Sunday, November 16, 2008

House of Mirth

I don’t really know what to say about House of Mirth. I didn’t particularly like it, but I didn’t dislike it either. The plot was good, the writing was good (not at all “Henry Jamesey” - see below), but I guess I’m not just into “manners novels” right now.

House of Mirth is the story of Lily Bart’s fall. She starts from pretty much the top, and ends up on the bottom. Lily Bart is 29 and unmarried. In 1905, that was a big deal. She grew up in a New York society family in which her mother and she had everything they wanted, and her father worked like a dog “down town” (I assume Wall Street) to get it.

“Lily could not recall the time when there had been money enough, and in some vague way her father seemed always to blame for the deficiency. It could certainly not be the fault of Mrs. Bart… she had been brought up in the faith that, whatever it cost, one must have a good cook, and be what Mrs. Bart called ‘decently dressed.’ Mrs. Bart's worst reproach to her husband was to ask him if he expected her to ‘live like a pig’; and his replying in the negative was always regarded as a justification for cabling to Paris for an extra dress or two, and telephoning to the jeweller that he might, after all, send home the turquoise bracelet which Mrs. Bart had looked at that morning…Lily knew people who ‘lived like pigs’…The disgusting part of it was that many of these cousins were rich, so that Lily imbibed the idea that if people lived like pigs it was from choice, and through the lack of any proper standard of conduct. This gave her a sense of reflected superiority, and she did not need Mrs. Bart's comments on the family frumps and misers to foster her naturally lively taste for splendour.

You can totally see the set-up for this story in Lily’s beginnings. Lily was brought up watching this family interplay, in which whatever her mother wanted, she got, at the expense of her husband. Her father refused her and her mother nothing. That is, until when Lily was 19 and her father lost most of their money. Shortly thereafter Mr. Bart died. After his death, Lily and her mother went from place to place – staying for extended periods of time with relatives, and then in “cheap, continental refuges.” Her mother kept away from society and her friends because, “To be poor seemed to her such a confession of failure that it amounted to disgrace.”

Their last asset was Lily’s beauty. Her mother instilled in her the need to use her looks to marry for money, and that love-matches would be of no use. Lily, however, really didn’t care about marrying for money…she dreamed instead to marry an English nobleman or an Italian prince. And then her mother died and her aunt Mrs. Peniston took her in. Though Mrs. Peniston gave her money, Lily realized that she needed more than she had…she didn’t have enough money to pay her dress-makers’ bills and her gambling debts. And most of that need came from having to keep up with her friends…“keeping up with the Joneses” (see below). So, Lily saw what she needed to do: find a man with money.

Now, Lily isn’t stupid, she’s not a dingbat. She’s charming, intelligent, and knows what’s up. Today, she would probably have had some plush job and made her money herself. But in 1905, women couldn’t get jobs without admitting that they needed money, and to do so was shameful in Lily’s society. There also weren’t any plush jobs for women. If a woman in high-society wanted money, and it wasn’t inherited, she had to marry it.

First, she goes after Percy Gryce, a rich guy who doesn’t seem to have much of a clue. Then, Bertha Dorset, who is mad at Lily for spending time with her former-love-on-the-side, Seldon, tells goody-goody Percy about Lily’s gambling problem. He runs for the hills. With that prospect destroyed, Lily does what women of her position really shouldn’t do: she asks Gus Trenor, a rich married man, to help her out financially. He is more than willing to help out a woman as beautiful as she is. Of course, this is the beginning of her downfall. Gus starts to want to take advantage of the situation…he wants his thanks. Other people start to get wind of what’s going on. Seldon sees Lily leave the Trenor’s really late at night when everyone knows his wife wasn’t in town. Lily has no choice but to repay Trenor. But she doesn’t have the money. She approaches her aunt, who thinks the whole thing is a scandal. Then this snively weasel Simon Rosedale proposes to her…he knows about the situation with Trenor. Rosedale has money, but he’s an up-and-comer and has no social grace. She almost has to accept.

