Lily Bart Broke My Heart // A Review of 'The House of Mirth'

The House of Mirth stole my heart—and then bitterly shattered it—all in a neat 347 pages. I loved this book, but I’m never trusting Edith Wharton again. I suppose Ethan Frome should have been my first clue.

The House of Mirth features the dazzling, beautiful, manipulative yet endlessly charming Lily Bart, a New York socialite who has been raised and pampered to be nothing other than the decorative wife of a rich man. At 29, Lily’s time—and her beauty—is running out. To cement her place in high society she must marry, but at each opportunity to marry a rich man she runs away from the opportunity, her instinct and unfortunate morality taking precedence over her one goal: to catch and marry a rich man.

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She’s sometimes arrogant, always charming, putting on a show to satisfy the theatre of a world she lives in. She is aware of her beauty and flaunts it, using it as a weapon against women and men, to either charm or assert her dominance:

To Miss Bart, as to her mother, acquiescence in dinginess was evidence of stupidity; and there were moments when, in the the consciousness of her own power to look and to be so exactly what the occasion required, she almost felt that other girls were plain and inferior from choice. Certainly no one need have confessed such acquiescence in her lot as was revealed in the “useful” colour of Gerty Farish’s gown and the subdued lines of her hat: it is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful.

Despite her bad characteristics, Lily is also wise and sad. She constantly displays her penchant for discovering and pointing out uncomfortable truths about the society that made her who she is: an unskilled, yet intelligent, woman who believes, accurately, that her only function in life is to be a wife:

“From the beginning?” Miss Bart gently mimicked her. “Dear Gerty, how little imagination you good people have! Why, the beginning was in my cradle, I suppose—in the way I was brought up, and the things I was taught to care for. Or no—I won’t blame anybody for my faults: I’ll say it was in my blood, that I got it from some wicked pleasure-loving ancestress, who reacted against the homely virtues of New Amsterdam, and wanted to be back at the court of the Charleses!” And as Miss Farish continued to press her with troubled eyes, she went on impatiently: “You asked me just now for the truth—well, the truth about any girl is that once she’s talked about she’s done for; and the more she explains her case the worse it looks.—My good Gerty, you don’t happen to have a cigarette about you?”

When she develops feelings for a man named Lawrence Selden, she begins to widen her horizons and expands her beliefs. Even though Lily wants to be free, she has no means to escape the world she lives in. As a woman, she can never be free and independent, a horrible fact that becomes cruelly apparent when Lily is shunned from the society she tried so hard to join. When Lily falls from grace, she learns that she has no skills to support herself, no true friends to help her, no family to support her. Even though she is the shining star of New York, admired and envied by all, Lily is ultimately completely helpless.

That didn’t stop me from falling completely in love with Lily. I loved her because she was honest with herself about her flaws; she knew how to charm people into falling under her power; she knew that she was unskilled and only fit to be a wife; she knew that she had the capacity for evil, but time and time again, almost against her will, Lily’s goodness won out, and society crushed her as a result.

The House of Mirth is a tragedy about a beautiful, capable, charming woman whose myriad talents and beliefs could not save her from being buffeted and ultimately broken by the crashing, rough waves of a hostile New York society.

And it gave me another literary heroine to admire and mourn.

The Age of Innocence and Old New York

She lifted her thin black eyebrows. ‘Is New York such a labyrinth? I thought it so straight up and down — like Fifth Avenue. And with all the cross streets numbered!’ She seemed to guess his faint disapproval of this, and added with the rare smile that enchanted her whole face: ‘If you knew how I like it for just that — the straight-up-and-downness, and the big honest labels on everything!”

Thus speaks Countess Ellen Olenska, a recently returned expat escaping from a terrible marriage, trying to reestablish herself among the confusing labyrinth of New York society: for it is a labyrinth, a confusing maze with dangerous obstacles on Ellen’s way to freedom and acceptance into high society. The Age of Innocence traces the circuitous path of this high New York society.

1675988As Newland Archer says, “Everything may be labelled — but everybody is not.” He speaks the truth.

Newland Archer is a typical young man of New York society, brought up to adhere strictly to the unwritten, unspoken rules of his world but constantly questioning—not why, but what? What does adherence to these rules do to one’s freedom? Newland is newly engaged to May Welland, a beautiful and accomplished young woman full of charms and beauty, and most important, a woman who has been excellently inculcated by society to adhere. As Newland says of May, “There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.”

