There are qualities to The House of Mirth that reminded me of other books around the theme of single women at the turn of the century, such as Thank Heaven Fasting, Consequences, The Third Miss Symons. How do you survive as a girl who is unmarried, and yet brought up for the exact purpose of marriage and nothing else? How to navigate the world of social conventions, of dos and don’ts for women? And how to deal by the time you are relegated to the sidelines of society because you are considered of unmarriageable age or reputation?
Some might call these books bleak. Others might complain about the lack of power in these girls and the unlikeability of the main characters. For me, the themes, characterisation, the painful realism are what made me love Thank Heaven Fasting and Consequences. It is what made me raise my hopes for The House of Mirth to, perhaps, unrealistic heights. I had a more complicated relationship with Wharton’s novel, and with its main character Lily Bart than I had with the books by E.M. Delafield, although it far outranks The Third Miss Symons. Look, perhaps Delafield style just suits me a little better. Perhaps I treated The House of Mirth unfairly by constantly comparing it to the books I had previously read. It is not that I did not enjoy The House of Mirth, or that I did not absolutely love parts of it. By the end it had wholly convinced me. It is just that it would be unfair not to mention my complicated relationship with other parts of the book.
Lily Bart does not lack agency like some might complain Alex Clare and Monica Ingram lack it. She does not subdue to circumstances, or at least, she holds out a little longer. She makes a lot of choices, for herself,for what she believes are her own best interests. Perhaps this is where Lily became a complicated character to like for me. So often she makes decisions that you, as a reader, realise are not for her own good, that at times it becomes hard to believe in her naivety, and to not fall into the trap of condemning her like the society surrounding her might (but which is also always from hindsight, knowing more than Lily does because you have seen this type of story before). The story is written in a way that, for a long time, makes you question whether or not Wharton is condemning her as a “silly” girl, that shouldn’t have been allowed to make these decisions in the first place.. Of course, deep down there were challenges to that socially condemning narrative, and possibly the fact that it makes the reader uncomfortable to be – almost – pushed into the camp of society is what is meant to happen. The fact is: I did not always feel sympathetic towards Lily. And I wanted to feel more sympathetic towards her. Which for part of the story just left me feeling very very conflicted.
On top of that, I felt the story dragged a little in the middle part. In part, this might have been due to my own circumstances, as I had a very difficult time reading anything beyond 10 pages a night at the time when I read The House of Mirth. When I finally settled down and made myself read more than those 10 pages, I quickly fell into the pace of the story again. Nevertheless, I do think it was not all me. Some episodes of circumstances, of choices made that might have been better left undone, were a bit heavy on the details, might have been just a tad shorter to my taste.
But then the latter third of the story happened. And it shook me so deeply. I do not think I will be giving away much when I say that this is a tragic story. Because of that tragedy, being witness to the disintegration of Lily’s life out of prejudice, circumstance, unforgivingness.. my feelings of empathy suddenly leaped and made up for what I had felt was lacking through parts of the story. It cast The House of Mirth in a very different light for me. And whereas previously I feared having to come on here and proclaim to the online world that I knew I should have loved The House of Mirth, but couldn’t, I knew that I might face a much more difficult task: namely admitting that I couldn’t like parts of it, but that I irrevocably loved the ending, and that that ending made me reconsider much of what I felt had been lacking in some other parts. I can see how perhaps the very ending might turn others of (too melodramatic for some, perhaps?), but for me, the last third made the book.
I know, this post lacks any coherent exploration of themes, or any meaningful criticism. But I think Edith Wharton is famous enough, and probably discussed in many a high school, that I need not bother doing that (or perhaps I dare not? – I feel bad enough about saying that I felt some parts of the book dragged a little). If the themes in the first paragraph interest you, if fiction exploring the position of women at the beginning of the twentieth century is of interest to you, if you like books that critique social circumstances, I think you should probably read this. I won’t say you’ll definitely like it, because I know my own feelings about it are all over the place, but I definitely think it is worth a try.
Other Opinions: So, so many.
Cross-posted to the Project Gutenberg Project blog.