And then her “friend” Bertha Dorset invites her on a cruise with herself, her husband, and this other guy Ned. Lily accepts. The problem is that Bertha only invited Lily to occupy Mr. Dorset while Bertha and Ned go off and dilly-dally by themselves. Thanks in part to Bertha’s scheming, Lily comes out of the whole thing with a tarnished reputation, as people think she was dilly-dallying herself with Mr. Dorset.

She comes back to find that her aunt has died, and instead of leaving her a large sum of money, she only gets enough to cover her debt with Trenor. She decides to take Rosedale up on his proposal. But guess what – now he’s not interested…he knows he can do better than Lily. Bertha is running around spreading gossip about Lily, and now most of her former friends want nothing to do with her. Lily gets a job with a disreputable woman, but resigns to save her dignity. She gets a job in a millinery but gets fired. In the end, her inheritance comes through, she writes out the check to Trenor, and dies from an overdose of sleeping pills.

Lily, all the while, had the means to disgrace Bertha, but doesn’t. While Lily was living with aunt, before everything really went horribly wrong, Lily is approached by a maid has a collection of correspondence between Seldon and Bertha which Lily buys. She is encouraged by Rosedale to use it to her advantage, but she won’t. Lily is in love with Seldon, and Seldon is in love with her, but Lily doesn’t entertain the thought of ever marrying Seldon because he couldn’t provide her with the money she requires to maintain her position. Shortly before her death, she goes to Seldon. He used to believe in her, and she tells him that his belief in her was all that was keeping her going. She burns the letters in his fireplace…he never knew she had them. That evening after Lily leaves, Seldon has a change of heart and finally decides to propose to Lily. He arrives at her apartment to find her dead.

The end of House of Mirth is ambiguous. Did Lily kill herself or die of an accidental overdose? A letter recently discovered blatantly shows that Wharton wanted – at least when the letter was written – to kill herself. The letter, from Wharton to a doctor who was treating her husband, dated December 26, 1904, a month before HoM began its serialized run in Scribner’s magazine, says, “A friend of mine has made up her mind to commit suicide, & has asked me to find out…the most painless & least unpleasant method of effacing herself…I have heroine to get rid of, and want some points on the best way of disposing of her…What soporific, or nerve-calming drug, would a nervous and worried young lady in the smart set be likely to take to, & what would be its effects if deliberately taken with the intent to kill herself? I mean, how would she feel and look toward the end?” Wharton biographer, Hermione Lee thinks that Wharton might have changed her mind about having Lily bump herself off. It is probable that Wharton first intended to have her kill herself, but that by the time she came to writing the ending, she changed her mind. Another Wharton biographer, Louis Auchincloss states in response to the letter, “I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s perfectly clear what happens. Lily doesn’t mean to kill herself but risks death in a desparate bid for rest. Edith Wharton wrote to [the doctor] because she needed to find a drug that wouldn’t disfigure Lily’s beautiful body. She didn’t want that dreadful Mme Bovary thing, with the arsenic. I mean, how can you have Lily Bart die a messy death?”

The ambiguity of it is the power of the ending. There could be no other way for the book to end. The tragedy of the accidental overdose that is not present in a suicide is that Lily’s great flaw was that she was careless. Though she wasn’t stupid, she didn’t always think things through very well. Her greatest strength, however, is to be able to bounce back. In the end, the only way she really could have bounced back to get married, and had she lived through the night, she probably would have married Seldon, reclaimed her position in society, and lived happily ever after. But her flaw got in the way. When I was reading it, I didn’t get the sense that Lily was deliberately trying to kill herself. She was just so exhausted, so downtrodden, that she just wanted to sleep…she just wanted to be able to get away from her fate for just a little while. The rest that was promised by taking those few extra drops…sometimes you do that stuff instinctively. I completely know where Lily is coming from with that…I’ve been there before.

The title is confusing as well. One might come to The House of Mirth expecting a comedy. The title actually comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4 “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth.” That makes a lot more sense.

