Book Review: “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

Hard as it is to picture New York City’s 5th Avenue lined with houses, it is much more difficult to really grasp the way American high-class society functioned a mere century ago. When I read Jane Austen’s female characters’ trials and tribulations, I remember that she and they are some two hundred years removed from my world of tank-tops, flip-flops, cougars and boy-toys. The names of pastoral English counties and villages, if they still exist, echo in my ears as from long in the past.

Wharton’s Lily Bart, however, inhabits a world that includes Central Park, 59th Street, Madison Avenue and Long Island. These familiar names resonated within me as I read of Mr. Trenor’s crude flirtation with and near-rape of poor Lily, and reminded me that a hundred years is not so very long. It chills me to think that the same streets I walked just a couple of weeks ago used to be inhabited by a society that excluded women like Lily Bart if they were whispered about and tainted by the slanderous tongues of their so-called ‘friends.’

Lily is not an innocent by any mean, but to be fair, she is painfully honest with herself. She’s manipulative, shallow, wasteful and sometimes tactless, and knows herself to be ornamental rather than useful. But she’s the heroine of this beautiful book, and despite her many shortcomings – or maybe because of them – I loved her from the first chapter. Her fall from grace is described gradually, through a series of events that are seen by her social-circle as indicative of her ‘fastness.’ In truth, she’s not fast at all – she’s rather picky, and though she intends to marry someone rich enough to support her gambling habit as well as her wardrobe, she never manages to follow through on these base instincts.

Wharton’s language is subtle, but any reader attuned to the nature of witty word play that floods novels of a certain era will be able to pick up on the truth behind the niceties: the couple having marital difficulties are clearly cheating on each other, Mr. Trenor is asking for physical and not monetary repayment of Lily’s debt, Gerty Farish represents what Lily might have been under different circumstances. So much of this is between the lines, however, that a reader trying to ignore the hints will lose a lot of what is being conveyed.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the book is the way Lily’s change of outlook affected my own opinions. The odious Mr. Rosedale and the gossiping Mrs. Fisher became my favorite characters by the closing chapter – their knack of speaking the blunt truth rather than beating around the bush was refreshing in Lily’s world of careful conversation and venomous whispers. Wharton’s ability to change a reader’s mind is to be admired.

I highly recommend The House of Mirth, although I daresay you won’t find much to laugh at in its pages.

Lewis Carrol’s Birthday

According to a writing prompt I found online, today is Mr. Carrol’s birthday. The writing prompt suggested that I write about my favorite character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I thought that this was a marvelous idea, especially because during my semester at school, I had to read it for a project which I won’t, alas, be doing.

I bought myself a beautiful copy of both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. It has all the original illustrations in it, as well as a beautiful, colorful cover. I felt immense joy at carrying the book around and just thumbing through its pages. A book’s physical presence can be so helpful to the experience of reading it. This is why I don’t want a Kindle or a Nook or any of the other electronic readers. I’m straying off topic, so let’s get back to little Alice.

I think my favorite character in Adventures, apart from Alice herself, is little Bill, the lizard. Poor old Bill is always the one who gets picked on throughout the book – first he’s forced to approach Alice in her gigantic form and receives a kick for his troubles; next, mischievous Alice steals his pencil and he keeps writing with his fingers without making any marks on the page, to his great perplexity.

In Through the Looking Glass, I’d like to say that my favorite characters are the kittens – but that’s just because I cannot for the life of me resist kittens. In truth, though, I suppose my favorite character is that of the clumsy knight. The knight is said to be Lewis Carrol himself, in all his chivalrous silliness, and the way he’s described is so very touching. It’s as if Lewis Carrol wants so badly to be a white knight for little Alice, but knows that he is much too bumbling and awkward to be of any help.

[Note: I know there’s lots of controversy about Lewis Carrol and Alice, but as far as this post is concerned, I’m treating it as the innocence it’s portrayed to be by Lewis Carrol himself.]

Wuthering Heights

It’s a classic. Lots of people have read it. It’s right up there with Jane Eyre and anything by Jane Austin. I hadn’t read it before, and when I was looking through the bookshelves at home, I decided to pick it up and try it. Ever since I got home for my break, I’ve been reading a new book every couple of days, spending half my days reading and swallowing up page after page. I’m beginning to feel like a hermit, but then there’s something so nice in escaping completely and utterly into the worlds of other people.

So I decided to read Wuthering Heights. The copy I picked off our shelf was beautiful – a small, green, hardback copy in terrific condition and with that special type that seems to dominate older library books. I began reading, excited that I’d finally get to know this Mr. Heathcliff that everyone who talks about the book is always swooning about. I assumed he’d be something like Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester; gruff and unfriendly, but ultimately the possessor of a romantic and loving heart.

In this, as in everything else I’d heard about the book, I was sorely mistaken. Heathcliff is horrible. Why is he romanticized? True, the life he led wasn’t particularly a good one, but then his mean and vengeful spirit was entirely his own, in my opinion. The whole book was so vastly different from what I imagined it to be – I thought it would be more like a Jane Austin novel, but instead I found it to be disturbing, full of  menacing and frightening characters, violent and truly distressing.

This is the first time I truly felt that I’d judged a book by it’s cover. Must remember not to do that again in a hurry.