Edith Wharton: the name seemed familiar. I was browsing in a bargain book bin at a used book store. Edith Wharton. As I dredged up some fragments from the memory-stew, out came Ethan Frome. We read it in high school English class. And then I snatched at another floating wisp: an of Julie Harris in the movie. That's all I really knew about Wharton, and it's probably more than many people do. So I picked this up, on a whim, to know more about women novelists of the past. Once I began reading, I couldn't put the book down. And this novel is supposedly "inferior" to her later major works such as Ethan Frome which I suspect is read in high school because it is short and because it "teaches" that any girl who fools around with a married man, even just sled-riding, is going to be very very sorry. I think of Dylan Thomas and "useless" Christmas gifts: "books about boys who were warned not to skate on Farmer Giles's pond, and did, and drowned."
Edith Wharton was one of the few women novelists to win a Pulitzer Prize in the early twentieth century: hers was for The Age of Innocence in 1920. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930. To my mind she excels any other woman novelist until the 1960s. She is comparable to Henry James in faultless style and vivid situations, and better than him to my mind, although much less well-known. Gore Vidal was of this opinion:
Traditionally Henry James has always been placed slightly higher up the slope of Mount Parnassus than Edith Wharton. But now that the prejudice against the female writer is on the wane, they look to be exactly what they are: giants, equals, the tutelary and benign gods of our American literature.
Edith Jones Wharton was born into the upper class New York society she so dispassionately dissects in The House of Mirth, and she knows all the tiny markers of prestige, the subtlety of tone or gaze that indicates the rise or fall of someone's stocks in the social market. She understands the eccentricities that differentiate individuals while seeing clearly that, on the other hand, the apparent idiosyncracies and distinctions are only tiny markers in a conformist herd. The actors ascribe almost instinctively to a rigid and pretentious code that remains unspoken while they frequently and gaily declare their opposition to it, thinking themselves daring, free and spontaneous. Oh, yes. So open, unstuffy, gregarious, free of judgment they are in their frivolities. So ready to spring open trapdoors under another's feet. So coldly calculating each other's relative currencies. So careful to obey the subtle strictures.
The House of Mirth, 1906, was not Edith Wharton's first publication by any means but it was the first to establish her as both a serious novelist and a popular one. In many ways this could be a companion piece to Balzac's Père Goriot, but written about a young woman in a position comparable to that of Balzac's young law student who tries to go "into society." And the two enviable-seeming daughters of Old Father Goriot whose dashing lives are so perilously close to disaster. In Wharton's novel Lily Bart is, in a way, already "in" society; she was born to a life of spending and making life decorative in social circulation. But her father lost his fortune, and both parents died.
The advent of Lily's sudden fall dramatizes her naïve incomprehension of "expense." As her father approaches a luncheon table, the young Lily appeals to him to please furnish the house with better fresh flowers, lily-of-the-valley, she thinks. He laughs in an odd way which causes Lily's mother instantly to dismiss the butler. "Are you ill?" she says cuttingly. "Ill?—No, I'm ruined," he answers.
For two years after his death, which followed hard on the bankruptcy, Lily's mother keeps herself and her daughter anxiously on the edges of society while she prepares Lily to use her extraordinary beauty as "the raw material of conquest." Wharton's shows keen insight into the self-delusion inculcated by the idea of personal beauty as a distinctive value, and of "good taste" as a virtue. Lily comes to see herself as having an innate superiority, unable as she is, like most of us actually, to understand that social advantages do not bestow moral rights:
[Lily] liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her
the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence
felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste. . . . she could not
help thinking that the possession of such tastes ennobled her desire for
After both parents' death, Lily is taken in reluctantly by a stuffy widowed aunt who understands the need for a woman to "dress," and at least pays for Lily's clothes, allowing Lily stay beautifully costumed although always in debt because she wants more and genuinely sees no reason she should not have everything she desires. We meet her when she is twenty-nine. She has been courted by many but she is still unmarried. Most men bore her. Why should she give up her pleasant life? She is so popular, so charming, so decorative, that women vie to have her for their weekends, their seasons, their parties. And that means gifts from her hostesses: sometimes dresses, sometimes cash. Lily makes her way by means of these parties and gifts.
