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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 July 2007
"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" Ecclesiastes 7:4 KJV. Hence begins the story of Lily Bart, raised from birth with no other purpose in life than to be a beautiful ornament to society. Lily is left with little money of her own and must rely on family and friends until she can make an advantageous marriage. Unfortunately, she makes some poor choices in life which diminish her social status, which eventually leads her to attempts to eke out a living among the working class.

Wharton, who grew up in this same environment, pulls no punches. We see both the glamour and richness of late 19th century New York society, along with it's evil underside. Wharton's prose is glorious, but you have to pay attention and not wander or you'll end up back tracking and reading that paragraph again so as not to miss the story, you want to slow down and enjoy it like a fine red wine or a box of chocolate (or both). If you enjoy classic literature with a soap opera melodramatic tone to it (like Hardy's Tess), this should be right up your alley. So many times Lily and Seldon missed their opportunity for happiness! Have the hanky ready for the last chapters, you'll need it.
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on 9 September 2000
You won't like Lily Bart when first you meet her in this book....I didn't. She is vain, spoiled, too beautiful and too clever for her own good. She is the product of a society that considered women useful as ornaments only....marry young, marry rich. A product of a time, long gone, when women where groomed from birth to accomplish nothing else. Lilly had learned her lessons well, unfortunately, Lilly has also learned that the glittering society that she inhabits is a sham. One where wealth and reputation mean more than honesty and moral values. The fact that she is aware, is able to see the hyprocricy of her friends and relatives is what redeems her to the reader. It is that which makes her likeable and admirable in the end. Yet, does she employ her awareness, or does she give in to the society values, in order to live the life she craves, of ease and wealth? Lilly is master of her own fate, she will marry, someone rich, since she has no money of her own, but in her own time. Only perhaps Lilly tarrys too long. Seldon is a well off man, not rich, but still part of society....he is not rich enough to marry but he is the secret love of Lilly's heart. It is between the choice of love or money that Lilly is caught, in a society where: "a girl must, a man many if he chooses" we are compelled to read on to see what she will do. Its a book I would recommend for an excellent read with a strong female lead.Thankful that a society like this, where you live off of your looks and your wealth, no longer exists....or does it?
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on 24 July 2002
In 'House of Mirth', Wharton's prose, timing and deft touch are all much in evidence. What makes this an especially enjoyable work is its unpredictibility. Whilst 'The Age of Innocence' is perhaps Wharton's most famous novel, 'House of Mirth' is more complex (and less cliched, I feel) - and ultimately more satisfying in terms of plot and characterisation.
The novel follows the events surrounding Lily Bart, a society beauty in 19th century New York, who must marry money in order to secure a life of luxury. Lily's flawed character is marvellously fleshed-out - making her a very real heroine. A number of suitors present themselves, but Lily's inability to marry solely for money, the prejudices of New York Society and ultimately - Lily's tendency to play her cards badly - produces a thoroughly absorbing ending.
The film, by the way, does not do the novel justice.
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on 20 January 2000
I was totally overwhelmed by 'The House of Mirth'. Although it was clear that Lily's short sightedness was responsible for her downfall, I find it difficult to pin point exactly why the character evoked such strong feelings of sympathy from me. Her beauty makes her captivating, and she is so naieve and inexperienced, that you cannot help but feel so much sadness when things take an inevitable turn for the worse. The ending was incredibly emotional and so moving, illustrating the point that, at the end of the day, beauty will not secure success or fulfillment. I cannot reccomend this book highly enough - it is beautifully written with a complex yet incredibly loveable female protagonist. In my opinion, this book is underrated. It is certainly worthy of the title "Modern Classic".
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on 9 February 2003
Set in 1890's New York, we follow the life of Miss Lily Bart, a dazzling socialite, sharp-witted and beautiful as she whirls amongst the parties and events in the endless social calendar of the fashionable hierarchy. But fortune does not favour Lily; despite her much-admired beauty, she is an impoverished spinster who struggles to keep up with the tremendous expense of living the lifestyle of the exclusive rich set.
Lily's descent into poverty is terribly compelling to witness; scandal follows scandal, as Lily's circle of former acquaintance turns it back on her and leaves only a few caring true friends. Your heart sinks with every step down the social ladder for Lily, and the close of the novel is tragic and moving. Despite her flaws, you are still rooting for Lily to regain her rightful status in genteel society, and this is evidence enough that Edith Wharton was a masterful storyteller. I have yet to see the film of the novel, starring Gillian Anderson as Lily, but if it remains true to the novel, then it must be worth seeing.
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on 30 March 2014
“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.
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America and Europe of the 1800s were stiff, gilded, formal place, full of "old" families, rigid customs and social transgressions. Especially for women.

And nobody chronicled them better than Edith Wharton, who spun exquisitely barbed novels out of the social clashes of the late nineteenth century. "The House of Mirth" is one of her darker stories, where scandals and lack of conformity trigger a tragic downward spiral for a vibrant woman.

Like most not-so-rich women, Lily Bart is on the prowl for a marriage to keep her in luxury and affluent circles. What's more, she has a rapid intellect and striking looks, but she is also a habitual liar who defies society's strictures (she gambles and smokes). Her only friend is Lawrence Seldon, but she is determined not to marry for love alone.

