Thursday, July 18, 2019

Book 190: The House of Mirth



"She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce—the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice—but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honor of boring her for life."

Dates read: November 17-22, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2012)

This is going to sound stuck up, but I've been told I'm pretty since I was a little girl. Now that I'm an adult, I don't think I'm devastatingly good-looking, but I'm generally pretty secure that I'm more attractive than not. It's interesting, the way women are trained to think that our looks are one of the most important things about us, but then we're supposed to wait for men to notice and acknowledge it, and we're ridiculed for the things we do to maintain it in the face of time and aging. My husband worries about putting on moisturizer because his skin feels dry and gets flaky in the winter. I worry about putting on all of the steps in my Asian skincare routine so that I combat wrinkles. Don't get me wrong, I love my k-beauty. But I'm aware that social pressure plays a disproportionate role in how I engage with my face, my skin, my body...not just for my own comfort, but for everyone else's too.

And that's in today's world! The farther back you go, the more a woman's looks were central to her prospects in life. When we meet Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, she's 29 and worried that her celebrated loveliness is beginning to fade before she's managed to marry herself off to someone who can support her. Lily was raised in wealth, taught to abhor anything "dingy"...and then her father lost their fortune and died and her mother followed him shortly thereafter, leaving Lily poor and alone. She was begrudgingly picked up by her aunt Julia, who gives her the right address and some pocket money, but not nearly enough to keep herself afloat on the glittering social circuit, where she needs this season's stylish hats and gloves and dresses and is expected to gamble regularly at cards. It seems hopeful, though: she's on her way to her friend Judy's house, where she expects to meet and charm  and become engaged to Percy, a very eligible bachelor.

Instead, she feels no chemistry with Percy and earns the ire of married socialite Bertha when Bertha's ex-paramour Lawrence Selden turns up to see Lily. Bertha splits up the budding romance between Lily and Percy, leaving Lily in a position to have to ask Judy's husband, Gus, to make some investments for her to help keep her afloat. Gus views this as an investment in earning Lily's...favors, and though she manages to keep her head above water and even rise briefly, it all comes crashing down when Bertha invites Lily on a trip to keep her husband George distracted while Bertha carries on with her latest conquest. When George discovers the truth, though, Bertha spreads lies painting Lily as a temptress instead, which begins Lily's descent through the social classes.

This book plays with the same kind of themes Wharton would return to in her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence, which I read a few years before I read this: the artificiality of the upper-class New York "society" in which Wharton herself was born and raised and the way it constrains and even punishes real feeling primary among them. Lily herself is a great heroine: it's so easy to identify with her simultaneous longing to do the "right" thing and make it easy on herself by just finding someone rich to marry her and keep her in comfort and to be true to herself and wait for the kind of real connection she feels with Lawrence. Even though women are by and large much less dependent on men for material support today, I think there still exists the temptation, especially as one approaches 30, to just settle for someone good enough and check "marriage" off the list of things you constantly get asked about as a woman. And the power of the rumor mill, and its ability to ruin reputations, remains potent.

It's thematically similar enough to The Age of Innocence that comparison is inevitable, and for my money, Innocence is the better-developed and more rewarding work. But Mirth was also written 15 years beforehand, so it's not surprising that it's less mature. It does bring the added context of a female perspective, and it's partly refreshing to see how far we've come and at the same time how many things are still largely the same in terms of the constraints that society as a whole places on women. I will say one of the things that didn't quite work for me was the novel's central romance: it's never really developed, we're just meant to sort of assume that they've fallen for each other. It's necessary to have established for a late character moment to work, but it's done so superfluously that it doesn't quite have the power it could have. All in all, if you like a sharp social critique and old-society novels, or just like Wharton, it's definitely worth reading. Otherwise, pick up The Age of Innocence instead.   

One year ago, I was reading: Olive Kitteridge (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Valley of the Moon

Three years ago, I was reading: The Last Picture Show

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