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28 Feb 2011

House of Mirth

After the first couple of chapters I took on an Austenesque air of expectancy. The story was lovely, romantic, genteel. All I enjoy in such a classic. And of course, comfortably predictable.

Oh dear, how very wrong I was!

It was silly of me to have made such a presumption, considering I had read the tragic Ethan Frome.

House of Mirth is actually Edith Wharton's first novel. I wouldn't say it's an anti-Austen, more like Austen with a twist. Instead of a fortunate marriage and happily-ever-after-whatever-the-previous misunderstandings, Wharton insists that misunderstandings have real, and often horrid, consequences.


Our heroine is beautiful, intelligent, and feeling. More interestingly, she is admirable. Her desire for wealth and the comforts of life are perfectly understandable considering the turn of the century society in which she lives. The flaws that are her true undoing, pride and naivety, only serve to make her human.

What I particularly enjoyed is that Wharton constructed situations that made this reader slap her forehead, yet I never had the impulse to slap our heroine. I perfectly understood the reasoning behind, if not always agreed with, her decisions. Lily may be intelligent and astute, but she blunders in believable ways.

I may not choose Lily for a friend, but I grew to care about her, and wanted her to scrounge out some sort of happiness. Even if it had to be with the wrong guy or in paid work. Anything to repay her for her integrity.

What makes this tale most tragic, is the understanding that even intelligent and forthright women were never in full control of their destinies. Each, even Lily, is a product of, and at the mercy of, social tides.

On a wider scale, even today, both men and women, however 'free' and self-determined, are not the proverbial islands. We succumb to social forces that are beyond our control.

Wharton continues to captivate me with her understated and nuanced prose, as well as her keen psychological insight.

Anyone seen the film version?

illustrations by A. B. Wenzell

even when I sank to the depth of letting the illustrations be put in the book--& oh, I wish I hadn't now.
Edith Wharton, letter to publishers

There's a scene where Lily models, replicating a famous painting, if you've read the novel you might like to know this is what it would have looked like.

Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.
opening lines

5 comments:

  1. I'm reading The Age of Innocence at the moment. It's my first Wharton, and I really love the style so far :-)

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  2. I've thoroughly enjoyed Wharton so far, so will definitely be reading more. Look forward to your review, that one is on my tbr list.

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  3. THis might be my favorite Wharton out of the four novels I've read. I read it first in an Edith Wharton/Henry James seminar in grad school and I remember one of the first comments at our discussion was "there seems to be a dearth of mirth."

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  4. I've only read Ethan Frome. From what I've read about her other books, Wharton isn't one for the happy ending like Austen.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it. I've been wanting to read another of Wharton's books. Maybe I'll start with this one.

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  5. Ethan Frome is such a short read that I would recommend trying one of her longer novels for a better taste of her writing.

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