Reading should always retain its pleasure therefore I feel that writing down my thoughts on books that I have just finished reading, shouldn’t be such a chore, not too showy or carefully planned and instead be authentic. As important as this challenge is – to reflect on every book I read this year by writing down the experience of reading it on this blog – I have made it a point of removing any sense of urgency or pressure on myself before writing and while writing. It should be laid back and enjoyable. I intend to write my thoughts down freely, as best as I can without aspiring to some form of success or general approval.
“The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton is one of the first American classic novel that I have ever read and I am really excited for the many more to come like the works of Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain. In the first half of ‘The House of Mirth”, I have to admit finding the language a bit of a challenge. The sentences were complex; there were just so many things happening in one sentence. However once I got the hook of the language, I gripped on tightly to the storyline and all of a sudden I was comfortably riding through the story.
Despite the complex and foreign language I found this book to be an elegantly written book. I enjoyed the storyline, it’s depth, the conversations between characters and very importantly for the honest telling of Miss Lilly Barts’s fate. Her slow yet painful demise that was preconditioned especially being born to wealth and then stripped away of it. The story documents her strugle to establish her place in the world, alone, after the very loss of wealth she was born into with its teachings and its comforts – takes away her parents dignity and inevitably their lives too.
A Beautiful & Restless Young Woman
This is a book based on the life of a young woman who is strikingly beautiful and intelligent. People admired greatly for her beauty and the charming Mr Lawrence Selden once called her a lovely “spectacle” to watch.
There was this huge ball that happened and she happened to be one of the star performers and everyone, both men and women stood in awe of her in the dress she wore which accentuated her figure well. She could probably be the Marilyn Monroe of those days. Everyone was in awe of her.
Lilly was of an age where she is young enough to remain comfortably unmarried for awhile but a bit old enough to start hearing the sound of the clock ticking through constant questions from those around her on her marital status and plans. Lilly being aware of the great power of her beauty, skillfully tries to use it to her advantage. So she set out at the begining of the book with a great iintention of marrying a rich man in order to restore wealth back into her life and elevate her social standing.
Keeping up with the affluent people and their lifestyle
Being born into a wealthy family, strong ideologies about wealth were firmly instilled within her by her mother. Her mother loathed poverty and dinginess that she tried her best to avoid less fortunate relatives who were living such contented lives. She would sneer at the food that they eat and that was presented to them on their visit, the cutleries that they used and all that is lacking in the upkeeping of their houses.
The most important thing that Lilly has been taught to grip firmly to is material wealth, so when her father over a lunch confesses that they were going to loose it all, one can imagine the great shame, disgust, anxiety and pain that engulfed them. Being critically dependent on wealth, having associations with people who are all wealthy, there appeared to be no way out but a viciously consuming death by heartbreak.
When her parents both died soon afterwards, Lilly was left with no inheritance at all and she was taken in by her Aunt – Mrs Peniston – a widow living alone with considerable fortune at her disposal.
A social life is very important for any young woman, they have to stay engaged and keep up social appearances. Lilly has a circle of friends who are all from established affluent families. Most of them are happily married to richer husbands and they spend their days going on expensive trips, splurging on dresses, jewellery and entertaining at large country houses.
Lilly kept herself busy by attending to invitations from friends. She was given allowance by her Aunt but the sum couldn’t keep up with her expenses. One of the games that they played during those large outings with friends was Bridge. In case you are not familiar with it, Bridge is a game where you play cards for money; you play your cards right and you win money, else you loose money.
On one such Bridge game Lilly lost a lot of money leaving her in a very fragile and desperate state. The book talks about her financial struggle detail and its remarkable how she was able to keep it together and maintain appearances during times of great obscurity. It also led her to taking financial help from an unhappy husband of one of her friends which was her biggest mistake. She became dependent on her friends – without her friends knowing of course – and she relied on their generosity.
Fragile reputation of an un-wed young woman
In any society, image is very important to a young woman. One should carefully maintain it, until like a flower it catches a suitable eye and is cut from the field and into a proper home as a decoration – as is the case of the world that Lilly Bart exists in. Women after marriage act as highly decorated piece of art and spend their days entertaining and they are highly industrious and organised in running a very active social life.
Society often creates lofty ideals and restrictive social standards that makes it hard for people and this is especially true in the case of women. I believe that this may stem from people’s need to be distinct and elevated above everyone else, a marked difference needs to exist or else it will be easier for all of us to be equal. Hard to maintain and unfair ideals are created so that people who do get to achieve them are exulted and marked out as distinct and superior and those who falter in achieving it, are immediately rebuked and cast out of the circle.
Lilly Bart being beautiful and smart made men naturally gravitate towards her but it was a scandal involving unwanted interaction and attention from few men that she wasn’t able to succesfully marry someone suitable. Eventhough those claims against her were untrue, she couldn’t justify herself because she was an independent young woman, defenseless and obscure.
Boys, Men and the one Gentleman
There were only 2 eligible bachelor’s that came into Lilly’s life; the rich yet boring heir to a large fortune Mr Percy Gryce and the extremely charming yet of a simple fortune Mr Lawrence Selden.
The other suitors came into her life by circumstances and were all out to get something out of Lilly’s natural wealth and her obscure situation. She didnt like them much but out of courtesy she had to entertain them and they were all men of considerable fortune. There were 3 of them to be exact. There was Mr Rosedale; the Jewish businessman who was consistently rising up the social ladder and needed Lilly to seal his standing in society. Then there was the 2 unhappily married men who depended greatly on Lilly’s attention and craved her affection. It was with the 2 married men that things went wrong eventhough nothing really happened between.
The thing is nothing happened with all the men hence the accusations being unfounded. In the book, generally, there was a lot of intimate conversation, very colourful and passionate however it didn’t relate to physical intimacy, not even a kiss.
The mention of sex or the thought of it was far off. The other ladies in the book had affairs but the way it was packaged and presented in the book is some elegant and passionate interaction between an older woman with a young impressionable man and enjoying each others company by reading poems and the young men were potrayed as something like a Chiuwawa being toted around without any detailed explanation of what’s going on.
Defeated: The Painful Fall from Grace
As she was taught Lilly loathed a dingy lifestyle however to avoid it herself she would have to get married. Single women such as characters Getrude Farish and Grace Stepney often live very solitary lifestyles in small apartments. They were uninvited into occasions and gatherings of the affluent social circles eventhough they are related to those in it. They weren’t included, and it’s not because people disliked them but simply because they were insignificant and irrelevant. Money is everything, without it, one is nothing and it could be very difficult for a single woman without a significant inherited fortune. Lilly’s fear was that she would become one of them and it would have been avoided if it was not for scandal with a few men and the altercation with the unfaithful and richly married Mrs Dorset.
It was Getrude Farish who was poor yet had a huge heart that took her in and cared for her when all her friends abandoned her. But things only seemed to worsen for, she tries to adjust but her predicament, atleast what she thought it to be, grew larger by the day and the shadows eventually consumed her. She was a gold fish not conditioned to live in the natural wild world.
I felt really bad by the end of the book, it felt so real to me and as we read more about Lilly we feel more endeared towards her. She was simply a lost soul fighting her way alone in that cold world that she existed in. Lawrence Selden was the love of her life and they were 2 equals who finally realised each others importance yet it was too late. It had a tragic ending. It was a good read and I suggest you pick it up, read it and let me know what you think about it or if you have read it feel free to let me know how you found it.