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Review: "The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was born on January 24, 1862--150 years ago. Dovegreyreader has an excellent write up on Wharton's whole career. The following is our own review of  The House of Mirth which, along with several other of Wharton's works, may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog.

This review is meant as a tribute to Edith Wharton's writing skill, because she can take a topic about which this reader has little knowledge and less interest and weave it into a page-turner. An inspiring story with a happy ending it is not, but The House of Mirth has many qualities to recommend it. Its heroine, Lily Bart, is not noble. She is snobbish and indecisive, qualities only somewhat mitigated by her intelligence, generosity and integrity (at least in comparison with the other characters caught up in the social whirl of New York's Fifth Avenue at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.)

Lily Bart is a beautiful, sought-after socialite who turns down more marriage proposals than Scarlett O'Hara accepts. Pushing 30, she is still hedging on commitment, possibly because her heart belongs to Lawrence Selden. Lily has made it clear to Lawrence that they can only be friends because she must marry a rich man, as both of her parents died and left her in a upper crust social milieu with no inheritance of her own. Lily lives with her aunt who is kind to her and pays most of her expenses except the debts Lily has incurred playing cards for money. The aunt's attitude might have been reasonable had Lily not incurred the debt fulfilling a social obligation to join her aunt's bridge parties. Thus Lily's life goes on, her obligations leave her damned if she does, damned if she doesn't, and she lacks the wherewithal to ignore social obligations and strike out on a path of her own. The issue of her debt drives the downward trajectory of Lily's social status, since Lily possesses neither the money sense nor the professional skill to manage her finances or shore up her dwindling bank balance.

In spite of the fact that The House of Mirth was published in 1905, the truths that Wharton illustrates with Lily's story feel strangely contemporary. Wharton pictures a new class of self-made millionaires created by Wall Street, casts a shadow over the tenuous position of those in the "leisure class" and offers a peek at the ascendancy of the self-supporting career woman. What a working woman can take away from this story is a gladness that she can marry or not; that she can keep her friends or not; that she can join the social whirl or thumb her nose at it because she possesses an independence that Lily Bart was denied.


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