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  • Sidebar book cover thumbnail pictures are affiliate links to Amazon, and the storefront links to Blackwell's and The Book Depository are also affiliated; should you purchase a book directly through those links, I will receive a small commission. Older posts may also contain affiliate links to one of those bookshops. I am not paid to produce content and all opinions are my own.

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Barbara

What a masterly summary of the book! As I had a copy in the house I decided to join in this month's read but sadly, I didn't get on with the book as you can see on my own blog. I tried to put in a link to the right page but it seems you can't use html in comments here?

*Edited by Cornflower to add "Barbara's post on the book is http://callmemadam.livejournal.com/108633.html "

Angela Young

I wanted to grab Lily back from the brink of disaster ... I first read 'The House of Mirth' more than ten years ago and all the way through I willed Lily Bart to find a way to survive in a society that seemed to me to take pleasure in her struggle to live among them, and in her failures. This time I found several parallels between the protagonists of 'The House of Mirth' and 'All Passion Spent', the Cornflower Book Group’s first book. The poignancy of the situations that Lily Bart and Lady Slane find themselves in, and have little power to change - unless they are to live as outcasts - make me extraordinarily glad that I live now and not then.

When, on page 12 of my edition (from the Penguin American Library), Lily Bart says to Lawrence Selden, ‘A girl must [marry]; a man may if he chooses … We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed until we drop – and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership,’ my heart sank just as it did when I first read those lines. (It seems to me that, fifty years on, Lady Slane had only slightly more choice about whether or not to marry.) And when, on page 15, Wharton writes, ‘Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? … She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to Lawrence Selden’s rooms … [but] this one …was going to cost her rather more than she could afford,’ there were echoes of Lady Slane’s inability – because of the rules of the society she found herself living in – to follow her heart and paint. From the beginning of 'The House of Mirth', even though I knew Lily wasn’t going to make it, the power of Wharton’s writing kept me reading and made me hope against hope that Lily’s future would be, miraculously, different this time. But in a society where hypocritical standards and fantastic wealth rule, there is no room for intelligence, independence or impulse.

And also both Lily and Selden are flawed - they fail to recognise each other as they both find, and fail to find, ways to live in a society to which they don't truly belong. Wharton plants the seed early on when she writes a conversation between them, on pages 11 and 12, about work and money which shows them both to be outwith the ‘Four Hundred’, the epitome of New York Society during the last quarter of the 19th century whose name allegedly derived from the capacity of Mrs Astor’s ballroom. And again, even though I knew the outcome, I willed them to recognise each other. That they don’t – or that Lily loses the courage she shows at the beginning and that Selden fails to recognise how he feels for Lily until it is too late – is almost unbearable.

I love 'The House of Mirth', but the love is bittersweet because it is an uncomfortable read. As Wharton herself said of the book (and she spoke from real knowledge because she was born, in 1862, into a family whose members were counted among the ‘Four Hundred’): ‘A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals’.

Mr Cornflower

A hodge-podge of a book - combining flashes of acid brilliance which Saki might have written:

"the late Mr Gryce had made [his fortune] out of a patent device for excluding fresh air from hotels"

...with passages of introspective feline circumlocution a la Henry James:

"Every step she took seemed in fact to carry her farther from the region where, once or twice, he and she had met for an illumined moment; and the recognition of this fact, when its first pang had been surmounted, produced in him a sense of negative relief."

...and occasional jarring lapses into early period Mills & Boon:

"Selden and Lily stood still, accepting the unreality of the scene as a part of their own dream-like sensations.....The strange solitude about them was no stranger than the sweetness of being alone in it together."

The core of the book - plot, characters, milieu - is substantial and well constructed but I felt it would have gained from rigorous editing and pruning. I can see why Wharton has a following and I might try The Age of Innocence (recommended by Lindsay at www.booksdofurnisharoom.typepad.com/books_do_furnish_a_room/2008/01/the-age-of-inno.html) and Ethan Frome (recommended by Cornflower), albeit with some wariness.

Peter the Flautist

To take the negative aspects first Dark Puss found the book overlong and felt that the ending was unsatisfactory. I think that I got the point about Lily, her society and her likely fate fairly quickly and I think that the reader did not need quite so many rounds of parties/visits/trip to Europe to paint the picture. The ending I felt was overly melodramatic and almost as if it was written to bring the story fianlly to an end rather than for its own merit.

