The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton.


2wharton1The plight of women in unhappy marriages has been experiencing a bit of an upswing lately.  Madmen, the TV series, probably marked the popular start.  Its creator was inspired by Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, which Sam Mendes has now turned into a film re-uniting the Titanic stars.

So it is worthwhile to consider that between Jane Austen (or maybe Samuel Richardson) and her unhappy heroines and these women of the 1950s, badly wedded or not, there is another generation of sorely treated women — and Edith Wharton has done a very good job of portraying them.  The daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander — it is said that “Keeping up with the Jones'”  originated as a reference to her father’s family — she was born into the American version of the aristocracy.  She married “up” as it were to Teddy Wharton, thus beginning a domestic disaster which ended with his nervous breakdown and divorce in 1913.  She then headed to Europe, setting herself up in an apartment in Paris owned by George Washington Vanderbilt II (which, if you are trying to be contemporary, gives her a connection with Anderson Cooper of CNN, himself a Vanderbilt — but I digress).

The House of Mirth, published in 1905, was the first of her New York novels, a genre in which she excelled.  It’s central character, Lily Bart, is in some ways the opposite of the women in Revolutionary Road or Madmen — the seeds of her tragedy are sown in her resolute desire not to be married.  It is not that she doesn’t have the chance — or at least think she has the chance — it is that when finally marriage becomes the only option she thinks is open it turns out that it too has closed.  Marriage in the 1950s may be a tragedy, in Wharton’s 1905 New York, not being married was an equal tragedy.

Wharton, a very modern woman when you think about it now, also published books about gardening (The Mount in Lenox, MA remains a testimony to her ability) and interior decorating, but she is probably now remembered principally as a poor person’s Henry James.  Contemporary ex-pats in Europe, they both wrote novels, often looking back over their shoulder to America.  For my money, James is the better novelist, but Wharton does a better job of capturing turn-of-the-century New York City and this first novel of that genre does a wonderful job of setting the table for what is to follow.

Every serious reader of novels has their own picture of the City as framed by novelists, be it Fitzgerald, Salinger, Wolfe or whomever.  Too often, Wharton tends to be overlooked and that is a mistake.  In some ways, the New York she both lived and wrote about is a bridge between Jane Austen’s landed aristocracy in England and Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (fill in Gatsby and the Glass family along the way).  The House of Mirth should be read in conjunction with The Age of Innocence (1920), where Wharton does explore the consequences of marriage and updates her impressions of New York and its restrictive society.   In between, there is the wonderful novel, The Custom of the Country (1913), Wharton’s own exploration of the James’ story of the rich American woman in Europe.

The House of Mirth is not a gripping tragedy, but it is a timely one.  As early 21st century culture contemplates the historical role of women, we should look back not just to the 1950s, but to a full century earlier.  In some ways, as Wharton shows, for those women, not much has changed.

In fact, Wharton was very much one of them herself.



14 Responses to “The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton.”

  1. Trevor Berrett Says:

    You and my wife have been pushing me to read more Wharton, and your review further puts the pressure on. I don’t know why I’m avoiding her!


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for dropping by and welcome. When you do get to Wharton (and you should, but don’t rush it) I think you will find her interesting — not so much for her stories and characters (which are good) but for the understanding of where New York came from and how it has changed and not changed.


  3. dovegreyreader Says:

    Hallelujah, at last we have it, The KevinFromCanada blog! I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to reading this Kevin.
    I’m due a return to Edith soon and perhaps may tackle the Hermione Lee biography. The Custom of the Country remains a firm favourite amongst the novels and of course Ethan Frome, every time I read it the ending still surprises me.
    Welcome to blogworld.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for your kind words, DGR. I look forward to this experience and am learning more every hour.


  5. Margaret E D Says:

    Based on your review I have placed The House of Mirth at the top of my ‘to read’ list. Having read more in the past 6 weeks than I have in the previous year I am pleased to have access to your blog to steer me towards more informed slections. Thank you!


  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Interesting, so do you see this then Kevin as in some ways more interesting as a piece of reportage than as a piece of literature? An insight into a world now gone?

    I thought Age of Innocence tremendous, that you suggest this as a companion piece definitely gets my interest.

    One thing that struck me with Age, was Wharton’s skill at portraying suppressed emotion, a sort of quiet desperation, does that ring any bells with this work or is the tone very different?

    And congratulations on your blog! I’ve added it to my own blogroll and look forward to seeing what you read next.


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I probably feel more comfortable describing the reportage aspects of the book because I am a 60-year-old male who never had to face the issues that Lily did. Certainly your comments about “suppressed emotion, a sort of quiet desperation” are very much present in this book — in fact, the book is really about how these feelings grow as time moves along. And it was after reading James Salter’s Light Years and Yates’ Revolutionary Road this fall — both of which portray the isolation and frustration of married women in New York — that I decided a return to Wharton and an earlier era would be appropriate. As it turned out, it certainly was.

    I don’t know if you can find NYRB Classics where you are but they produced The New York Stories of Edith Wharton in October, 2007. That followed the 2005 publication of <The New York Stories of Henry James (selected and with an introduction by Colm Toibin) and was what convinced me that Wharton did a better job of describing early 20th century New York than James did. That probably tilts some of my comments towards the reportage angle — in no way should it taken as suggesting there is not a lot of very good emotion in her work. One of the reasons that I think she is so good is her ability to do both.


  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, thanks Kevin, I shall keep an eye out for Custom of the Country and House of Mirth.

    Blasphemous as it may be, I’m not sure I didn’t prefer Wharton to James, but we’ll see how that develops I guess.


  9. Elaine Simpson-Long Says:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of blogdom and delighted to see a post on Edith Wharton one of my favourite writers. The House of Mirth knocked me for six when I first read it, the ending completely ruining my holiday where I had mistakenly taken this for holiday reading. Sitting on a balcony in Sorrento weeping not how I had envisaged my day! great book and in my humble opinion, is her masterpiece though many say it is The Age of Innocence. No matter what you read of hers, be it her short stories or wonderful ghost stories, or any of her full length novels, she never disappoints.


  10. Trevor Says:

    Okay, Kevin, after months of suffering from your and my wife’s harsh words about my neglect to read Wharton, I’ve read and just now posted my review of The Age of Innocence.

    Your persistent recommendation is greatly appreciated! It was an extraordinary book.


  11. Guy Savage Says:

    I agree with DGR. My favourite Wharton is Custom of the Country. Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth were all required reading at one point or another, and while I thought they were all marvellous novels, Custom of the Country remains the one I think about the most.


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: My favorite tends to vary from day to day and even hour to hour — I’d say Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence are the ones that are most often on top. I also hold her short stories in high esteem — NYRB put out a wonderful collection a few years ago.


  13. Trevor Says:

    Spent the first half of the day at Edith Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Kevin. What a beautiful place!

    We picked up a copy of The House of Mirth while we were there, and I am very excited to read it.


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Now that is a place to buy the book — I remember the Mount with fondness. And I hope you like the book.


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