By Clover Carroll
The Gilded Age was that period in U.S. history between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century when America experienced a rapid transformation from a country of small farms and businesses to an urban, industrialized nation of huge corporations and wage laborers. The name, coined by Mark Twain, refers to the wealthy and powerful upper class, which consisted of the old monied aristocracy combined with social climbers who benefited from the “get rich quick” climate of the era, who lived in the swirl of extravagant lifestyles, lavish parties, adulterous affairs, gambling, and sojourns in Europe. Members of this fashionable society excluded anyone who defied their stifling conventions, or who didn’t have enough money to keep up appearances.
This is the setting for The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1867-1937), the Crozet Library Book Group’s December selection, which will be discussed on Monday, Dec. 6, at 7 p.m. Published in 1905, this bestselling novel gives us an insider’s view of New York high society at that time, with which Wharton was intimately familiar. Edith Newbold Jones was born in New York City in 1862 into the family that gave rise to the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” She had spent her life observing the habits and behavior of the very rich from the inside. She was married at age 23 to the somewhat older Edward Wharton, but was divorced in 1913 and lived most of her life in Europe. She became a close friend of Henry James and mingled with other prominent literati of the times such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, and Sinclair Lewis. In 1921, Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence; other major works include Ethan Frome and The Custom of the Country. She died at her French chateau, Pavillon Colombe, in 1937.
Wharton had another purpose in writing The House of Mirth than to gratify the reader’s fascination with the lives of the rich. Her revealing portrayal of one woman’s descent from the highest echelons of this social hierarchy to the lowest is in fact a scathing satire, showing us the dark underbelly of that heady, hedonistic society in all its vicious hypocrisy. The title of the book is ironic, in that it means the opposite of what it says. A house of mirth is an old-fashioned term for a fun house, a carefree place for pleasure and laughter. But the portrait of fashionable New Yorkers that Wharton gives us—full of glitter, glamor, greed, and cruelty—is much closer to pain than pleasure, a confirmation of the Biblical warning that “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Eccles. 7:4). The novel succeeds not only as an exposé of the moral bankruptcy of the times, but as a tragic love story.
Wharton condemns her society through the portrait of the book’s central character, Miss Lily Bart. Lily is a beautiful, intelligent, charming, and sensitive orphan who was raised to enjoy the “finer things” of life, but left without the means to attain them. Taken in at age 14 when both her parents die by her wealthy but stuffy Aunt Peniston, Lily grows up in luxury, learning to bend all her talents toward achieving “the conventional rich marriage which she had been taught to consider as the sole end of her existence.” She cultivates the arts of grace, elegance, and diplomatic, flattering conversation, becoming a welcome guest at every function. Her life is a succession of lengthy sojourns at country houses, trips to the dressmaker, and cruises to Monte Carlo on private yachts. In the process Lily buys into the myth that money can buy happiness. She loves too much this life of breakfast in bed, maids and servants, expensive custom-made dresses, fine jewelry, lavish parties, doting men. Lily will do almost anything to avoid the “dreary limbo of dinginess.”
The problem is that, at age 29, Lily has managed to let four or five wealthy suitors (including an Italian prince) get away. She is not only choosy, but impulsive, turning down more than one offer either because the men bore her or because she is reluctant to surrender her independence. Her unconventionality, smoking, gambling, and disdain for religion also drives away some of the more conservative of her chances. When her aunt’s allowance isn’t enough, she survives by helping her more wealthy female friends, either with social duties such as correspondence, or by distracting their husbands while they pursue illicit affairs. However, being idolized by others, especially men, makes her prideful, both unable to see herself as she really is or to confess the truth of her mounting difficulties, both financial and social, to anyone, even those who love her. Her internal battle between money and integrity, between enslavement to luxury and self-determination, is personified in the two men that she comes closest to marrying: Lawrence Selden, her intellectual equal whom she doesn’t realize she loves and who loves her for who she truly is, Simon Rosedale, the ruthless, nouveau riche social climber who wants her primarily as a trophy wife. The central question of the novel, and it is a moral one, becomes: whom will she marry, and thus who will she become?
Although Lily remains chaste throughout the book, she is careless in her behavior to the extent that she gains the reputation of being promiscuous. Through a series of accidents in the first chapter, for example, she goes to Lawrence’s bachelor apartment for tea, and is observed leaving. This is the beginning of the “talk.” Her second faux pas involves a shady money deal with a married man who demands sexual favors in return, and finally the betrayal of a friend whose husband is about to divorce her, who spreads rumors that Lily has had an affair with said husband. These vicious rumors cause Lily’s aunt to disinherit her as well as rendering her far less desirable as a potential bride. Eventually, Lily tries to support herself making hats. Wharton lulls us into the expectation of a happy ending, but ultimately harsh reality takes over, a reality in which a sexist society has no room for a charming, intelligent woman of Lily’s class who also happens to be penniless.
Lily’s downfall is different than that portrayed in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie or Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, because Lily never actually does anything wrong; she is instead betrayed by the very society which she so longs to join. The House of Mirth is considered a feminist classic because it deals with a gifted woman who is destroyed by the role(s) she is forced to play in society.