On the positive side I think it was bold and interesting to have such a flawed heroine who neither "followed her heart" nor decided to be good (such women can be very alluring of course). Some of the writing was witty and this was certainly a book that I had no difficulty in reading steadily from cover to end-paper. Cornflower poses a question that also struck me; should we shake Lily or sympathise with her fate? Well I felt a great sympathy her since she is trapped within a tedious, constrained world in which being beautiful and then married is seen as the only useful accomplishment for a woman in her position. It also struck me that the world that Lily inhabits in this novel (and I presume that it is a realistic depiction of NY society circa 1905) has unfortunate parallels in the aimless, but oh so tediously public, wanderings of so many of the "celebrities" that obsess the media, particularly in the UK, in the 21st Century. Indeed I'm sure that the Dabham's and their "Riviera Notes" are to be found in the fashionable restaurants all over the city I live in; the fountain pen having been replaced by a digital recorder and digital camera of course.

The story is a striking satire on New York society and it works well, the central dilemma of making beauty compared to being an object of beauty, and thus to be collected like a Morpho butterfly, is resolved in the most negative fashion. I would wish that I could say such a dilemma is of historical relevance only, but I fear that in many ways things have not progressed as far as one would have hoped in the subsequent 100 years.

Compared to "All Passion Spent", to which Angela Young has compared it, I found "The House of Mirth" to be a much more assured piece of writing with far fewer and much less significant flaws and I enjoyed reading it.

Anne

While reading The House of Mirth, I felt as through I wanted to help Lily, to advise her. She was not a young girl being 29 and as she said " A girl must marry..." I kept thinking -I'm going to see the real Lily Bart now, but we only got occasional glimpses e.g. when she helped Nettie Crane. I was fascinated by the picture of NY society of that time particularly the contrast with the "poor" as portrayed by Gerty Farish.
I enjoyed Edith Wharton's descriptions of people "being fatally poor and dingy, it was wise of Gerty to have taken up philanthropy and symphony concerts."
While reading this book I also came across an article written in the Daily Telegraph 5/3/08 by Hannah Betts comparing Lily Bart to Emma Bovary ( re recession.)
I did find the book overlong, but it would not put me off reading other books by Edith Wharton.
Poor Lily!

sherry

Edith wrote an astonishing 60 odd books in her lifetime. This is not her best. I enjoyed the beginning, but it soon turned into an overlong melodrama for shopgirls. Yes, there are incisive moments, and good descriptions, perceptive bits, but it went on and on too long. It reminded me of The Shuttle, in the vignettes of the super wealthy empty lives. I think the qualities that irritated me most about this book are because of the social limitations of its time.

 Barbara MacLeod

I simply loved it! What a writer! (I'd never heard of this writer nor this book.)

It took me ages to read. Right away I could see that this was a cut above the average with so much to admire:

[1] the craftsmanship of the writing -– so sharp, so clever, so full of one liners, "Mr and Mrs Wetherall's circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list."

[2] metaphors: (page 7) "As he watched her hand ... and the sapphire bracelet slipping over her wrist....he was struck by the irony... [that] she was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate."

[3] the story: I was totally drawn in and carried along. Three ideas that always intrigue me were there: chance/coincidence; contingency (à la Iris Murdoch) and lastly, the notion of honour. It was Napoleon who pointed out something along the lines of "Never underestimate the role of honour". Yup. The bottom line.

[4] characters: We all have to make choices, weigh up options, recognize chance opportunities etc. We all come into this world with a certain 'set of cards'; life's about how (or if) you play them and how your values factor into this. Selden's 'values' were based on what had been practiced at home by his mother so that "... before Selden left college he had learned that there are as many different ways of going without money as of spending it."

[5] The ending: here we see Lily intending to pay her debt "but she forsaw that when the morning came she would put off doing so, would slip into gradual tolerance of the debt... She could feel the countless hands of habit dragging her back into some fresh compromise with fate." And Selden arrives on the scene "his course was to be shaped by new stars."

I finished the book and sat musing ... and it was then, and only then, that suddenly it hit me: this book is just so 'Thomas Hardy'! My first introduction was Tess of the d'Urbervilles and, like this one, it left me in awe of how one human being can so sensitively portray the life, particularly the inner life, of another.

Lastly, it's a book for a cruise, a long journey. But it also occurred to me (because I read aloud to a gentleman) that this book would be a great one to read aloud enjoying all the little nuggets as you go along!

