At 29 her looks wont last Shes ringing up debts Borrowing from men And displeasing their wives Not to mention her friend Lawrence Selden, a lawyer (but not very rich) Its Gilded Age New York And lifes a bitch If youre not old money Like the Trenors, Dorsets And that odd Percy Gryce The most you can do is play very nice Like Sam Rosedale, the Brys The Gormers and such, Who buy their way in (i.e., never go "dutch) Just remember: this clique Who summer in Newport and vacate in France Can shut you out of the social dance Which brings me back to Lily Bart Whos clearly not as smart as she seems Stepping right into a terrible scheme And refusing to clear her name Or go along with the game Even though, in the end, it causes her shame Does she have a choice?
On occasions like this, I rue the absence of a 'tragedy' shelf or some variation of the same because mere 'melancholia' seems too modest, too equivocal a word to convey the kind of heartbreak Lily Bart's story inflicted on me. Because Desai's Bim and Wharton's Lily are both flawed figures who manage to stand erect, weathering storms of hostile circumstances that whittle down their will to live and sense of self worth. And how many tragedies can we think of, in which the female protagonist's tragic status is not a mere matter of simple victimization at the hands of patriarchal figures of authority but is, instead, locked in a complex configuration of missed chances, reluctance to surrender self-esteem in exchange for societal approval and an unsympathetic social milieu? She was realizing for the first time that a woman's dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents, made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.
Lily Bart, the protagonist of Edith Wharton's stunning first novel, is introduced to the reader as a young woman traveling within high society. And within Manhattan's high society at the turn of the century, women are meant to marry; and in order to marry women are meant to maintain a reputation of "pale" innocence (indeed, they must). The final problem that first emerges from the relationship between Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden is the crux of the novel and the launching point for several shrewd insights Wharton compellingly places within the American cultural dialog, as extant within the novel. (And, perhaps ironically, she likely would not, in any case, as Selden lacks the most essential thing men in high society bring to a marriage -- money.) Like any fully painted character in a great work of fiction, Lily Bart is a woman of substantial intellectual and emotional force. First, Lily Bart retains her outer beauty throughout the greater part of the novel, despite her internal struggle to maintain a grip in the face of near free fall. The House of Mirth is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.
Aunt Peniston, affluent, widowed sister, of Lily's father, surprisingly takes her in, she keeps mostly to herself, aloof, will not help Miss Bart, pay bills, ( Lily has a meager income), and her niece continues in New York society, with her friends, buying extravagant dresses, gambling at cards, bridge, a maid employed, visiting the houses of people, who live lavishly, in their own little world. But Lily loves Lawrence Selden, a fascinating man, they have interesting conversations together, she feels good being able to speak honestly, but he is just another struggling lawyer, a working man, who travels in high places and lives in a modest apartment. His cousin Gerty Farish, is one of the few real friends, Lily has, and she also loves Lawrence, helping the poor, becomes her life's work.
Edith Wharton sets the New York social stage of the early twentieth century for a succession of short scenes that glitter with glossy superficiality. Who am I to judge Lily when I feel my life to be an ongoing sequence of scenarios where I play the roles my varied audience expects from me? Mr. Selden offers Lily a place in his republic" where freedom and success are both possible: Freedom? To keep a kind of republic of spirit thats what I call success.' (p.78) But Lily has no spiritual or actual home of her own, like Woolf urged women to some years later, and she clings feebly to the surface of her existence where she is swirled around by the turbulences of the social corset that asphyxiates her. Lilys frivolity is in fact a result of a deluded childishness that splits her troubled being in two halves, the false one in perpetual display on the perfidious stage of society and the real one that radiates with emotional expressiveness in the last chapters of the novel when the mask of appearances is finally dropped and the bright, tragic realism filters through the cracks of Whartons cardboard language. But I cant help but wonder how much of Lilys story reflects Whartons professional career and the inherent conflict between her eagerness for popularity and the necessity to exorcize her own frustrations as a female writer in a sparkling scenario as facetious as her characters.
