Monday, April 15, 2013

Dinner Train Book Club: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

My illustrated 1905 library discard copy of
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
and some Arsenic and Old Lace cookies
The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton
Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1905

Lily Bart is a Guilded Age socialite; though her bankrupt parents have died leaving her only a small inheritance, she has a wealthy elderly aunt who gives her an allowance and provides her with the wardrobe she needs to fit in with the right set.  Lily spends most of her time as women of her time do; vacationing at the country mansions of her friends, taking tea, and paying social visits., and her aunt is not growing younger.  At age “nine and twenty,” Lily’s own funds are running out, her aunt is not getting any younger, and she is growing desperate to shed the miss title and become a misses.  She begins to gamble, both literally and socially to maintain her lifestyle and appearances. After a chance meeting leads to taking tea with journalist George Selden, a favorite of her set, Lily finds herself conflicted for the first time, realizing that what her heart and brain want might not add up.  She wants the easy, comfortable, socialite life to which she is accustomed, but is fast realizing the price she will pay as the unquestioning wife of the man who provides her with it may not be worth it.   

Buddies, this won’t be short.  I suggest you grab yourself a freshly made Arsenic and Old Lace cookie, make a cup of George Selden’s caravan tea (whatever that is), and get settled in.

I first read an Edith Wharton book in (I’m pretty sure) Mrs. Zolli’s 10th grade honors English class in 1999.  Short of the disastrously confusing Siddartha in freshman English, I had never, ever, hated a book as much as I hated Ethan Frome.  Holy gawd, it is awful.  Luckily, my fellow classmates also harbored a hate for it as passionate as mine; we took to disparaging it and called it Ethan Fromeo, because apparently that was the best insult we could come up with.  Nothing good happened, none of the characters seemed to really redeem themselves….and then there was that sledding business.  Even the setting in the Berkshires couldn’t sway me.  Long story short, I was not too pleased with Ms. Wharton, and not too eager to ever pick up another one of her books.

Then, a year or two ago, I took a trip to Newport for a work conference, partaking in the requisite stroll down the Cliff Walk before driving back.  The gorgeous mansions, and my not-so-secret love affair with Downton Abbey made me reconsider my Wharton-hating ways.  She was, after all, a Guilded Age woman of her world…so I decided to watch an adaptation of a Wharton: The Age of Innocence.  Sure enough, the costumes and scenery were gorgeous, and it was hugely depressing.  Strangely, though, her depressing no-good-will-come-of-this plot didn’t bother me as much as this time around…perhaps because I have grown cynical at nearly double the age when I first read Ethan Fromeo.  SIGH.  That makes me feel old.  ANYWAYS.  I also picked up on a lot more of a feminist bent, and when I found a beautiful (only slightly stinky) partially illustrated library discard from 1905 at my favorite book store, I figured I’d give The House of Mirth a go; it couldn’t get much more depressing than ole Ethan Fromeo on that stupid sled of his, right?

I was surprised to find myself really, really enjoying The House of Mirth.  Sure, I knew it would end poorly.  Sure, Lily Bart was never going to get a happy ending, and or let go of her pride, and either make a smart yet heartless choice, or choose with her heart.  Sure, I was wrong on none of these counts.   BUT.  I found myself fascinated by the ice-cold, cruelly calculating world she inhabited, and the restrictions that being a woman, especially one of class who had fallen from wealth, placed upon her.  To the modern female (and male, I’m sure) reader, it was extraordinarily frustrating to watch Lily be completely helpless; there are nothing but options and choices in our current world that she could have chosen.  Actually, it’s even frustrating in her world; Lily has options, she just can’t choose.  She’s frustratingly unwilling to accept a life of less, and too proud to compromise her standards to maintain said standards.  Lily is timelessly frustrating because though she keenly understands her situation, she’s unwilling to fight back and for herself, even when she has nothing to lose (seriously, how do you mess up pinning junk on hats that much? Geez, Lily.)  I realize there’s some did she, didn’t she controversy over the end (SPOILER), when she offs herself either accidentally or on purpose with some sleeping pills, but I truly think she’s checked out enough that it’s kind of a moot point – she’s done already and she knows it, so whether or not she meant to OD or not makes her fearless in pursuing oblivion.  I’d like to think that Selden’s proposal could have made her happy, but I doubt it. 

That there is some serious social and societal commentary (maybe even condemnation) being made would be putting it mildly.  I can’t help but wonder how many of the characters are caricatures of people that Wharton actually knew, especially some of the more horrible sorts (judging from her own personal dramas, I’d say it’s not a huge assumption).  These people use each other, do terrible things to each other, and I’m pretty sure it’s all because they are horribly bored.   The feminist undertones are deeply interwoven in these situational observations.  Very early on in the novel Lily proudly muses over being able to “manage” Mr. Percy Gryce, who is kind of a wet blanket of a momma’s boy, if you ask me.  Reading that, I was filled with this sense of relief that women aren’t really expected to “manage” the dudes in our company any more.  It sounds exhausting.  I mean, seriously, guys.   If you can’t manage yourselves or partake in basic human conversations…you’ve got bigger problems.  I love Wharton’s keen observations, like “the inner vanity is generally in proportion to the outer self-deprecation,” (33) or  Lily “rightly judging that one of the charms of tea is the fact of drinking it together,”(29). 

Though Lily’s historical period places some serious restraints on what she can say or do, she’s rather easy for a modern woman to identify with, and is perhaps the most timelessly candid in the following exchange with Selden, which I also think is one of the most heartfelt statements about what we’re all looking for in love:
“’Dear Mr. Selden, that wasn’t worthy of you.  It’s stupid of you to make love to me, and it isn’t like you to be stupid.’  She leaned back, sipping her tea with an air so enchantingly judicial that, if they had been in her aunt’s drawing-room, he might have tried to disprove her deduction. ‘Don’t you see that there are men enough to say pleasant things to me, and that what I want is a friend who won’t be afraid to say disagreeable ones when I need them? Sometimes I have fancied you might be that friend – I don’t know why, except that you are neither a prig nor a bounder, and that I shouldn’t have to pretend with you or be on my guard against you.’” (12-13) 
Can’t we all identify with that, regardless of gender?  It’s so human to want a friend, especially in a romantic partner, and so telling that Lily knows that George is but can never be that for her, solely because he’s not rich enough to give her the life she’s accustomed to.

I do, however, think the tragic flaw (other than the frustrating flaws of crippling indecision and that irksome unwillingness to fight for herself, argh!) is that Lily really is not a woman of her time; her singledom has afforded her the opportunity to make keen observations she wouldn’t have been able to make as someone’s docile wife.  She’s well aware of the tragedy of being her, and also of the ways she is used and abused by those more powerful than her.  She’s a victim of her time because she thinks beyond her time.  I’ll leave you with the line that said it all to me:
“She was beginning to have fits of angry rebellion against fate, when she longed to drop out of the race and make an independent life for herself.  But what manner of life would it be?”(61).
DAMN, Edith.  You need a hug.  And possibly a vacation from the Guilded Age and your corset.  Long story short, I loved this Dinner Train Book Club classic. 

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