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