Newland does have more advanced notions of equality of men and women, but he nevertheless resents his wife for not acknowledging the ideas that she has had no exposure to. May is what she is because of society, because society has insisted upon her ignorance.

Enter Ellen Olenska, a New York-born woman who spent most of her adolescence and all of her adulthood abroad, exposed to the much more liberal—and artistic—European society. Ellen is most certainly not ignorant of the ways of the world. She escaped an unhappy, and possibly violent, marriage by allegedly carrying on an affair with her husband’s secretary. She fled her husband and her country and deposited herself among relations with dubious backgrounds in New York, and spends her time in the company of those whom high society disapproves of. And she completely enchants the bored, spoiled, restless Newland Archer.

The Age of Innocence is somewhat of a simple story. Newland and May get engaged, then Ellen and Newland fall in love and struggle with their secret love. Ellen is full of integrity, constantly telling Newland they cannot have an affair or even see each other, but Newland spends most of the novel convinced that somehow, circumstances will allow Ellen and him to end up together. Newland is infuriated with married life, the futility of his work, the machinations of society that have him trapped. Yet, he is somewhat of an unsympathetic creature, treating himself as the only victim of a society that has fettered his wife. May Welland stands by his side unflinchingly, selfless, surprisingly wise at times, and utterly incapable of making her own decisions, yet it is Newland who deplores his much easier fate. I spent most of this novel not caring about him at all and wondering why Ellen, who is such a bright, interesting woman, would possibly fall in love with him.

For my part, I really enjoyed reading about Ellen Olenska, because she represents the whole of Europe against the stodgy backdrop of New York. I suppose the other really interesting part of this novel was discovering that New York was ever considered stodgy and devoid of culture!

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Wharton grew up and spent two decades of her married life moving within these social circles, and she paints them almost like a still-life. No details are omitted in the drawing rooms, the parlors, the carriages left outside houses, the faded glory of the Fifth Avenue brownstone.

Next on my Edith Wharton list is The House of Mirth, a re-read, containing the brilliant, perplexing, beautiful Lily Bart!

Author Spotlight // Edith Wharton

I have a strange fascination with Edith Wharton, as I have with anyone who can both adore and eviscerate New York City. Growing up in the shadow of the metropolis, I always felt like it was home even though it was always intimidating and strangely, always just out of reach. But if anything can top the allure of contemporary New York City, it’s 19th century New York City, a city dominated by a High Society populated by old-world Americans. Americans whose recent ancestors founded the country. It’s almost magical, historically. And Wharton dissects and criticizes it with the same brand of poison pen that Jane Austen so deftly wielded. Yep, I love Edith Wharton. Let’s explore.

6165890_1071303709Edith Wharton was born into the New York society she would later write about so carefully. Born wealthy and privileged among Fifth Avenue Society, she started writing at the young age of 11, featuring many of the real-life characters she knew in her life. Even though she was quite a prolific young writer, she was not officially published until she was 41 years old. She won a Pulitzer for The Age of Innocence, and published 37 other books, including the one featuring one of my favorite characters in literature, Lily Bart: The House of Mirth. 

In high school, I knew Edith Wharton as the author of Ethan Frome, a novel which I hated down to my very core. It wasn’t until later that I discovered her most popular, Pulitzer-winning novel The Age of Innocence and my personal favorite, The House of Mirth. I love reading about society, about the particular eccentricities and hypocrisies of people, and yes, I do love reading about ballrooms and nosegays and big dresses. And I love, love reading about what New York used to be, even if it was filled with terrible people doing terrible things. That’s mankind, innit?

Right now I’m reading The Age of Innocence for the first time since I was 16 or so, and there is so much I don’t remember that it may as well be the first time I’m reading it!

Shopping with Fictional Characters

This post is exactly what it sounds like: My top five choices for a shopping companion, literary edition. Welcome to my wildest fantasies.

I know a lot of people have a list of historical figures that they’d love to have lunch with; for example, I would love to chat with Jane Austen, Genghis Khan, Queen Elizabeth I, Shah Jahan and Anne Boleyn over a glass of Malbec or two. But I would also love to meet some entirely fictional people. More, I would love to go shopping with them.

