What gets you running for the hanky? I think of Lily Bart and I’m there. The House of Mirth is my favorite Wharton. Wharton is my favorite American writer. Win-win.
It’s been a long time since she published. Yet with her unique perspective, humor and the emotion she poured into stories she inspired me in a big way to become a writer. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. She lived within the constraints of a stiff, manacled culture on her terms when few women had aspirations outside the cotillion room.
The House of Mirth tells the story of Lily Bart-a poor relation on the fringes of high society. What’s interesting here is that Wharton could have started the novel at a much earlier time. No. Instead, we get a sense of Lily’s past as the belle of the ball, but things haven’t turned out the way she hoped. She’s 29 and on the sunset of her beauty. The money her father left has dwindled and that makes the novel all the more taut, full of razor-sharp tension and projects impending doom for Lily as she tries one last grasp at the brass ring, to arrange a good marriage.
She drifts on good graces and invites from regattas to house parties, racking up debts from cards and clothes she can ill afford. The irony of her situation is all the more acute, since she needs these props to make that advantageous match before her beauty runs out. The promises of an inheritance held as a carrot become spoiled by her own behavior and her desperation to be accepted.
Lily’s conflict-the trappings of wealth pull against her attraction for Seldon who offers her a chance to be herself-as they come crashing down in scandal where she has the means to destroy happiness in one sacrifice. Perhaps the most heartbreaking is Lily’s utter inability to be anything other than what she is; a product of that culture she longs in-part to escape. Her attempts to hold down a job at a hat maker end with realization that she is “a useless sort of person.”
The novel is not a light-hearted beach read but I guarantee you’ll never forget it.