The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth, seems every bit as relevant now, some 105 years after it was first published. The novel follows the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Miss Lily Bart, a stunningly beautiful woman about town. The town in question: New York City.  Despite her attractiveness, Lily is without a husband and without a fortune. In order to maintain her lifestyle – which up until now has depended on the kindness of her rich friends – Lily must marry…soon and to her financial advantage.

Wharton’s novel trails after Lily and her consorts, following them to the Hamptons and Monte Carlo, in and out of fabulous homes where words are carefully chosen and one small misstep can cost someone their standing in society. This is a novel about class and entitlement. Lily has nothing but her beauty and although it is clear from the beginning that she is in love with someone else, and he her, marrying is out of the question.

Lily is a wonderful creation and Wharton’s novel is filled with the minutia of the time. My copy even had footnotes to help me navigate some of the more unfamiliar terms of the day. For that reason, the novel certainly isn’t a quick read. The prose is dense and often seems artificial; surely people didn’t speak this way?

As a heroine, Lily might be hard to sympathize with. Modern women might find her quest to marry for money reprehensible. She uses her looks to her advantage, spends money she doesn’t have and seems impossible naive for someone who is pushing 30. But then, really, I know lots of women who play the very same games nowadays, always looking for an advantage and willing to climb the ladder (social or otherwise) by any means necessary.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wharton’s novel and am glad it was chosen as one of our ‘classic’ reads for this year’s book club.

My copy of the novel is one of Penguin’s Product Reds, an imprint where 50% of the profits from sales go towards  the Global Fund to help eliminate Aids in Africa. About bloody time, don’t you think?

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