Friday, 21 August 2009

The House of Mirth

Having just wiped away the tears after reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, I wish to share some thoughts on this astounding novel. The House of Mirth follows socialite Miss Lily Bart in her quest to find her place in the world amongst a backdrop of a dramatically changing New York society at the beginning of the twentieth century. As Lily is twenty nine and yet still single, a major cause of concern for a young woman of that time, the story begins with her attempts to reconcile her need for independence and the sparkle of life with the necessity of having to marry. In order to continue in the ways she has been accustomed a man is needed for Lily, for although moving in the established aristocratic circles, she has only little means of her own and is reliant on her social relationships to provide her with her desired luxuries. Whilst the society around her is unscrupulous in its treatment of Lily, making sure she lives in open gratitude and servitude in return for her upkeep Lily struggles with her uncomfortable existence.

At the beginning Lily is full of fire and determination to make the best of each situation she finds herself in. As a careful people watcher she is a master of manipulating opportunities to her advantage and thus keeping afloat, she refuses to be repressed and cannot bring herself to marry for the sake of money. However life has other plans for her and as the story progresses Lily finds herself in scandal after scandal due to her zest for life coupled with her intense beauty, for the women in her society feel threatened by her sheer vibrance whilst the men are out to seek her attention and use her for their own means. Although Lily tries to reassert control each time, removing herself from temptation and from circumstances she knows are not right, and is also critically aware of her circumstances, her want for riches and position in that society are still the greater. This proves her downfall in a tragic way for society totally discards her. Miss Bart may not have it all; morals, love, sparkle and the position she believes she craves for. Notably in the last chapters Lily does go through an epiphany, she does have an inkling of what truly matters to her, but, without giving away the ending completely,fate is cruel and the realisation too late for true happiness.

Not all is serious nor hopeless in this novel for there are also characters with saving graces and indeed with hearts. The unstoppable divorcee Carrie Fisher is one of these, who manages to ride the waves unscathed by sheer manipulation and brilliance with an added sense of humour to tide her over. She may aspire like Lily but she accepts the limitations and her place at the lower end of the society scale. The other memorable character of hope is the true love interest, Selden. Selden is not by all means a knight in shining armor, as he is so critical of the social sphere he inhabits that he struggles to allow for emotion and is not able to sustain his feelings when they do arise, as his sense of irony sets in to trap him into eventually only doing what etiquette and convention dictates. He wants desperately to break out of the masquerade but, like Lily, is too afraid of what that may entail. I found myself muttering if only he would do something to save her from herself!

The language with which Wharton writes is absolutely spellbinding in its beauty and fluidity. I leave you with one of my favourite descriptive passages,


“Gravel grated beneath their feet, and about them was the transparent dimness of a midsummer night. Hanging lights made emerald caverns in the depths of foliage, and whitened the spray of a fountain falling among lilies. The magic place was deserted: there was no sound but the splash of the water on the lily pads, and a distant drift of music that might have been blown across the sleeping lake.” Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth.

1 comment:

  1. Books that leave us reaching for the tissues are always good, especially during the holidays! I saw this card and thought it would appeal to you. Thank your Gran for me. I'm glad she liked my card x

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