“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” we’re told in Ecclesiastes.
The inhabitants of Edith Wharton’s house of mirth aren't simply fools: they're far too worldly. They're intelligent even, devious indeed, sometimes downright cunning. But they are fools, all the same, in their subservience first to money, and second to convention: the way to do things is the way they have always been done. Or always been done in that world, the only world that ultimately matters.
That world happens to be the wealthiest New York society of the turn of the twentieth century, but it’s the world of any such society in any of the great centres of Western European civilisation at the time, London, Paris, Rome, Montecarlo... Indeed, the inhabitants of any one of them is as likely to be found in any of the others, and will live there in much the same way as they do at home, and as all the others do.
Into that world, Wharton throws Lily Bart, a beauty now approaching her thirtieth birthday and therefore in desperate need to find herself a husband. The need is all the more serious because she suffers the greatest evil of them all: she is penniless.
That doesn’t mean literally penniless. Indeed, she has a great deal more to live on, without working, than the true poor with which New York abounds. Her pennilessness is relative to that great world, in which she has been brought up, and to which she continues to cling from the edges.
She knows just what has to be done. There are ways to make a man, and a man of means, decide that she and only she can make his happiness. There are ways to persuade men to help her when she needs it. There are ways to hang on to her existence, through the assistance of both men and women who can provide it.
But Lily suffers from a monumental failing in that world: a fundamental honesty, certainly about feeling, but also about her own behaviour. If she has still not secured the husband she needs as she’s approaching the end of her twenties, it is because ultimately she finds it hard to lie sufficiently to herself to preserve the delusion of others that she is truly attached to them. She is certainly capable of love, a true and binding love, but sadly its object is not a man rich enough to give her the security she craves.
On the other hand, she is incapable of maintaining long enough the pretence of an affection she does not feel for the kind of man who could, by marrying her, make her safe for life. Nor is she prepared to accept the offers of a less honourable relationship with men who are prepared to make them, losing respect for one for whom she felt at least friendship, though that too might be a way to buy at least some relief from her difficulties.
She loathes too the use of weapons against her opponents of the kind they use against her: insinuation, scandal, damaging allegation. But her troubles intensify, above all through the agency of those who have turned against her. Will she turn to the man whose feelings for her she knows and reciprocates? Will she accept help from the other who wants to make her his mistress? Will she use the terrible weapon that has fallen into her hands against her chief tormentor, even though that will damage the man she loves?
It is this view from inside a society made into a cage by convention and oppressive custom that Wharton gives us in a gripping, compelling, page-turning novel. The house of mirth is mirthless, and this exploration of its seedy, vicious undercurrents is a work of fascinating power that should not be missed.