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Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth
Mary Berenson, wife of Bernard Berenson, stated that an intellectual Spanish friend of hers had considered House of Mirth to be a rotten novel because, if it were accurate, fashionable American society avoided the one justification for its existence, namely, of course, illicit love affairs. One can see the Spanish lady’s point
Lily Bart is a poor relation. She is also twenty-nine and unmarried. Not only is her biological clock ticking but, more importantly, her marriage clock is ticking. There are two men in her life – Lawrence Selden, a generally nice man but one without money (and one who is also seeking money) and Simon Rosedale, rich but socially unacceptable ( He was a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac.) And here we have the basis for tragedy – a hero or, as in this case, a heroine who, because of the conventions of her society (in this case, upper-class New York in the late nineteenth century), a weak, vacillating man and a somewhat unscrupulous married man who wants a bit of relief from his wife, is doomed.
What Wharton does so skilfully is to trace Lily’s gradual downfall, starting with her failed flirtation with Selden on the way to the Trenors, their joint hosts for a weekend party, via her men friends'”helping her” with Wall Street tips and her debts, down to her sinking into drugs (yes, Virginia, they even had drugs then) and death. The New York types that Wharton gives us – the rich Jew, the stockbroker, the society hostess, the impoverished young man on the make – provide a wonderful background to Lily’s fall as they are, of course, all to blame in some way or another, whether by neglect or, more likely, as Wharton makes clear, by using Lily for their own ends. Ultimately, Lily is a victim of the mores of her society but also a victim of the individuals who make up that society.
First published 1905 by Charles Scribner’s Sons