Since I absolutely loved Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, I decided to read another book of hers, The House of Mirth. It’s set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century, a time of excess. Another book of hers, The Age of Innocence, has a similar setting. Interestingly enough, Wharton was mentioned in a recent PBS documentary I watched about WWI. Born an East Coast aristocrat, she worked as a journalist in France during the war, and wrote to a friend, “Hasn’t it (the war) shaken all the foundations of reality for you?”
The House of Mirth
Our heroine in the story is Lily Bart, a woman who, while not wealthy herself, moves around in wealthy circles. Comparing herself to a less-shiny friend, Lily says, “She likes being good, and I like being happy.” Indeed, one of the most-used words in the book is “dingy,” and Lily wishes to avoid dinginess at all costs.
She is, gasp, headed toward spinsterhood in her late 20s. Lily uses her feminine charms throughout the book in an attempt to snag various eligible gentlemen (“she had the art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed”). Unfortunately, each of these efforts is thwarted in one way or another. “Younger and plainer had been married off by dozens, and she was nine-and-twenty, and still Miss Bart.” This is a real problem for a woman who likes the finer things of life, as she does.
Lily makes a halfhearted attempt at an occupation, but this isn’t successful. She also has a male friend who offers to try to help her by making investments for her, but this ends up badly as well. In the end, there’s a Romeo and Juliet-type sad ending.
In many ways, this book reminded me of something by Jane Austen. There was a lot of angst over women getting married and social class — what was acceptable, what was not. Many of the relationships seemed very mercenary, and it was fascinating to observe the social situations in play. They’re different from our own, but are our own superior? Probably not; they’re just suited to our own times.
The title comes from the Bible: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” — Ecclesiastes 7:4. In other words, the story takes place amidst a bunch of people who are rather foolish. In what ways? Read it and draw your own conclusions.