Old Bestsellers: The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
a review by Rich Horton
When I say I'm reviewing an "Old Bestseller", the usual implication is that I'm looking at a book, probably from the first half of the 20th Century, that has met the fate of most books, even bestsellers, and has been forgotten. But sometimes even great novels become bestsellers. Edith Wharton, indisputably a great novelist, had two books end up on Publishers' Weekly's list of the ten bestselling novels of their year: The House of Mirth (1905) was 8th in 1905 and 9th in 1906; while The Age of Innocence (1920), which (somewhat controversially*) won the Pulitzer Prize, was 3rd in 1921.
Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 to a wealthy New York family. She was raised much in the manner of wealthy young women of her time, plenty of travel, a private education (tutors and governesses), and the expectation of an appropriate marriage. She rebelled to an extent, writing from an early age (she tried a novel at 11, completed a novella when 15, and published a translation of a poem anonymously at 15). She married an older man, Edward ("Teddy") Wharton, when she was 23. The marriage foundered, largely, it appears, because of Teddy's mental illness. They divorced in 1913, but Edith had begun an affair with Morton Fullerton several years earlier. She lived primarily in France from about 1908, and she died in 1937.
Wharton published a few short stories and poems in the '80s and '90s. Aside from a privately printed collection of poems, her first book was non-fiction: The Decoration of Houses, in 1897, which is indeed about interior decoration. Eventually she published quite a number of books of that nature, and also travel books. Her first book length fiction was a novella, The Touchstone, in 1900. Another novella and a full-length novel appeared before The House of Mirth, which was her first major success. Wharton was, obviously, from an extraordinarily privileged background, yet finances were often a difficulty for her, no doubt in part because of her husband's illness and their eventual divorce; also no doubt because her style of life was expensive. Thus, the fact that her books sold well, and that one could get paid quite nicely for magazine publications as well in those days was important.
I wrote in a previous blog post that I sometimes, when trying major writers, shy away from longer works. So it was with Wharton -- many years ago I read her 1911 novella Ethan Frome. And I liked it immensely, though I soon realized it is quite uncharacteristic of her body of work. Ethan Frome has a curious place in her oeuvre -- it was, it seems to me, definitely her most famous book when I was growing up. One assumed, or at least I did, that it was her masterpiece. But of course it is not -- in the most technical sense, that is The House of Mirth, which is her first fully accomplished novel. And there are two more novels that stand head and shoulders above Ethan Frome in the consensus estimation: The Custom of the Country (1913) and The Age of Innocence (1920). For all that I never did try another Wharton novel until now, though I did see the well-regarded 1993 Martin Scorcese film of The Age of Innocence. (The House of Mirth was also made into a movie, in 2000, directed by Terence Davies, starring Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart.)
On my sadly unplanned trips back and forth to my parents' home in Naperville, IL, last month, I was looking for something to read on our iPad (because I can't read my Kindle, or a paper book, in the dark). Various classic novels are available for free from iBooks, and I lit on The House of Mirth. When we got back home I looked up a print version, eventually settling on a used copy of the Scribner Library of Contemporary Classics trade paper edition, complete with detailed underlining and notes from, one imagines, a college student. Scribner's, by the way, serialized the novel first (in Scribner's Magazine), and also published the first book edition. (For that matter, I have a bound volume of Scribner's Magazine for 1902, which includes some of Wharton's writing on travel and gardens, and also a poem of hers. I had carelessly assumed she was a major writer condescending to publish occasional pieces when I first saw that, but actually this work came quite early in her real career.)
The House of Mirth opens with Lawrence Selden unexpectedly encountering Lily Bart in Grand Central Station. She accompanies him for tea in his quarters (at that time, probably 1895-1905, this was faintly scandalous), and we gather that she and Lawrence are attracted to each other, but that he isn't quite rich enough for her, and anyway perhaps he is a bit shy of marriage. She hints that she has her eyes on Percy Gryce, a very rich young man, also a straitlaced crashing bore. Soon she is heading to the country house of her friend Judy Trenor for a visit, where she expects to bring Percy around.
We soon learn Lily's real situation: she was born into the highest social class, but her father's financial errors and her mother's character faults have left her impoverished, but unable to imagine any life other than to be the wife of a sufficiently rich man of her class. Her parents are dead, and she lives with a fussy old aunt, when she's not staying at her friends' houses, doing little social chores for them as a sort of rent. Lily Bart is amazingly beautiful, but she is 29, having already refused a couple of offers of marriage. She senses on the one hand that she is trained only to be a man's ornamental wife and social director; but she has a certain native intelligence, and taste, and independence, and so she, at the least opportune times, tends to kick up her traces. Which is what happens at the Trenors' house party -- she stands up Percy Gryce in favor of a walk with Lawrence Selden, who has turned up unexpectedly; and before she knows it Gryce is snared by another girl. And Lily, her finances truly strained, and unable or unwilling to ask her aunt for help (in part because one of her issues is gambling debts), has agreed to let Gus Trenor give her some financial "tips" ...
