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.


After spending every free moment of the day reading “Sense and Sensibility,” I found myself unable to resist the urge to try to write the sort of passage that might find itself in a Jane Austen book. I’m sure I haven’t succeeded very well, but there’s something irrationally enjoyable about trying to write in such a manner that you must hear the words being read aloud in your mind or you will not understand quite how the sentences end.

While it is true that the estate of Mr P was not large, it is also true that it was spacious enough for him, his wife, and their two young daughters, to live in comfortably. So they did, and while Mr P spent his life working hard in various positions involving sales, he managed to live without worrying about yearly income and without ever needing to trouble the minds of the women of his house.

Mrs P was by nature a peaceful woman, always cheerful, even in the depth of the great aches and pains which afflicted her in older age. She was an excellent example to her daughters, both of which grew up to be miraculously practical and intelligent women. The eldest, Amanda, was educated well and supported herself by her pen. She did, however, make the rather scandalous choice of making a second marriage, even after her first was dissolved mutually by both her and her cold-hearted husband. Her second marriage, by which she provided Mr and Mrs P with two grandchildren, it was agreed by all, was much more successful.

The younger of the sisters, Miranda, was always the more rebellious, and although she might have vexed Mr and Mrs P by her scandalous pursuits at one point in her life, she eventually became a source of pride to her family, for she was free in mind and in spirit in ways which the new world found becoming and agreeable, and even profitable.

While both Mr and Mrs P met untimely and early endings, their daughters kept up a steady stream of correspondences and remained the greatest of friends, even after needing to sell the estate which they so loved. Although deeply regrettable, the selling of their beloved Flora estate was nevertheless an unmatchable help in both the sisters’ lives, for both, headstrong and independent as they were, led quite modern lives and needed funds to keep these in order and comfort, as they aspired to do for many years to come.