Shopping with someone is a unique bonding experience, and choosing the right companion marks the difference between a new, glitzy, flattering wardrobe achieved spectacularly on budget, and leaving the strip mall empty-handed and with the mean reds. You need someone who will offer sound advice: honest, but tactful. The ideal companion must be patient and funny, frugal yet spontaneous, and will never tell you that the dress you’re wearing makes you look fat. Without further ado, here are my top five picks for a fictional shopping companion, in no particular order:

Holly GolightlyBreakfast at Tiffany’s

One of my lifelong dreams is to go shopping with Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling. Holly is an excellent shopping companion because she’s perpetually on-budget. She also understands the therapeutic power of a well-stocked jewelry store like no other. Shopping with Holly, with her sparkling personality and irresistibly skewed logic, can never get boring. Also, Holly will most likely shoplift something amazing for you, or she may surprise you and buy it outright, saving it for a gift later. Just remember to repay her with something illegal, or better yet, something sparkly from Tiffany’s.

Spoken by Holly: “I don’t want to own anything until I find a place where me and things go together.”

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Lily BartThe House of Mirth 

Lily Bart will take you around to all the best stores. Be prepared to put on your highest knockoff Louboutins and walk daintily through Chanel and Saks, eyeing merchandise askance and making salespeople show you their best wares. She’ll buy you a cafe au lait and a macaron from a French cafe on Fifth and gently remind you to never buy anything on a whim. Lily takes her time with purchases and is accustomed to a certain standard of living. She never settles for anything less than perfect luxury. Hopefully she buys you something, because you can’t afford that sh*t. Lily Bart will also nurture you and make sure you look like a million New York bucks.

Spoken by Lily: “Don’t you ever mind not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?” Yes. Yes I do mind, Lily.

Rebecca SharpVanity Fair

Becky Sharp understands the power of a truly eye-catching wardrobe. Okay, so you may spend all your money on garish finery and end up homeless, but shopping with Becky Sharp is worth the risk. She has a unique and provocative fashion sense, and will challenge you to try on clothes you’d never have given a second glance. She won’t lie to you to pretend something looks good, but she may lie to you about the price. Be prepared for her blunt honesty but also for her venomous instinct for self-preservation. If you pick up something she wants, give it to her. It probably looks better on her anyway.

Spoken by Becky: “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural.”

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Emma Woodhouse, Emma

Shopping with Emma may test your patience, but the girl does have taste. She’ll tell you what to buy and why to buy it, but when her back is turned, you can return it to the shelf without her noticing. But if her choices do strike your fancy, you’ll know you’re leaving with clothes that will undoubtedly cement your social standing. And if you’re vacillating between buying a dress and not, she’ll just rip out of your hands and leave the store, taking your dignity with her. But then she’ll treat you to a Jamba Juice and a fresh helping of the latest gossip.

Spoken by Emma: “A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.”

SugarThe Crimson Petal and the White

I would just faint dead away if given the opportunity to shop with the protagonist of my favorite novel. Sugar is a self-sufficient, intelligent young prostitute in Victorian London, taking every opportunity to improve her lot in life. Shopping with Sugar means making informed choices about what you need rather than what you want. Luckily for you, what you need is a brand-new bespoke wardrobe in order to convince high society that you belong. While you shop you can discuss the latest literary effort by Mr. Charles Dickens, and debate the finer points of wealth disparity in England. Shopping with Sugar is also an economic experience, given that her rich lover William Rackham will be footing the bill. You’ll leave with plenty of beribboned boots and your savings intact.

Spoken by Sugar: “Put a black dress on, take a deep breath, puff your cheeks out and they’ll mistake you for the Queen.” Wise Sugar, extolling the undying power of the LBD.

Who I would NOT want to shop with:

Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary

I would literally drain my savings account if I went shopping with Madame. Or worse, tumble headfirst into a chasm of debt, and I really don’t fancy arsenic.

Bella Swan, Twilight

Woefully devoid of fashion sense, I feel like Bella wouldn’t be the ideal shopping companion. Maybe I’d take her sister Alice along for a second opinion, or stash a head of garlic for protection.

Who would you want to shop with?

fashion: Lily Bart

I love when literature and fashion make friends; for example, this blouse from Modcloth named after the main character in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth–the “Lily Bart Blouse.” I read The House of Mirth in high school, but I think I’m definitely due for a re-read. In the meantime, I’ll wear pretty things:

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