At about this time I realized I was reading something truly special. Part of it is Wharton's prose, which is carefully controlled and perfectly elegant. Part of it is her wit -- this is a tragic novel but at times it is quite comic. Much of it is Wharton's precise view of her characters, from both the inside and the outside. The descriptions are dryly ironic, and wholly believable even as the characters act in ways that we find curious today. I'll content myself with one quote, from later in the novel, Selden criticizing (to himself) Lily's resignation to striving in society: "It was before him again in its completeness -- the choice in which she was content to rest: in the stupid costliness of the food and the showy dulness of the talk, in the freedom of speech which never arrived at wit and the freedom of act which never made for romance."
Lily Bart is a remarkable character. In many ways she is reprehensible: she is uneducated, she is scornful of people of other classes, she is complicit in the cynical behavior of her set even though she sees how wrong it is, she is financially careless. You could say she deserves, in a sense, what she gets. But we still root for her, we still hope she can find happiness. Wharton makes us believe in her beauty, and believe that there is a real Lily Bart who deserves that happiness, even as she is contrasted with perhaps her closest friend, plain Gerty Farish, an old maid who is unfailingly loyal, and also charitable and honest and able to live within her limited means.
The novel, from one point of view -- quite a sensible one -- is about a woman trapped by society's rules, and particularly their unfair impact on women, especially single women. But even within those constraints, Lily Bart is something of a special case, for she could have married very well any number of times, and she could have married for love and lived comfortably enough, and she could even have saved herself and gotten a well-deserved revenge on a bad woman ... but was too honorable to do so. In a way, even as she rebels against her class's notions of proper behavior (to an extent), she also obeys them more completely than the more conventionally successful people in her circle. This makes her fall the more moving, even as we can still see that she too is at fault.
Spoilers will follow ...
So Gus Trenor's "investments" give Lily financial freedom for a short while, until she realizes that in fact Trenor had just given her the money, and that he expects a sexual quid pro quo in exchange. She rejects him, and determines to repay him, ironically losing another chance at real intimacy with Selden when he assumes the worst of her relationship with Trenor at the very moment she is rejecting him. Meanwhile Lily is pursued by Simon Rosedale, a Jewish man whose wealth has given him an uncertain entree into society. He hopes on the one hand that a beautiful and socially established wife will ease his way -- on the other hand he truly seems to love Lily. But she cannot love him, nor see an arrangement with him as anything but a crude business contract -- as, really, all her marriage proposals have been, which is probably why she has rejected them all. (The portrayal of Rosedale is the one unpleasant aspect of this book -- it is rather anti-Semitic in tone, for sure, though mitigated in a few ways: for one, it is an accurate (as far as I know) depiction of how people of that society really felt about Jewish people; for two, Wharton seems to recognize that a big part of Rosedale's character and attitudes are formed in reaction to prejudice; for three, most of the rest of New York society gets treated as harshly as Rosedale. But ... but ... there are still some distinctly anti-Semitic passages, especially when Rosedale's character is regarded as characteristic of his "race" -- again, that's no doubt what a socialite of Lily Bart's class would have felt, but it does jar one.)
Lily ends up fleeing to Europe in the company of Bertha Dorset, who wants her to distract her husband while she pursues an affair with a young poet. Lily fulfils her role admirably, and is shocked when Bertha betrays her by falsely accusing her of adultery as a way of getting leverage to prevent her husband from divorcing her. This precipitates Lily's essential banishment from society, which is only exacerbated when Lily returns home to find that her aunt has died and also that she has been disinherited because of her aunt's disgust at the rumors of adultery. The rest of the novel describes Lily's further descent: a couple of attempts at rehabilitation by taking up with people from a rung or two below her on the social ladder, only to have these torpedoed either by Bertha Dorset's vindictiveness or by Lily's own scruples. Things get worse and worse, and when Simon Rosedale offers her a final way out she is tempted, but (wholly justifiable) revenge against Mrs. Dorset is an important aspect of this offer, and even though that would be wholly just it would still be mean in a way Lily can't quite manage, and the end comes, arguably a bit melodramatic but to my mind fully and honestly prepared for, and quite moving. And we are given no surcease ... no one, not Gerty, not Lawrence, ever knows of the proof of Bertha's wickedness, nor of Lily's essential innocence of most of the sins laid at her door.
Really, I loved this novel. I don't feel that I've done it justice ... so I just suggest you read it.
* As for the "controversial" Pulitzer to The Age of Innocence -- apparently the Pulitzer committee wanted to give it to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the President of Columbia University overruled them. Wharton was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which seems important in itself, but more to the point, I would think that posterity has ruled: Wharton is, to my mind, a more interesting and lasting writer than Lewis, and The Age of Innocence seems -- not having read it, I ought to emphasize! -- intrinsically more interesting than Main Street.