I cheated a little bit and started 20 Books of Summer a day early, on the late May bank holiday. I’d finished my previous novel and didn’t want to start anything that would eat into 20 Books of Summer reading time, but also didn’t want to do anything with my bank holiday afternoon other than sit lazily on my balcony with a book. It turned out to be a good choice, because although I absolutely loved The House of Mirth, I did find it pretty slow going at the start and it’s taken me nearly two weeks to read it. This is one of the books on my list that I was most excited about, because everyone I know who’s read it loved it, and it more than justified that anticipation.
The central character of the novel, Lily Bart, should be perfectly calculated to aggravate me: she thinks her exceptional beauty should grant her access to a life of luxury without having to lift a finger, and at the start of the novel she is looking for the best possible way to marry rich. Unlike a lot of women like this in novels, she even has an alternative example in front of her. Her friend Gerty Farish has modest means, which she lives cheerfully within, doing small-scale charity work with working-class girls who have fallen on hard times. The Lily of the first few chapters alternately pities and despises her friend’s poverty. Yet such is Wharton’s extraordinary skill that, as the novel unspooled, I was completely drawn into Lily’s story, watching with empathy and horror at the way tiny social missteps could set her spinning wildly off the path she’d planned. Someone who could end up being a one-note stereotype turns out to be, instead, one of the most complex characters I’ve ever encountered. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she remained, for my money, a deeply unlikeable person for a good 75% of the novel.
In addition to Lily herself, the side characters that she interacts with are also incredibly compelling. My favourite was the aforementioned Gerty – a plucky spinster living independently and making herself useful; of course she was my favourite – but there were so many great characters that the world felt incredibly lived-in and fleshed-out. In novels with this kind of scope – Lily floats between different social spheres with different characters – I often struggle to keep track of the many, many people the story introduces. I had no such trouble with The House of Mirth, because each of them feels different and real. Even when someone is introduced who seems to be a cariacture, they become more and more real over the course of the novel. Along with Lily, we find out that people we thought were her friends might not be, and people whom she resents might have plenty of good in them. There is no straightforward or simple character in this novel – even the pious and well-behaved Gerty has shades of grey in her – and I absolutely loved that.
As well as the exceptional characterisation, I was blown away by the writing. It was somehow both precise and lush. I feel like those qualities normally cancel each other out, but it seemed that every word on the page was put there for a reason, but without sacrificing the richness of the descriptions or the detail of Lily’s inner voice (or those of the other characters, when they come up). I did see this called overwritten on Goodreads, but I feel like I’m normally pretty sensitive to that, and I thought it was just right. I’ve never been to New York, but I felt like I was getting a vivid look at it in the late 1890s, along with the various different echelons of high society that inhabited it at the time. As I was writing up this review, I did a little reading about Wharton, and discovered that she was raised within “Old New York” at the time she’s writing about, which perhaps explains how it is that she skewers the whole thing so well. In fact, she would have been roughly of an age with her heroine – maybe a decade or so older? – though unlike Lily she managed to marry young and thus avoided some of the scrambling for a husband that she writes about here.
Edith Wharton, by Edward Harrison May – c 1880.
I found the glimpse into this very specific section of society at a specific time completely fascinating. For example, I was surprised by how often characters referred (without apparent irony or censure) to Lily’s quest to marry rich as her “career” or “trade”. Although occasionally characters do express opprobrium at the idea of her putting on such a cynical, calculated performance, for the most part the other characters simply seem to expect it of her. From what I’ve read of 19th century novels, pretty women were expected to be gold-diggers but they were also expected to be coy about it. Even when it was very clear people were marrying for money or security, they were meant to pretend it was out of love or at least mutual affection. It was a surprise to see it discussed so frankly, and I wondered if it reflected a cultural evolution that had taken place over a few decades, if it was a difference between British and American society, or if Wharton was simply being more up-front than other authors. Presumably it’s a combination of all three. The extreme superficiality of the society, the desire to sweep any sincerity or vulnerability under the rug, comes through so strongly in the novel. It reminded me of The Great Gatsby, covering roughly the same type of people a few decades later, though I think The House of Mirth is probably more direct in its criticism.
Half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn’t any.
The exceptional writing and characterisation give life to a plot that could otherwise be a bit hackneyed. I’ve read variations on this story before, and certainly the themes crop up in a lot of Victorian novels, though of course this is slightly post-Victorian. (Also, I don’t know if American novels can count as strictly “Victorian”, though certainly a very European version of New York is presented within these pages). The point is – it didn’t matter that I’d encountered the plot and themes before; the writing was more than enough to carry it. In fact, the final chapters wrung a tear or two out of me. If I’d read the closing scenes at home rather than in a post-jab waiting room, I think I might have had a good cry as I was finishing the book. I’ll certainly be returning to this over the years, and it’s a book that I suspect will pay dividends on rereading.
This is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year – a great start to 20 Books of Summer, and a good introduction to Edith Wharton as well! Having read this, I will now certainly be reading The Age of Innocence and the rest of her output sooner rather than later.