top of page

Classic Club spin #37 - The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Finally, I did finish a spin with The Classic Club. My treat this time was The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I recently read Ethan Frome by Wharton and liked it very much.


Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton 

My first read by Wharton and it is a good one. A wonderfully, sad story of Ethan Frome, and his harsh life, both work and private wise. When he falls in love with their inmate, a cousin of his wife, life takes a more dire turn. Beautifully written and the characters go directly to your heart.



Now it was time for one of her longer novels, and maybe one of her most famous and popular one. It was written in 1905 and tells the story of Lily Bart, born into high society but without the money to go with it. Both her parents are dead and she is depending on an aunt and other relatives for her support. When we meet her she is already 30 years old, and still unmarried. As we follow her during a two year period we see her struggles in trying to keep up her social life, at the same time as she is looking for a rich man to marry.


In his "A critical history of the House of Mirth." Shari Benstock (1994), says that Wharton uses Lily to describe "an irresponsible, grasping and morally corrupt upper class." It is highlighted in the story when the newly rich are trying to enter high class society. They are welcomed due to their riches, but are, at the same time, looked down upon, as having to work for money. Wharton describes it so well in the novel. Not stressing the fact, but weaving it into the story in a very smart way.


The novel was considered as a genre novel, and categorized as a social satire and novel of manners. Carol Singley, in her introduction to Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth: A Case Book says that the novel "is a unique blend of romance, realism, and naturalism, [and thus] transcends the narrow classification of a novel of manners."


It seems that the initial title of the novel was "A moment's ornament", which is the way Lily is described in the novel. There are lots of references to her beauty and well-bred manners, and maybe that is why we see her as an ornament, something that makes people happy to look at. At the same time, Wharton shows women's limitations at the time. There are several characters that are not as beautiful as Lily, and they are either unmarried or they are married due to their money.


Being a non-english natural speaker, I had to look up the word Mirth, which I found means joy, happiness, amusement and similar adjectives. It seems The House of Mirth title is taken from the Old Testament:


"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." (Ecclesaistes 7:4)


Seen in this context the story becomes even clearer. The upper class lives solely for their own amusement and benefits, rarely thinking on how people in general are living. They go from one dinner or ball to the next, and their social society is full of rules on how to behave. Mainly this is for the disadvantage of the women who, like Lily, were trapped and had to make a good marriage to be successful. Wharton herself was part of the privileged Old New York society and one can suspect that she knew what she was talking about.


"When I wrote House of Mirth I held, without knowing it, two trumps in my hand. One was the fact that New York society in the nineties was a field as yet unexploited by a novelist who had grown up in that little hot-house of tradition and conventions; and the other, that as yet these traditions and conventions were unassailed, and tacitly regarded as unassailable." Introduction by Edith Wharton to the 1936 reprint of The House of Mirth.


One could say that struggling is the theme of the novel. The struggle between who we are and who society tells us to be. It is so well detailed in Lily Bart's life. She is the narrator and we have all her private thoughts which are mostly in opposition to what she really would like to do. You feel that she always have to hold back the person she really is. She is not free to be who she want to be, but always dependent on other people, and that she behaves and acts in the right way. The novel clearly highlights this struggle that Lily has to go through. She tries, but does not always act as society expects, leading her into trouble and bad rumours.


Lily is a multifaceted character, but we do see the beginning of a modern woman in her character. However, she is still aware of the behaviour she must abide to. Sometimes she does act out of character of the general behaviour and I think, yes, Lily, do it, go on, follow your dream. Somehow, she is always going halfway and misses out in the end.


It is a wonderful novel, describing an era that was coming to its end. How it affected people, high and low. Edith Wharton has created a timeless story and it is still very much readable today. I thought it would be a little bit old fashioned, out of touch with today's world, but it is not. On the contrary, it still seems like a very modern story. Maybe it is the way she writes. This is only my first novel by her, after having read her novell Ethan Frome. I loved both books and will eagerly read her other production. I also have a biography on my shelves, Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee, which I want to read now as well. Back in 2015, I read Mysteries of Paris: The Quest for Morton Fullerton by Marion Mainwaring about Wharton's time in Paris and her possible love affair with Morton Fullerton.


Have you read The House of Mirth? In that case, did you like it, or not? I am eager to hear your views, since I think this is a novel which can be discussed for a long time. I would alos like to see the film, and I think there are several versions. The latest came 2000 with Gillian Anderson as Lily. She would be perfect for the role, I think.

21 views8 comments

8 Comments


Guest
Jun 03

Ethan Frome is on my list to read! I read The House of Mirth last year and really enjoyed it. I have also read The Age of Innocence and The Glimpses of the Moon by Wharton, and enjoyed both though they are very different in tone. Wharton is a phenomenal writer, tragic or comic. So glad you enjoy her too! Also, Gillian Anderson as Lily? I’m with you—that would be great to watch!

Like
Replying to

Hello Guest, I am happy you also liked these two novels. I definitely have to read more by her. I think I saw The Age ... many years ago as a movie, but can't remember anything. You are right. she is a phenomenal writer. There is a quietness in her writing making it into beautiful prose.

Like

Guest
Jun 03

I haven't read it, but great review! Emma @ Words And Peace

Like
Replying to

Thank you Emma. I had my doubts about Wharton as you have. It is all changed now. Maybe you will try her out as well?

Like

Guest
Jun 03

I've never read anything by Edith Wharton and I feel like I should. I'm glad this one was enjoyable for you. (Kelly)

Like
Replying to

I had the same feeling Kelly, that I should try her. It turned out much better than I expected.

Like

Guest
Jun 03

This was my first Wharton novel and I loved it too, I'm going to read Ethan Frome next. Great review!

Like
Replying to

Thank you Guest, it was a surprisingly good read. I hope you love Ethan Frome as well.

Like
bottom of page