The House of Mirth just might be to The Age of Innocence what Tom Sawyer is to Huck Finn: that is, only but a stepping-stone towards a more profound greatness (although why I used that Twain analogy is a mystery even to meI find that brand of American Lit a bit overrated).
Published in 1905, this tale of Miss Lily Bart -- a young woman held prisoner by New York high society for her grace and beauty until her dependence on wealthy patrons makes her vulnerable to their whims -- carried me off against my will and held me with jeweled prose, breathless detail to character and droll wit. Bachelor attorney Lawrence Selden returns to New York from the country and spots twenty-nine year old socialite Lily Bart at the station, waiting alone. Though she is expected to inherit a great deal of money from her aunt, Lily is not paid an allowance, which places her at the service of whichever patron of high society offers to sponsor her. Exiting Selden's building, Lily has a chance encounter with Simon Rosedale, a social climber who makes it his business to know everything about everyone. Lily arrives at Bellomont, where Mrs. Judy Trenor has invited Lily to spend a weekend among high society over bridge games that drag into the night. Mrs. Trenor offers to help the girl secure an engagement to Percy Bryce, a bachelor whom Lily is bored by the moment she catches him in her web. She finds herself elated by the arrival of Selden and incurs the wrath of Bertha Dorset, a married woman who has designs on the bachelor. Dispatched to pick up Mrs. Trenor's husband from the train station, Lily finds herself obsessed upon by Gus Trenor, who offers to invest money for Lily in the stock market at no risk. Her cousin Grace Stepney retaliates against Lily for being excluded from their aunt's dinner party list by whispering to Mrs. Peniston that the heir to her fortune has been gambling, living extravagantly and carrying on as the kept woman of Gus Trenor. Seeking to settle her debts and recapture her independence, Lily struggles with opaque feelings for Selden against cash on the table: a marriage proposal from Simon Rosedale. Book I--Chapter I: Selden paused in surprise. Book I--Chapter III: Bridge at Bellomont usually lasted till the small hours; and when Lily went to bed that night she had played too long for her own good. In spite of its obtuseness, The House of Mirth builds in power by illustrating the corner a single woman like Miss Lily Bart paints herself into, ill-equipped to earn her keep as anything more than an ornament to high society.
I have read almost all of Edith Wharton's writing.
Heres a great comment on one miserable attitude to the rich: Such flashes of joy as Lily moved in would have blinded Miss Farish, who was accustomed, in the way of happiness, to such scant light as shone through the cracks of other peoples lives. I know that Edith Wharton came from the top of the top families of Old New York, the ones who cant remember how they came to be so rich, but reading this you might think she was a Marxist because the only possible reaction to her detailed description of this nasty collection of human parasites is to support violent revolution. No, I dont think that was our Edies intention, but reading the House of Mirth could surely nudge a person towards the overthrow of capitalism. Hitherto he had found, in her presence and her talk, the aesthetic amusement which a reflective man is apt to seek in desultory intercourse with pretty women. Please dont waterboard this Wharton named Edie Whose mind being so sharp & whose eyes being so beady Make it tough for a reader depressingly needy Whose eyes are so blurry & brain so weedy We are daunted by sentences subtle and serpentine - As un-user-friendly as a Trump-supporting porcupine These days we like novels to be important but easy And sleazy and cheesy and breezy, not queasy I will give a couple of examples 1 Ah, lucky girls who grow up in the shelter of a mothers love a mother who knows how to contrive opportunities without conceding favours, how to take advantage of propinquity without allowing appetite to be dulled by habit! 2 Brilliant young ladies, a little blinded by their own effulgence, are apt to forget that the modest satellite drowned in their light is still performing its own revolutions and generating heat at its own rate.
Besides wives, the super rich might also maintain a class of 'friends' to keep company. The only thing she knows well and is good at is 'manners' of leisure class - and these manners won't earn her any money. And since she can't earn, marrying a rich man is her only option - which seems difficult as she is aging (it is a society where an unmarried women nearing thirties is likely to attract suspicions and prejudice attached to the phrase 'old maiden', another thing still visible in India) and, moreover, she also wants to marry for love.
Edith Newbold Jones was born into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses." The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family's return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Wharton's first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable literary success. The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 -- the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman.