wait to hear your thoughts. The House of Mirth was a wonderful start for me with Wharton's work!

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  18. Wow, what a brilliant review! Ethan Frome is in my top 10 of all time and despite having nearly all Whartons books at home, I still haven't read any others. It's high time I did.

    I loved this review - thanks so much. Can't wait to dive in sometime soon.

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  19. You know I don't read many classics, but you have totally convinced me to read this one! I'm going to see if Bookmooch has it right now. :)

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  20. @ The Book Whisperer -- Thanks so much! This is my first Wharton book and it won't be my last! I think I might tackle The Age of Innocence for the next one!

    @ Heather at Book Addiction -- Ooh, let me know what you think once you read it!! I'd loan you my copy, but it's a much used and older copy that I have, and a bit wrecked!

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  21. Ok. I have to read this now. I'm not reading your whole review until after I read the book. BTW..did you see Gillian Anderson in Bleak House? I love love that movie and MUST read the book.

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  22. @ Amanda -- I absolutely recommend The House of Mirth! It is so very, very easy to read, and is so wonderfully relevant in today's day and age -- not to mention, I was so caught up in the story, and my heart broke for Lily Bart! I haven't seen Bleak House with Gillian Anderson -- but I'm now going to hop onto Netflix to request! Who would have thought Gillian Anderson would be amazing on The X-Files, and then switch gears to go all corsets and polite and restrained chatter! I think she's fabulous!

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  23. I've been wanting to read this one. I just bought a copy at Powells in Portland and it's been calling my name.

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  24. @ Avid Reader -- I think you'll love it! Please let me know what you think once you've finished it -- I think it's definitely on my favorites list now!

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  25. I really loved this book. I admire Lily Bart so much and I feel for all that she went through in the end.

    I just finished reading Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which is as beautiful and I think you will also like. The girls are similar in their disposition although the books are totally different.

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  26. @ BookQuoter -- I'm so glad you loved this book! That is exactly how I felt with it, and I felt my heart breaking at the end for Lily. I haven't read anything by Thomas Hardy, but I might have to check it out! Thanks for recommending it!!

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  27. I saw your comment on the blog hop and was looking through your site when I saw that you had reviewed this book recently. I absolutely loved it, despite the sad ending. I really like the way you tied it in to modern society - it is true that the lessons from Lily's story are applicable today.

    Thanks for the comment and visit to my blog. :) I look forward to reading more of your reviews!

    Lorren @ The Story Girl

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  28. Lorren at The Story Girl -- This was my favorite book by Edith Wharton that I've read and I absolutely loved it -- that's one of the things I like so much about those "older" novels, since they tend to almost feel timeless in the social issues that they deal with. I'm so glad you stopped by and liked the site!! Please do visit again!

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  29. I got this as a free ebook as I wanted to try another Wharton after The Age of Innocence. I enjoy society stories, so it looks like I made a good choice!

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