Whilst Jane Austen used her knowledge of drawing room conversions as inspiration for her novels, Edith Wharton has drawn upon her experiences as a member of
New York’s Upper Class Society for her novel
The House of Mirth.
This book was wonderfully written, with the conversations between each character feeling completely natural. Wharton shows the fabulously wealthy as being conceited, shallow and condescending, where their only good advice is to make sure that you ‘marry money’, where ‘breaking in new people’ is tiresome and where the most laborious job of the year is going through your furs.
Lily Bart, the novel’s protagonist, is a popular and beautiful member of
New York’s Upper Class Society around
1890. She has no money of her own and
her parents are deceased, but her Aunt takes her in and as she is very wealthy she
makes sure that Lily has the best clothes to wear for any occasion. Lily’s
mother and her Aunt have groomed her to be a beautiful ornament, but whose arm
she is to hang off remains to be seen.
At 29 years old she is under pressure to marry, but she cannot make up
her mind. She loves Lawrence Selden but
she would be stepping down in the world if she made that match, and he
definitely could not afford her extravagances.
Percy Gryce is fabulously wealthy but he’s a mother’s boy and Lily’s
smoking and mounting gambling debts scare him off. Simon Rosedale, a Jewish suitor is
distasteful to her, but he begins to be her only option as time goes on.
Whilst she ponders her future, Lily finds herself in more than one compromising situation; although totally innocent on her part they spark malicious gossip about her that will not go away. When she is accused of trying to steal away the husband of one of her friends, Bertha Dorset, whilst holidaying on the
Dorset’s yacht the scandal ruins Lily’s
status. Lilly is innocent of course, but
Bertha is trying to deflect possible gossip about her own indiscretions with a
As the rumours circle round Lily’s Aunt is appalled by her apparent behaviour and in the final weeks before her death she disinherits Lily leaving her only a small legacy which will just cover a debt which is hanging over Lily’s head like a black cloud. The payment of the legacy is withheld for almost a year until legal problems with the Will are ironed out, and Lily is forced to find work. Having been groomed for nothing but ornamentation Lily’s work output is poor, she is let go and her health and state of mind begin to suffer.
No longer needing to aim so high for social standing, Lawrence Selden is once again a possible match, but fate will see to it that they can never be together.
What a tragic figure Lily Bart is, and this novel highlights once again how social conventions of the time make life extremely difficult for young single women. Thomas Hardy shows us time and again with his novels, and now we see that it cannot be escaped even with the wealthy.
As for the title, it comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth”.
A great read.