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From Phyllida's Desk

Review of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth, published in 1905, is Edith Wharton's first major work of fiction, and it established her reputation as a brilliant novelist and harsh critic of her society. Because I came to it after reading The Age of Innocence, which shows Wharton at the height of her power, I can't help giving Mirth four stars, where Innocence rated five.

Mirth is an excellent novel, finely crafted, beautifully written and alive with Wharton's darkly humorous outlook. Wharton writes of the world she lived in, among the wealthy elite of turn-of-the-twentieth-century New York City, and her characters are frighteningly real: flawed and damaged, the best of them sometimes unsure how to act or whom to trust, and the worst... Oh God, the worst of them are as unspeakably horrible as the idle rich of any time and place.

So why the lower rating? Mirth is, for me, the lesser work because of its extremes. Where Innocence relied on a more nuanced look at its characters and central situation, Mirth follows the formula of many writers' early works, with too much "goodness" on the side of its protagonist, and too much unrelieved wickedness on the other side.

Lily Bart, the unmarried, beautiful, twenty-nine-year-old woman at the center of the story, who has been brought up to be merely an "ornament" in her world, not a worker or contributor, is emotionally incapable of marrying without love or, as the story progresses, unwilling to sink to the level of her abusers, to use blackmail to regain her lost position in the world. The degree to which she grows in self-knowledge is remarkable, and her ethical restraint, while suffering the worst reversals of poverty and ostracism, is not always believable.

Part of what made Innocence such an enjoyable story was its "historical" aspect, the way Wharton contrasted the limited, blinkered world of the 1870s with the freer, more sophisticated world of 1900, when that story ends. In Mirth, we see the other side of that "modern" freedom, and what it means for women who are alone in the world, without family or close friends to protect or guide them. For Lily, it's an unrelenting downward spiral, and it's a heartbreaking read.

I've noticed, as often with stories like this, some readers' contempt for Lily as someone who makes "stupid" choices. And I've often wondered what makes these readers think they would have done any better, assuming they were products of that same time and place, and did not have their hundred-years' worth of twenty-twenty hindsight. For me, my sympathy for Lily makes reading about her downfall too painful to be enjoyable, despite Wharton's engaging writing style. Lily sabotages all her near successes, precisely because she has too much intelligence and "sensibility," in the Jane Austen meaning, to marry without love, to spend the next forty years tied to a man she can't respect.

The comparison with Austen is apt, because Wharton's writing is Austen without the gloss of two centuries of cultural change, the separation of the Atlantic Ocean, or a "quaint" country setting. It's New York City, not Netherfield, and it has this city's unabashed brutality. I was astonished at how similar the NYC of 1900 was to the city I grew up in and still inhabit. Austen's world is every bit as tough, but we don't always see it, because we're too easily lulled by her elegant, eighteenth-century manner to feel the stiletto blade until it pierces our heart. Wharton carries her cavalry saber unconcealed, and we (at least I do) sometimes shrink from its slashing force, dreading the inevitable bloody end.

As Lily destroys one chance after another for herself, I found myself wishing that she would use the means at hand to defeat or at least control her female enemy, and not worry about hurting the man she loves in the process. In Wharton's world, as in Austen's, it's the women who pay the price for sexual indiscretions, gambling losses and other misbehavior, no matter who commits the actual sins. When one minor character, a silly young man, gambles away his fortune, it's his two unmarried sisters who are reduced to shabby spinsterhood, trying to earn a living, a mode of existence for which they are woefully unprepared. "Miss Jane reads aloud very nicely--but it's so hard to find anyone who is willing to be read to."

Wharton writes with the kind of magical style that draws a reader in no matter what. Even if we know the story from having seen the movie version(s); even if we aren't happy about how it ends; even if we find some of the extreme duality of good and bad characters a little tedious--still, we want to spend time with this narrator. Like Jonathan Franzen, another author with this specific talent, Wharton can tell us any story she chooses, about any characters, and most readers will only say, "More, please."

On that level alone, Wharton's work deserves five stars, but what I'm doing here is ranking her against herself, not everybody else.

At the end of The Age of Innocence, I felt that it was a perfect work of art, the final scenes just right; a somewhat ambiguous, sad but not tragic ending that was the only acceptable resolution for the main characters. Mirth, by contrast, leaves most readers dissatisfied. "No," we think, "that can't be right." It's an argument in Wharton's favor that her ending is in many ways more realistic than the happier one most of us wish for. People do kill themselves, not literally by suicide, but by making one misstep after another, until they reach a place where death is the only possibility.

Wharton's only "mistake" is in allowing us to see each of her heroine's missteps all too clearly, and with no way of turning her in a different direction. Perhaps this book deserves five stars after all.

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