Lakeview Book Club Update: House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Notes from the Lakeview Book Club Meeting about Edith Wharton's, The House of Mirth

Eight of us discussed House of Mirth and all seemed to really like it a great deal. We agreed that the writing was wonderful and many quotes were shared that pointed out Edith Wharton's fabulous writing style.

Our discussion leader came with a noted biography of Edith Wharton written by Louis Auchincloss, which she passed around so we could see photos of Edith, her home, her husband, her friends and her style of living. Edith Wharton was born a few blocks from Teddy Roosevelt and was of the same incredibly wealthy class of Americans as Teddy Roosevelt. She lived most of her life abroad, (One aside comment was that she may have had to, because her books put her class in a bad light.) During World War I she was involved with raising money from her wealthy friends to aid Belgian refugees and other needed charities. She received the French Legion of Honor for her good works during that war.

 She started writing as a child. Her education was through tutors. Her first major publication was House of Mirth, which made her world famous. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence. She also wrote travel books and books on interior decoration, that are discussed as major influences in that art. A major influence on her work was from her good friend, Henry James. Regarding her knowledge of decorating, we discussed that her descriptions of the world her characters inhabit, made it seem real, that her stories about about the interiors they inhabit and about their own interiors such as the secret lives of their worries, loves, emotions, disappointments, hubris, and despair.

 She had an appropriate marriage with someone from her class of the very wealthy, but it was an unhappy one. Her husband died after a mental breakdown. She had one affair with Morton Fullerton, a journalist, who was the great love of her life. Edith Wharton died at the age of 75.

 Before we started discussing the novel, Milena also shared with us a photo of a famous tableau which was the inspiration for the tableau in the novel. We reviewed that a tableau was a popular entertainment during the 1800s where people attending a large ball or party would dress up to match exactly a famous painting, often depicting nymphs and sprites cavorting through the woods. In this tableau the famous woman in the photo was a wearing practically see-through gown and it was considered scandalous. This was a time of corsets and long dresses where even an ankle was considered seductive. We could see how our main character Lily crossed the line if that is the way she dressed in the tableau in the House of Mirth. We also thought that not only did she bare her body, but in the novel her soul was bared to us.

 One member talked about Lily Bart's similarity to Anna Karenina, who also sabotaged her future with impulsive and also carefully planned decisions. We talked of the tragic ending and how many books written in that era, about woman going against the societal rules, often ended tragically. The Awakening by Kate Chopin was also mentioned as an example. We also talked about the double standard for women. Men can gamble and go into debt, but women cannot, in some cases, even gamble. Men can openly have affairs and keep mistresses, but women cannot. Men were in power in the real world, but women were not. There is one rule for men, one rule for married women and another for single women.

The vicious machinations among the women our heroine had to deal with, were compared to Machiavelli.

We talked about the weak men in the novel. Selden was one who came to understand and perhaps love Lily, but would not step forward to help save her from her self-destruction.

We ultimately liked Rosedale, because he was a pragmatist and truly understood the reality of Lily's dilemma, even though he would also not "save" her at the end, because doing so might jeopardize his own social climbing aspirations. We thought Edith Wharton captured the rampant anti-Semitism of the time and noted that even though Rosedale might never be" truly accepted in society," he would be allowed to attend functions and help make money for the "In Crowd."

We noted that Lily Bart needed guidance, especially from her mother, who had long since passed. She did, however, not follow guidance offered her which might have saved her as she spiraled down.

We talked about this being a "Determinist Novel," which ultimately means the dark reality of the big fish eating all the little fish. Poor Lily didn't have a chance surrounded by the sharks of her social milieu.

We discussed Carrie Fisher, who had a symbiotic relationship with the ultra-rich, providing them "happily" with service and therefore being allowed to attend "In" events and therefore be supported. We wondered if it is still the same for the very rich today. Several people offered examples that led us to believe that such relationships are still common with the very rich. We mentioned the Vanity Fair and New York Times social pages which mention the top of society and their gatherings and marriages, etc.

We discussed the difference between the ultra-rich of that era and the ultra-rich of today. Several of us thought that the differences between the 1% and an the rest was much worse then, as compared to today, because there was no true middle class at the time.

We talked of Lily's innocence, but not all agreed that she was innocent. Perhaps she was in denial, or pretending to not understand the consequences of her behavior, gambling, incurring debt from an older man who had ulterior motives and Lily's being a diversion for ladies who wished to dally with men who were not their husbands. Every "innocent" choice led in an escalating pace to her downfall.

Regarding the pace, it seemed at first that the progression of the story was slow. It seemed nothing of huge consequence was happening, that we were watching the idle diversions of the idle rich, when suddenly we realized we were caught with Lily in a tragedy. It seems similar to the analogy of the frog in a bucket of water over a low fire. The frog doesn't notice until it is fatally overcome by the heat. In some ways it felt like a horror story. As we started to realize there was no way out for Lily, we were frantic with frustration and some of us were ultimately in tears.

We discussed some of the class differences and blindness of Lily and others of her world, who had no idea how "the others" lived. We felt sad when Lily realized that her almost thoughtless act of generosity saved a working woman from scandal and that woman found a man who loved her and accepted her in spite of the working woman's mistakes.

We talked about how the pace of the downward rush picked up after the incident at the yacht. We were impressed with Lily's strength under duress and that she took the moral high road in many of her choices. She didn't use the letters to blackmail her way out of her own undeserved scandal as other characters in the novel would.

We noted that today people can discuss their emotions, but then the norm then was to keep those feelings hidden, "stiff upper lip" style. F. Scott Fitzgerald noted that in his writings that nothing is open, nothing is said directly. While talking of other authors we are reading, we noticed many are from this generation. Perhaps someone would like to do a timeline to see the overlap and similar influences of these writers on each other.

Although the title "House of Mirth" has a reference in the book, it is also found in the Bible in Ecclesiastics, "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the House of Mirth." Once you understand what it is all really about, it is hard to be happy and in the moment. The reality is just too very sad.

We discussed the reference to Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Caliban is the monstrous giant with evil intensions from a barbaric place. Other characters were discussed. Many of us thought the early possible love matches for Lily were also boring and oafish, but some did not. It was pointed out that Percy wore galoshes! It just wasn't Done in polite society. It was repellent to Lily.

So, Lily was shallow. Lily was vain. Lily was beautiful and used her beauty, yet she took the high road morally. She never betrayed a friend or stranger. She gained in wisdom as her world melted around her. We were expecting too much from her. She wanted the life she felt entitled to, but didn't want to make the required bargain. As Gerty said of the tragic end, "It is a blessing." Many of us can get weepy just thinking about it.

Edith Wharton nailed her wealthy, American, shallow, ignorant world in this work. Living in France in a world of her own choosing was better. Hurray Edith! You escaped!