She knows, however, that she is at the age when she must marry or lose the status of "charming girl" and become "spinster." She identifies a good candidate: a young man
fabulously wealthy but almost pathologically shy. Just then, however, another complication presses upon her. Her main benefactor Judy Trenor has taken up hosting bridge parties, and Lily is expected to play cards. For money. It is understood that at parties, her role is to "help" Judy, whether that means the tediousness of writing out notes and cards for her, or the task of charming guests who might be sticky or stodgy. Or appearing as a lively entertaining figure at the card tables. And the wealthy play for rather large stakes. When Lily wins, she is delighted and she spends. When she loses, however, difficulties arise. No one must know how utterly destitute she really is. And the young man she thinks she must marry would be shocked to know she owes money for "gambling debts."
The final complication is that there is one man who does not bore her, an attorney, Lawrence Selden. He has adequate family status to be seen at occasional parties but he has no money to speak of. She likes him but he is ineligible as a husband. He doesn't have enough money or social clout. Just as Lily had to have better fresh flowers at home she needs a better fortune for the life she is trained for. He is just attractive enough, however, that spending time with him compromises her dedication to taking a rich husband.
One of Wharton's gifts is to make the reader admire the grit and cleverness with which Lily maneuvers in this artificial society and simultaneously to see the fatuous vanity of it as well as its heartlessness. Wharton doesn't make Lily an innocent victimized by cruelty; Lily is an adept: she knows what she is doing. But she is also spoiled by her success managing people, and she is impulsive, drawn to instant gratifications. The novel begins with such an impulse: to have tea with Lawrence Selden when she is stranded in a hot train station waiting for a late train. There is always a mild flirtation between them, with something more serious just under the surface, and when he invites her to take tea with him in his hotel lodgings she yields to the impulse. As she leaves afterward, she realizes how it may look—a single woman going to a man's hotel rooms, and it gives her a momentary disquiet. To her dismay she is seen by a man who moves somewhat in her circles but it is someone she finds loathsome. She knows she could give him a charming smile and a bright word that would effectively put him "on her side," so he does not speak maliciously about her leaving Selden's apartment). But she disdains to do so.
Lily is not above resentment that she cannot have both her freedom from financial worries and complete freedom from bores. She chafes under her obligations to always be careful, adroit, winsome, guarded:
Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why
could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a
structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to
Lawrence Selden's rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself
the luxury of an impulse! This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather
more than she could afford.
Thus Wharton casts a somber shadow over these three characters: Lily, Selden, and Sim Rosedale.
For Wharton is not Louisa May Alcott: she builds a careful case to convince us of the complete unlikelihood of Lily Bart freeing herself. Anyone who has read Ethan Frome knows that Edith Wharton is not going to supply artificial happy endings even if a situation is intolerable; people are what they are in her fictions and there is no divine rescue, no poetic justice, no fairy godmother. Lily herself knows her own weaknesses: the idea of setting herself up independently to earn her own way is laughably unrealistic. No life seems to her more dreadful than that of the few single women she knows who live by their own work in ugly little rooms with dismal clothing and no parties, no thrillingly beautiful people, no excitement. She knows herself incapable of making that choice.
Wharton's most admirable quality is the patience, the detail, the fulsomeness with which she constructs the plot for both believability and empathy, in which she details each step in the inexorable descent, and with which she allows the coils she has laid out to slowly close around Lily.
Mentioning Sim Rosedale, however, brings up one aspect of the book that stings. Or stinks. How does an author go about casting the villains in a plot? One method, unfortunately, is to choose the outsider, someone who doesn't really "belong." As if there is in social exclusion a wise intuition of moral inferiority. In British and American literature and drama, the "dark" character is always to be mistrusted. Today (I hope) the educated reader finds this racist tactic flimsy and objectionable, an offensive reminder of how culturally promoted prejudices can fasten themselves on even the most intelligent of persons. Sim Rosedale is one such character. And his darkness is, or seems to be, Jewish; Wharton describes him as fabulously successful on Wall Street(!) and doggedly determined to rise in society, although he does not come from "people." Social aversions to Rosedale (think Rosen, Rosenbaum, etc.) are never stated flatly in terms of anti-Semitism. He is a "nouveau riche" in a setting with long traditions about restricting who is acceptable to the "good families." Any "nouveau" or "nobody" is avoided in this world. Nevertheless Wharton depends on us to sympathize with Lily's special repugnance by describing Rosedale in terms of "the instincts of his race," and "the tradition of his blood," for instance. Wharton may have empathy for others excluded from the elite air, but not for Rosedale.