While reading House of Mirth, it reminded me of two other books: Sister Carrie and Madame Bovary. Sister Carrie, I think, is the same story but in reverse. While Lily starts out on top and ends up on the bottom, Carrie starts out on the bottom and ends up on the top, mostly through taking advantage of opportunities to get money. I suppose it reminded me of Madame Bovary only because of the money issue and the death at the end. Oh and thinking about it now, the scene at the end where Lily’s friend Gerty tells Seldon to go through her things, because that’s what she would have wanted reminds of me that horrendously tender scene in Of Human Bondage when Philip receives a letter from that girl he knew from art school…was it Nancy?...she had killed herself before he got there and had left some sort of message that he was the only person she wanted to touch her.

Edith Wharton is an interesting literary figure that I wish I knew more about. She was a New York upper crust society girl herself. Her maiden name was Jones, and yes, the phrase Keeping up with the Joneses refers specifically to her family. She married Teddy Wharton. In 1913 at the age of 51, after 28 years of marriage, she divorced Teddy. Henry James had called him “cerebrally compromised,” but that might have been the pot calling the kettle black! (I cannot resist a stab at ol’ Henry whenever I get a chance.) She was an extremely prolific writer, and published at least one book per year between 1897 and 1937. House of Mirth was her first important novel….it was a sensation. It sold 30,000 copies in the first three weeks after its publication, and 140,000 copies in the first year. It was HUGE! It also caused a fury of reader’s comments in the New York Times. The publication of a review in early November 1905 lead to a reader from Newport, NY to write in:

“I have just finished The House of Mirth and hope soon to forget it. I had read the most extravagant praise of it by reviewers, but it seems to me a detestable story, detailing with microscopic minuteness the downfall and death of a beautiful and virtuous girl. Although it is claimed that many of the characters are drawn from life, I never met the prototypes of Mrs. Wharton’s motley crew in “society,” and can recall a pretty wide experience. Society ladies may resort to little female devices to outshine their rivals, but they don’t deliberately drag them down to ruin. Bertha Dorset is an imaginary murderess, as false to life as she is repugnant to good taste. Her husband is a weak fool. Seldon is a flabby sentimentalist. One is not introduced to one charming, pleasant, attractive person in over 400 pages, crowded to confusion with characters. Mrs. Wharton and her men and women are always talking to the gallery. They are always straining to say bright things, and the stilted, rapierlike Henry Jamesey style becomes wearisome. The motive of the book is low. Instead of a portrayal of society, it is an inaccurate caricature, with the most loathsome qualities always in evidence. I fail to see that the book serves any purpose except to mislead those who are outsiders. One naturally does not look for much moral tone in a novel, but The House of Mirth lacks it so completely that it is not pleasant to regard it as the product of a woman’s pen…I think the whole story produces a bad taste in the mouth, points to no moral, and as to the title, it should be changed to “The House of Lies.”

[Kristin’s editorial comment… “Society ladies may resort to little female devices to outshine their rivals, but they don’t deliberately drag them down to ruin.” HAHAHA! Now granted I don’t know many society ladies, but this really is the way the world works. But then again, I have been known to agree with Thackeray on humanity, and have often said that the world is completely comprised of Becky Sharps.] After that comment was published, people were writing in every week, responding to Newport, Newport responding back, etc. It was ridiculous. This went on until March…five months of reader responses to one book. And it wasn’t even really about the scandal of it…not like The Awakening, in which adultery was portrayed so nonchalantly. It was back and forth about its literary merit, whether the characters were true to life, why weren’t there any honorable characters, etc. Could you imagine that kind of reaction today to a book? The only books that cause sensation are The Da Vinci Code and The Golden Compass…and The Golden Compass controversy more surrounded the movie than the book. I have often lamented that our literary scandals now are confined to Dan Brown and James Frey. It makes me really sad.

Overall, House of Mirth certainly wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the best thing I ever read. I just don’t think that I’m particularly interested by so-called Novels of Manners…from Wharton back to Austen. I give them their props, and it’s nothing against the writing, it just isn’t really for me. But I can see why House of Mirth is deserving of being on a Top 100 of the 20th century. Now Wharton’s friend Henry James?...not so much!


brooke said...

it's brooke.
mom told me about your site, and i figured i'd check it out.
i am also attempting the '1001 books to read before you die.'

i just finished lolita earlier today.

Kristin said...

Isn't Lolita AMAZING! I think it took me three readings to really get the absolute horror of it because the writing masks it.