Continuing my foray into the writing of Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth was next off the pile after The Age of Innocence and I think I had perhaps stumbled on the best reading order. The former went some way to laying the foundations (sorry) for the latter; one elaborating on the life, social habits and unspoken rules of Old New York, the other revealing the dire consequences if a person couldn't quite fit that mould for whatever reason. The reasons could be manifold but predominantly a lack of money 'earned' ( I use the word lightly) in the right way, and sufficiently long ago so as not to be 'new', was enough to exclude most people from the hallowed inner circle, and Lily Bart is up against it from the off.
I am always intrigued by the direction in which an author will take a chaotic, dysfunctional childhood, and as the adult Lily lays in the dark 'reconstructing the past out of which her present had grown' there was much to feast on. Emotionally absent parents, a demandingly 'vigorous and determined mother' and a brow-beaten 'neutral-tinted father', a 'changing dynasty of nurses and footmen' with profligate trips to Europe interspersed by summers spent at Newport, Rhode Island...
' a zig-zag broken course down which the family craft glided on a rapid current of amusement, tugged at by the underflow of perpetual need - the need of more money.'
With little appreciation of the value of money or what may be involved in its aquisition, Lily has little concept of what will follow when the family fortunes are ruined and her father subsequently (and probably gratefully) dies.
When her mother's death throws her on the mercy of her aunt Mrs Peniston, who will 'try her for a year', the die is cast and Lily's reliance on others is complete. Rootless and effectively home-less Lily must become a social chameleon, an actress who can supress her own desires and personality, an artist who can paint the picture others want to see in order to blend into any background and fulfill any role required of her to remain within the circle. The circle itself a relentless round of ennui, falseness, monotony and vanity for the women especially, who will only be preserved within its precincts if they can lay claim to a man and a fortune.
One of Edith Wharton's most consummate skills for me as I read The House of Mirth was to sustain the edge and my interest through the middle third of the book. With its focus on the vacuity and sustained ennui of the social lives, hours spent fretting over the minutiae of social niceties...well that same sense was almost invoked in this reader. I wondered too whether Edith was imagining, to some extent, the life that she had escaped from, the one that she had married into, a life of unquestioning obedience to shallow social values that left women disempowered.
I dipped a toe (just a toe) into The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen. Published in 1899 it is considered the definitive analysis of the 'socio-economics of affluent American societies, and its truths could very much have been the blueprint for The House of Mirth.... 'Wives flaunted as trophies, their bared bosoms draped with jewels, as proof of their men's wealth and success', suggests Martha Banta in her introduction.
Oh no, not another dinner party...
Oh no, not more posh frocks...
Oh no, not another carriage drive down Fifth Avenue.
There is a marvellous moment when Lily performs in a tableau representing Mrs Lloyd, a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds. It says much about Edith Wharton's vision of Lily and no wonder the tableau caused quite a stir. The last person on God's earth you would want to excite is the portly, rather rubicund and everso slightly eager Mr Gus Trenor. Poor Lily, the consequences will be profound.
Then it was "Oh no, not another cruise," except this one is different, Lily will be deceived, used and deeply humiliated, the sacrificial lamb finally taken to the altar in order to rescue a marriage in distress, unceremoniously dumped in the South of France and her downward spiral begins.
'I wasn't meant to be good,' says Lily ultimately broken on the wheel, and though I am sure everyone knows the ending I won't spoilt it for those that haven't read this one yet.
The denoument felt neither melodramatic nor overwrought and given events Edith Wharton could be forgiven for descending into either or both. Instead the brushstrokes felt featherlight and tender as I sniffed my way through.
Suffice to say I was completely absorbed and utterly convinced by the changing phases of Lily's life. Her yearning for security and love clouded by her need for money.
'... The only way not to think about money is to have great deal of it.'
says Lily to the on-off-off-on love of her life Lawrence Selden (who, forgive me but I just wanted to slap around the mutton chops for his indeciveness and mistimed and misplaced interventions in Lily's life) as it becomes increasingly clear that Lily's scant and superficial resilience is going to run out any day.
Lily's foibles all masking a fundamentally 'good' person, desperately lonely yet one who, when the chips were down, refused to compromise her integrity or her honour and I defy anyone to read this as the end of the book is nigh and not have a bit of a lip-quiver...
'I have tried hard - but life is difficult and I am a very useless person... I was just a screw or a cog in the great machine I called life, and when I dropped out of it I found I was of no use anywhere else....'
I heart Lily Bart and I heart Edith Wharton too.
I read this in the Oxford World Classics edition because in a 1936 preface to the book Edith expresses her pride at inclusion on their list. I'm sure many of you have read it and I'd love to know what you think...
...is The House of Mirth Edith's best novel??
I am begining to think it might be, with The Custom of the Country a close second of those I have read to date, but in my mind at least The House of Mirth remains as valid and as powerful now as the day it was written.
And the next question is... should I now watch the film??