Happy autumn! Although my school days (daze) are well behind me, September never fails to stir longings for freshly sharpened pencils, a classy pen with a nice grip, new outfits, and books, books and more books.
Another autumn tradition is the return of those who fled the summer city for cooler environs and the beginning of the fall social season. Not everyone thinks of it this way: “Fall Social Season” or “The Season”, especially in these days of nonconformity, but back in the day, during two of my favorite time periods, the turn of the century, i.e. 1880-1900 and the Roaring Twenties, they took their seasons very seriously. What events you attended or missed, how you were perceived or weren’t, could have deadly consequences. And no one chronicled those heady moments as beautifully as Edith Wharton (except perhaps Henry James).
Wharton is one of my favorite writers, so naturally, she is also one of Harlow Ophelia Jackson’s favorite writers. And although there are tendrils of emphatic synergy to be found in Age of Innocence, Custom of the Country, and the short stories of Roman Fever, nowhere is there more of a connection between my main character and Wharton’s main character than in The House of Mirth.
As I write, Wharton’s ability to vividly render her protagonists fears and strengths while never losing sight of a world which shapes and contorts them with a silent pressure, is never far from my mind.
Just as September brings new beginnings and possibilities, Wharton conjures the past and all that women fought through to get here to the present. Wharton’s characters don’t always win, but just like my Harlow Ophelia, they always fight.
So, in the spirit of new seasons, fresh beginnings, and the joy of cracking open new books, but never their spines—school tomes and works of pleasure alike—this month I offer you a brief book review, more like a recommendation. Most likely you have already luxuriated in the heartbreaking joy that is Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. After all, it is 113 years old. But if you haven’t, then please bookmark this blog post and run out to your nearest bookstore or download a copy to your Kindle. Read it and then return to commiserate with a fellow Whartonian (I just made that up. I don’t know what Edith Wharton fans are called, but it sounds good!)
Lily Bart is my muse and one of my greatest fears. Beautiful, brash, foolishly believing she has nothing but time on her hands, she navigates the world as if it has been custom ordered from her favorite dressmaker.
Every couple of years I re-read The House of Mirth, which was published in 1905 by Charles Scribner’s Sons—with several film adaptations to follow—and every time it is a revelation. It breaks my heart and fills me with dread. It’s my personal Frankenstein, especially as I strangely continue to get older with nary a sugar daddy or husband in sight!
Beautiful, smart, possessed of a good family name but little money, Lily assumes when she is ready she will marry well and that will be that. And so do we, enjoying as she bucks conventions, flirts outrageously with the handsome but poor bachelor Lawrence Selden. But we begin to worry as our Lily lets her liking for gambling get the better of her and thoughtlessly endangers her reputation with her lecherous uncle Gus Trenor and the wealthy businessman Mr. Rosedale.
An orphan who tasted the good life before her parent’s death, she has lost neither her love for the finer things nor her grief over abandonment and what life should have been. Her grip on possibilities, alternate endings keep her from settling. Instead, for ten years, she flits from man to man, opportunity to opportunity holding out for something better. Something that will fit the shape of what she has only imagined but never experienced.
But although her imaginings are vital, pulse with life, so does time, which continues to march on as she continues to refuse to make a choice between financial and social stability and freedom.
Selden, in love but knowing his is a lost cause, watches from afar and occasionally tries to caution Lily. She holds genuine affection for him but dismisses his counsel and that of others who warn her that beauty and reputation are fleeting and time swift.
Over the two-year time span of the novel, Lily squanders what little money she has, her priceless reputation, her youth, and her pride. She is left unmarried at the end of the season and banned from polite society. She is devastated and yet unable to make any other choice.
The end of The House of Mirth is still debated one hundred plus years later. I have my staunch opinion about her fate as do others. But whatever camp one falls into, everyone agrees that Lily Bart’s house is founded on a bitter mirth and echoes with tears.