There are few things I would rather do than read Edith Wharton. I planned to reread one of her books for her 150th birthday, but didn’t get around to it till last Saturday when I bought a used copy of a Library of America edition of four of her novels.
Waving “Good-bye” to my husband, who was embarking on a cross-country ski expedition and wondering if I didn’t want to go along (I sacrificed myself briefly to wifely folly on cross-country skis for a couple of hours in 1989, only to learn that I am not a winter sportswoman), I smiled bravely at my sacrifice of staying home alone and curled up in bed with The House of Mirth.
Some hours later I was agonizing over the heroine, Lily Bart, the kind of woman who is your friend, but who falls in society, and there is little you can do to help her.
In fact she reminds me a little of Jennifer in Valley of the Dolls. Both go down the druggy path eventually, because they are anxious and can’t sleep. (And, yes, this comparison is probably as outrageous as Jonathan Franzen’s saying in The New Yorker that Edith Wharton would be more sympathetic if she looked like Grace Kelly, but Jennifer in Jacquelyn Susann’s novel actually is like Grace Kelly, a star who at one point is married to a prince.)
The House of Mirth is very painful to read. Lily, a beautiful, intelligent, tactful heroine, doesn’t have money, but she lives with a wealthy, respected aunt in a comfortable house. And Lily is so attractive that she is constantly invited into the wealthiest, most exclusive society. She cannot, however, pay her way on her small income, and goes into debt for clothes and losing at bridge.
She needs to marry, and she needs to marry rich, she thinks. But she is very self-destructive, not a marrier. Just as she is on the edge of getting engaged to a rich man, she blows it. She doesn’t really want to marry Percy, an inarticulate city bumpkin. So she takes a long walk with Lawrence Selden, whom she very much likes, a brilliant lawyer with bibliophilic and artistic tastes, and when Percy learns she has spent the afternoon with Selden, he drops her.
This kind of thing happens again and again to Lily. Lawrence Selden has plenty of money, but not enough for Lily’s dreams.
And when she speculates with her money, on the advice of her best friend Judy’s husband, Guy Trenor, it takes time for her (and us) to realize that she is $10,000 in debt. He expects her to become his mistress.
And thus, though she remains chaste, she falls down, down, down several classes because of scandal, and because she alienates one of the most powerful women in her set, Mrs. Bertha Dorset, who tactically ruins Lily’s reputation to save her own.
Often I write very good notes, but I got so carried away with reading The House of Mirth that my notes look like this:
“116, Miss Farish,” “245, new set.”
Hmm. Glorious! “116 Miss Farish” simply tells me that here Wharton contrasts Gerty Farish, Lily’s poor, unfashionable, plain, philanthropic friend– indeed, almost her only friend, as we learn later–with Lily in every way. Lily is shallow compared to Gerty, but Gerty is unsophisticated. Gerty inspires Lily with her mission to “provide comfortable lodgings, with a reading room and other modest distractions, where young women in the class employed in downtown offices, might find a home when out of work, or in need of rest…” And Lily makes a difference to some of these women, encouraged by Gerty.
Ironically, Lily needs these services later, but doesn’t get them.