Thursday, November 27, 2008

The House of Mirth

I have a theory that you can't really make up your mind about an author unless you read at least three of his or her books. I set a reading challenge to myself at the beginning of the year (the idea came from the C19 forum of which I am a member) : in 2008 I was going to read 3 novels by Proust (done, all excellent), 3 novels by Forster (A Room With a View was exquisite, Howards End felt like a betrayal and Where Angels Fear to Tread was very bizarre), I am currently reading my second Shakespeare play of the year and I've finally discovered Wharton properly. Well, after reading The Age of Innocence, The Custom of the Country and now The House of Mirth, I can say I'm not much for Wharton. I've never heard this criticism against her so perhaps I completely missed the point but each of her books reads like the script to a The Young and the Restless episode.
Lily Bart is a social climber, she evolves in circles of people who have way more money than she does. We meet a variety of different men and women in this book : wealthy men want to buy their trophy wives as soon as possible to show off on Fifth Avenue, women wait to be chosen and Lily is no exception, money plays first fiddle and Lily loses at the game. Strokes of genius appear here and there, as is the case in this passage where Mrs Fisher talks to Lily :

"There's Louisa, and I must be off - oh, we're on the best of terms externally, we're lunching together; but at heart it's me she's lunching on."

Wharton shows a great deal of bravery in criticising the world she belongs to and evolves in. I thought the scene where Lily discovers the existence of the working-class was odd but well written - she's afraid she might lose everything and showing her meeting a servant and chatting was I think essential in understanding Lily's personality and the opinions of thousands who belonged to the leisure class. The end was quite clever I thought although it didn't come as a total surprise : Lily is eaten alive by this shallow society and the last pages seemed like the only logical conclusion.