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.