Hi, friends. Today’s classic post comes from an author whose novels resemble the Victorian era (England, mid 1800’s-1900) but are set in the early 1900’s in New York.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth thoroughly depicts the luxuries and expectations of the carefully curated, filthy rich, early twentieth century New York society. The novel opens with Lawrence Selden’s admiration of the seemingly effortless grace and beauty of Miss Lily Bart, whom he observes from a distance at the train station. Selden is a lawyer, so he has one foot in the glamorous NY society and one foot in the working class life. He greets her, and they converse for a while. In this first chapter, we learn a few things–1. Lily’s every interaction is subconsciously crafted for irresistible charm and unfailing control (social skills deliberately ingrained in her raising). 2. Lily’s ignorance of “the real world” causes her to see working class life as inherently beneath her. 3. Selden and Lily have a playful flirtation that will recur.
In her 20’s, Lily’s father announces the family’s financial ruin and dies almost immediately. Lily’s mother hates “dinginess” and “living like a pig,” and after Lily and she struggle for a couple years, she dies “in disgust.” [Easy to see where Lily’s entitlement originated.] Lily must go stay with her father’s sister, Mrs. Peniston, a poor widower.
Over the next couple years, Lily tries to uphold her respected position among the NY socialites while seeking a rich man to marry, all while drowning in the expense of maintaining a facade. The novel follows Lily’s various adventures, obstacles, and errors in trying to secure her spot in a fickle hierarchy of social status.
Wharton claims that “she unknowingly held two trumps” when writing this novel: 1. She actually grew up in rich NY society. 2. This area of society was uncharted territory for novelists at the time.
The title 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.” Wharton is condemning the excessively vain and cruel as fools.
One of Wharton’s title ideas was A Moment’s Ornament from William Wordsworth’s poem “She Was a Phantom of Delight.” The phrase alludes to Lily’s purpose in the NY society–a pretty face, here today and gone tomorrow.
A film version was made in 2000.
The novel has been described as both a novel of manners (aka Victorian) and a social satire simultaneously, a description I find accurate.
Thanks for reading! Have you ever read Edith Wharton? I read The Age of Innocence for school last year, and it was also fantastic.