The House of Mirth has been on my list since I first fell in love with The Age of Innocence a quarter of a century ago. Nobody writes the glamour and treachery of Old New York as deliciously as Edith Wharton. I’ve been putting off writing this review because I wasn’t sure how I felt about the novel. I definitely prefer it to Ethan Frome, but it falls short of my favorite Wharton. Yet as time passes, I am remembering it perhaps more fondly than I felt at the time of reading, and my feelings toward the heroine have softened into real pity.
In 1905, Lily Bart is a beautiful New York socialite who is desirable to potential suitors despite being financially challenged. At the decrepit age of 29, her youth is fading, so she’d better secure a husband soon before she hits the dreaded Three-Oh, when she might as well take in a bunch of strays and claim spinster status. But Lily is charming and confident, and she still has many men eyeing her, and a trip to the country house of her friend Judy Trenor is all she needs to land Percy Gryce, a boring mama’s boy who nevertheless has enough money to keep Lily in the lifestyle to which she is accustomed. There are a few snags–for one thing, Lily’s friends like to gamble, and she feels she has to participate to be sociable, even though she can’t afford it and isn’t very good at it, running up debts with every hand. Percy’s mother doesn’t approve of gambling, so Lily will have to keep that secret. Worse, though, is that Lily’s friend, the dashing-but-not-wealthy Lawrence Selden, shows up for the weekend. Lily and Selden are obviously attracted to each other, but Lily has eliminated him from suitor contention because of his financial limitations. Yet that doesn’t stop her from sabotaging her own plans by skipping church services with Percy to hang with Selden instead. On top of that, her flirtations with Selden awaken the ire of Bertha Dorset, who until very recently had been having an extramarital affair with Selden. Angry that Lily is hijacking Selden’s attention, Bertha shares with Percy all of Lily’s scandalous habits, including the gambling. Instead of ending the trip with a ring and the promise of a loveless but luxurious marriage, Lily is back to hunting for a suitable husband.
Through much of the novel, it’s difficult to sympathize with Lily because of all the ways she sabotages herself. Her stated goal is to marry a wealthy man, yet she dreams of marrying for love as well, evidenced by the way she can’t seem to let go of Selden. She tells Selden she envies him being able to keep his own flat, saying, “What a miserable thing it is to be a woman.” When Selden points out that he has known women to have their own place, she says, “Oh, I know–you mean Gerty Farish. But I said MARRIAGEABLE–and besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know.” She realizes belatedly that she’s just insulted Selden’s cousin and tries to apologize, saying, “But we’re so different, you know: she likes being good, and I like being happy. And besides, she is free and I am not.”
Sneering at Gerty, one of the few kind characters in this novel, is unbecoming of our heroine, but her real undoing is she fails at playing the game she has willingly entered. Had she taken her friend Judy’s advice and let Bertha think Selden had come to see her (Bertha) that weekend, Bertha wouldn’t have spilled the beans to Percy about all of Lily’s shortcomings. Lily would have gone home engaged to a wealthy man, per her plan. But Lily never wants to go all-in on those plans. Love or money: She wants both and sacrifices one for the other at every turn.
As Lily’s financial situation continues to deteriorate (her aunt gives her an allowance, but it’s not enough to cover her gambling debts), she gets more desperate and starts to borrow money from Judy’s husband, Gus, knowing that lending other women money is the one thing Judy won’t tolerate from her spouse. Lily convinces herself that Gus is “investing” the money for her; in reality, Gus is “lending” the money and expects tit for tat (sorry, bad pun there). When Gus tricks Lily into visiting him in his home while Judy is away, sympathy for Lily kicks in. As foolish and as self-destructive as she is, Gus and other men in this novel are truly despicable, exploiting women for their own purposes and then condemning them in their social circles later.
While Lily sets herself up for destruction, it wouldn’t be possible without men like Gus and frenemies like Judy and Bertha. It’s easy to condemn Lily for being foolish, for rejecting Selden, for thinking she must have money to be happy. Yet in the “polite” society of Old New York, appearances mean everything. And as soon as Lily starts to descend, it’s almost impossible that she would ever be able to lift herself back out of it. The ending is a bit fatalistic for my taste, a bit Thomas Hardy-esque, but House of Mirth is a sad and wonderful commentary on society, on exploitation, and on scandal.