New York: Library of America, 1985, c1905.
You know how it is when you finally read a classic, being dragged to it with the expectation that it will be a dry, "good for you" read, and you end up loving it, not being able to put it down, and being overcome with sobs at the end? No? Well, that was me and The House of Mirth. It really wasn't at all mirthful.
I expected to despise Lily Bart and her rich New York world. And while I did find Lily herself a bit annoying, and many of the side characters, especially the men, really irritating chumps, I was won over by the texture and the depth of the storytelling.
Not much summarizing needed for this classic: Lily Bart is a New York socialite who is closing in on 30. Her beauty and charm is fading, and she needs to make an advantageous marriage soon, before it's too late. She has her sights on Percy Gryce, and is likely to hook him, too -- but her indecision once again arises and he slips through her fingers.
Part of this may be attributed to the fact that Lily is pulled between her high society lifestyle and her secret, deeper self which is more introspective and more interested in a non-wealthy acquaintance, journalist Laurence Selden. He doesn't step up, though, and Lily begins to spiral down the ladder of social significance, slowly, step by step. From being sought after and a queen of society, her dependence on men and need for income leads her to being a companion, then a secretary to the demi-monde, then a milliner and then to no work at all. From the heights to the depths. In Lily's journey to the bottom she comes to a realization:
Lily had an odd sense of being behind the social tapestry, on the side where the threads were knotted and the loose ends hung.
But all along Wharton skewers the expectations placed specifically on women in this setting. As Lily says to Selden:
Your coat's a little shabby, but who cares? It doesn't keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop -- and if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.
Lily notes the small niceties of society that make it next to impossible for a woman to be herself, or to truly befriend another woman unless, like Selden's socially conscious cousin Gerty, that woman has given up on 'society' completely. It's quite shocking to realize that this book, written in 1905, is still relevant in many ways to our world today. It's beautifully written and even though I knew what was coming, the final pages still brought me to tears. The frustration of a woman's life is unbearable to me even in fiction.
This is a strong and fresh read that still feels relevant, and which is written beautifully. Full of thoughtful characters caught up in tangled social situations that they can't seem to see their way clear of, it is compelling and frustrating and irritating and powerful. I'm glad I finally read it, for pleasure and not as a classroom assignment; it was worth the wait.