Carolyn Carpenter

When I first read The House of Mirth many years ago, I wondered about the title. Prompted by the coming discussion here, I googled the title and learned that it has Biblical reference:

Ecclesiastes 7:4

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

The House of Mirth is not my favorite work by Edith Wharton. I prefer a short story, "The Bunner Sisters"; and her Old New York stories, particularly "The Old Maid" which was made into a wonderful movie with Bette Davis in the title role.

Two years ago I visited Edith Wharton's home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts and marveled at the setting. The house itself was still being restored and had very few furnishings at the time. By comparison with the "cottages" at Newport it was far less ostentatious, making for what I imagine to be a much more comfortable style of living.

The Newport "cottages" represent the New York society which rejected Lily Bart.

I am waiting for the Hermione Lee biography of Edith Wharton to come out in paperback next month. Has anyone here read it?

Avice

I dug out an old Signet edition (price - $1.50) that I acquired in college. It came with an afterward by Louis Auchincloss, which is worth tracking down -- particularly given the fact that he's no stranger to this world in its modern incarnation (and the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker). One does wish to shake Lilly, but I found the story even more compelling on rereading -- perhaps because those of us with ties to New York have been transfixed this past week with tales of money, sex, and people brought down by the two.

BooksPlease

I shouldn't really be making any comment as I've only read about half of the book. But I'm thinking of not finishing it, which I don't often do. I am finding it too long and drawn out and I'm getting bored with Lily and her lusting after luxury. It is an interesting look at the New York aristocracy of the period and I should remember that it is a tragedy. It seems Lily is doomed from the start and I'm not in the mood for this just now - my reaction may well be different at another time, so maybe I'll read it through in the future sometime. Just now, it's not working for me.

This is the first book by Wharton that I've read and I'm encouraged by Carolyn's opinion that it is not her favourite work, maybe I should read "The Bunner Sisters" or "The Old Maid" next?

carol

I did not finsih this book - for me it was just too long and drawn out. Perhaps at another time and place in my life, when I could fully appreciate the issues and lifestyle a NY socialite encountered during those times, I might enjoy it more.

sherry

I got my copy from the library. It is over 100 years old and has been clumsily rebound TWICE! About 30 to 50 pages have been mended, corners have crumbled off many more, and there are careful pencil notations on the back endpapers of each page that has been repaired. Certainly an unappealing copy of the book, but all these repairs and notations made me reflect on what it has given to countless readers over 103 years.

adele geras

Sorry to be late commenting on this but part of it is my guilt at not having finished the book. I started too late and have only really, if I'm honest, just begun. But I have read it before and remember it well and my husband has read it recently too and we've discussed it.
I love it, I must say, but I'm a firm Edith Wharton fan and can't get enough of her 'voice'. She just strikes me as a very sophisticated and at the same time NOT COLD writer and I anyway always like stories set in high society which has RULES that people can break, etc. I like the settings/costumes/props etc of it but notice now things like the way Jewish characters are depicted. I will continue reading....Mr Cornflower must indeed read ETHAN FROME which is not a giggle a minute but fantastically good and not in her 'urban' mode but in her 'country' mode. THWART is in the middle of her name...again, I owe that insight to another but it's i nteresting anyway!

Lindsay

If people want to read more Wharton, whether it be because they enjoyed this or because they weren't quite sure, I do recommend The Age of Innocence (which I reviewed at http://booksdofurnisharoom.typepad.com/books_do_furnish_a_room/2008/01/the-age-of-inno.html). I thought it quite beautiful, and very much in the mould of Henry James or the immortal Jane - but I warn you, it is about New York high society, but please don't be put off.

Elaine

This is my favourite of Edith Wharton's books and I think is her masterpeice, though many will disagree with me. I was deeply affected the first time I read this some 20 years ago now and could not get the ending out of my mind. All along I wanted Lily to find a way out of her dilemma as she wavered between her dislike of the society world and yet fatally fascianted by it at the same time. Selden acts as her conscience throughout the narrative making her realise how ephemeral it all is, but he too is fatally flawed, and by constantly reminding her of her shortcomings stops her making a decision one way or the other. He havers about, sitting on the fence, and not realising until too late how he feels about her and how he could have helped her. His dilatoriness really made me angry but of course, he too, was a flawed character fascinated by society. I think Selden is Lily's evil genius though neither of them realise it. A wonderful book.

Nan

Karen, I just happened upon a piece I thought you might like to read about the book.

http://www.npr.org/templates/
story/story.php?storyId=19351308

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