She also employs racist associations to describe a woman of disrepute, in ways that I suppose are meant to be telling to the reader. But the particular references have fallen from use now, so that I was completely mystified by what she was referring to as "ladies of her nationality," "the ideal of their race," and "Oriental indolence and disorder." And we are expected to understand that "Oriental" does not here refer to a nationality but to decadence and sensuousness, characteristics Western Colonialist prejudice assigned to those 'Others' as justification for needing to civilize them (needless to say the task was accomplished by invasion, aggression and oppression).
In the 1999 edition I had purchased, there is a prefatory essay, "Mrs. Wharton in New York," by Elizabeth Hardwick, an extract Sight Reading(1998), that glosses over the ugly tracks of racism in Wharton as merely "[i]n the practice of the period." Hardwick finds predatory Gus Trenor (husband of Lily's friend Judy) merely "realistic" when he is only a nudge away from an attempted rape. But she describes Rosedale as "a crafty usurper" because in the end he turns down marriage with Lily when she has become a social liability, even though he never does anything particularly unkind or rude to Lily, or to anyone else that we know of. Besides, the premise of the whole book is that almost everyone in elite society is craftily "usurping" social position. Hardwick does acknowledge that there is something objectionable in the characterization of Rosedale, but ascribes it to an innocuous "practice of the period." I am surprised at a woman of Hardwick's stature continuing "in the practice of the period" in her own prejudices in 1998, and failing to identify that practice as racist and anti-Semitic.
All in all, however, The House of Mirth was a great book. I was swept up in the story, and I found myself in tears for many pages leading to the ending. Perhaps a reason for my special susceptibility was that I could identify with Lily's predicament. When I was a girl, women still had to "take care" around men. You had to accept and pass off with smiling grace their crude suggestions, dirty little insinuations, and outright sexual aggressions. I was in my thirties before I was finally willing to risk a man's hostility, at last becoming more comfortable with insults and anger than with being a willing, smiling, victim.
Moreover, in my twenties I honestly did not know what to do with my life so I understand much of Lily's dilemma. I was not trained to envision myself in a career, and I was not prepared for one. When I turned thirty, however, I had an epiphany which Lily did not. I realized my "girlhood" was gone, but in its place I found my adult competence and my assumption of competence I owed to the tide of the Women's Liberation movement which swept me up in its power. It was far less exciting than a vision of myself as being "attractive" to men. But I enrolled in graduate school, even though I had to temporarily support myself with office work. (Which I loathed because of the necessity to "dress the part," one more artificial demand for being 'attractive.') I look back now, at that moment and think how easily it might not have been. How easily any young woman who is attractive and successful at girlhood charm might not in other circumstances, find independence and authenticity. I work with such girls every week, as a volunteer mentoring girls in juvenile detention. They are not raised to luxury, but they are raised in a media culture of parties, sexiness, and fashionable self-display. They are not all beautiful but they are all young flesh and they can make that to work for them at least some of the time. It's a revolving door; they get addicted to parties and drugs, they get strung out and used by men, they are arrested and go into detention, they are rehabbed, educated, psychologized, medicated, but they come out into the same world they left. Like the stereotypical pretty small-town girl of thirties and forties fiction, they dream of "Celebrity" the way those girls envisioned "Hollywood." They want to become famous and glamorous, or at least to feel like it. Yes, like Lily, young women can still "fall from grace."
Lily Bart never betrays her inner sense of decency or dignity. She doesn't stoop to blackmail. She doesn't stoop to selling her body or sexuality. She doesn't intentionally hurt anyone. And she doesn't waste her spirit in hatred, revenge, or blame. She just tires out. And in her circumstances, she hits a wall. In her circumstances I could have.
A marvelous book.