Friday, 12 April 2013

Book Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141199024/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0141199024&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21
This week I’m searching for lost time as it has been depicted in countless novels of world renown. An American writer who produced several of them is my namesake Edith Wharton. For today’s review I chose her first great literary success, The House of Mirth, that dates from 1905. Although the story is set in upper class New York in the last years of the nineteenth’s century – in the Gilded Age after the American Civil War –, its themes are timeless and make it a fascinating read even in the twenty-first century.

Edith Wharton, née Newbold Jones, was born into a rich and distinguished family in New York City, USA, in January 1862. Despite having written already as an adolescent, Edith Wharton started publishing only in the late 1890s. In 1902 her first full-length novel, The Valley of Decision, was a notable success, but it was The House of Mirth in 1905 that made her fame as a novelist. As from 1907 Edith Wharton lived almost permanently in France. In 1911 she brought out the untypical novelette Ethan Frome that mirrored her own unhappy marriage with Edward Wharton whom she divorced in 1913. During her lifetime the versatile and prolific writer produced long and short fiction along with poems as well as non-fiction work on interior design, travels and war. Today Edith Wharton is remembered above all for her literary masterpiece The Age of Innocence that appeared in 1920 and earned her the Pulitzer Prize. Edith Wharton died in France in August 1937. 

The House of Mirth tells the story of the social descent of Lily Bart, a beautiful woman of twenty-nine years who belongs to a distinguished New Yorker family. When the chronicle begins, both her parents have been dead for years and Lily, who has no money of her own to support herself, is staying with her wealthy widowed aunt Mrs. Peniston because no suitor seems good enough to her. Approaching thirty her choice of suitable bachelors is already diminishing like her youth, and yet the idea of depending on a husband doesn’t particularly thrill her. She senses that a marriage of convenience will bore her and unconsciously lets slip good opportunities that present themselves. She even risks being compromised on several occasions when she is seen coming from the flat or house of married or unmarried male friends where she had been alone with them without anything happening really. In addition, she smokes, gambles high and runs into debt. When she turns towards her (married) friend Gus Trenor for financial help, her fate is sealed. Lily gets caught in a downward spiral nurtured by intrigues and gossip from people who she considered as friends. Little by little she loses her position in the circles of the old rich and is forced to work for her living although her education hasn’t equipped her with any useful skills for that purpose. Her reputation as ruined as her finances and her chances for a good match, Lily is even tempted to blackmail a former friend who betrayed her husband at one point and cuts her, but then she burns the compromising letters.

In The House of Mirth Edith Wharton drew a vivid picture of the New Yorker high society around 1900 that she knew so well from own experience and that was a world built on appearances and reputation. It’s a novel of manners and having a close look it reveals a very critical view on social conventions of the time and on hypocrisy. As always Edith Wharton tells her story with irony and wit as well as with much precision.

Times have changed in many respects, but certainly not in all. In our modern consumer society appearances are still as important as they were a hundred years ago. Those of us who fail or don’t fit in are dropped and left to themselves like Lily is. Also intrigues and gossip are part of our daily lives. If we like it or not, people haven’t changed that much after all and that is what make Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth  is surprisingly modern. I enjoyed the read.

2 comments:

  1. Cool. I've been wanting to read her books for awhile now. As part of my "dust off your classics challenge" I a, going to read The Age of Innocence this year. You should check it out!

    Great review, btw. ;)

    Http://diamondlovestoread.blogspot.com

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    1. Hello Dee! Thanks for the praise of my review.
      Yes, The House of Mirth is a really good read and worth the time. The Age of Innocence was even better... and Ethan Frome was my first by Edith Wharton. I love the classics! Always did, but I try to read (and review) some contemporary authors, too. ;)
      I've been to your blog. Interesting site - I'm following you now.

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