Unfortunately, her schemes and plans start to collapse -- her adoring suitors either aren't rich enough, or her independent spirit sends her off. Her desperation becomes even more intense as she finds herself in the thick of a scandal, spun up by a malicious society matron to cover up her own affair. With her reputation in ruins, Lily's life spirals down into a new life of unemployment, poverty, and the final tragedy.

Edith Wharton always paid a lot of attention to a woman's restricted life in the Gilded Age, and how scandals, unconventionality and society's hypocrisy could ruin them. But "The House of Mirth" pays more attention to this than most -- it's a bleakly realistic story, unflinchingly showing Lily's slow descent into miserable loneliness.

Despite that, Wharton's writing is pure flowering poetry with a knack for evocation ("Her small pale face seemed the mere setting of a pair of dark exaggerated eyes"), and has a sensual quality with all the descriptions of silks, plants, soft light and luxurious mansions. And she vividly portrays the upper echelons of New York society at the time -- affairs, gossip and gilded salons -- as well as the restricted lives of women

But Wharton is just as capable of describing the darker, sadder world that Lily falls into ("... blurred the gaunt roof-lines, threw a mauve veil over the discouraging perspective of the side streets"). Sedoesn't pull any punches with the tragic finale, which has a distinct air of inevitability about it -- no fairy-tale last-minute save by a Prince Charming.

Lily starts out the book as a glimmering satellite of society, who can be rather selfish and cruel, but who nevertheless gains some sympathy because she just doesn't deserve everything that happens. The cruel, glittering society of the time had no room for women who stood outside the lines, and Lily's slow downward spiral is an illustration of this -- she's driven into miserable poverty and drug addiction. Lovely.

"The House of Mirth" is anything but mirthful -- it's the study of a woman's slow downfall, and the cruel society that left her friendless and disgraced. Haunting and vivid.
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on 21 August 2009
Having just wiped away the tears after reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, I wish to share some thoughts on this astounding novel.

The House of Mirth follows socialite Miss Lily Bart in her quest to find her place in the world amongst a backdrop of a dramatically changing New York society at the beginning of the twentieth century. As Lily is twenty nine and yet still single, a major cause of concern for a young woman of that time, the story begins with her attempts to reconcile her need for independence and the sparkle of life with the necessity of having to marry. In order to continue in the ways she has been accustomed a man is needed for Lily, for although moving in the established aristocratic circles, she has only little means of her own and is reliant on her social relationships to provide her with her desired luxuries. Whilst the society around her is unscrupulous in its treatment of Lily, making sure she lives in open gratitude and servitude in return for her upkeep Lily struggles with her uncomfortable existence.

At the beginning Lily is full of fire and determination to make the best of each situation she finds herself in. As a careful people watcher she is a master of manipulating opportunities to her advantage and thus keeping afloat, she refuses to be repressed and cannot bring herself to marry for the sake of money. However life has other plans for her and as the story progresses Lily finds herself in scandal after scandal due to her zest for life coupled with her intense beauty, for the women in her society feel threatened by her sheer vibrance whilst the men are out to seek her attention and use her for their own means. Although Lily tries to reassert control each time, removing herself from temptation and from circumstances she knows are not right, and is also critically aware of her circumstances, her want for riches and position in that society are still the greater. This proves her downfall in a tragic way for society totally discards her. Miss Bart may not have it all; morals, love, sparkle and the position she believes she craves for. Notably in the last chapters Lily does go through an epiphany, she does have an inkling of what truly matters to her, but, without giving away the ending completely,fate is cruel and the realisation too late for true happiness.

Not all is serious nor hopeless in this novel for there are also characters with saving graces and indeed with hearts. The unstoppable divorcee Carrie Fisher is one of these, who manages to ride the waves unscathed by sheer manipulation and brilliance with an added sense of humour to tide her over. She may aspire like Lily but she accepts the limitations and her place at the lower end of the society scale. The other memorable character of hope is the true love interest, Selden. Selden is not by all means a knight in shining armor, as he is so critical of the social sphere he inhabits that he struggles to allow for emotion and is not able to sustain his feelings when they do arise, as his sense of irony sets in to trap him into eventually only doing what etiquette and convention dictates. He wants desperately to break out of the masquerade but, like Lily, is too afraid of what that may entail. I found myself muttering if only he would do something to save her from herself!

The language with which Wharton writes is absolutely spellbinding in its beauty and fluidity. This is one of the best novels I have come across, go forth and purchase:)
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 July 2007
"The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" Ecclesiastes 7:4 KJV. Hence begins the story of Lily Bart, raised from birth with no other purpose in life than to be a beautiful ornament to society. Lily is left with little money of her own and must rely on family and friends until she can make an advantageous marriage. Unfortunately, she makes some poor choices in life which diminish her social status, which eventually leads her to attempts to eke out a living among the working class.

Wharton, who grew up in this same environment, pulls no punches. We see both the glamour and richness of late 19th century New York society, along with it's evil underside. Wharton's prose is glorious, but you have to pay attention and not wander or you'll end up back tracking and reading that paragraph again so as not to miss the story, you want to slow down and enjoy it like a fine red wine or a box of chocolate (or both). If you enjoy classic literature with a soap opera melodramatic tone to it (like Hardy's Tess), this should be right up your alley. So many times Lily and Seldon missed their opportunity for happiness! Have the hanky ready for the last chapters, you'll need it.
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Beautiful Lily Bart, trained from birth to take her place in the highest echelons of New York society of the late 19th century, lacks the money to maintain her position in this elite and snobbish group, so must marry well. At the age of twenty-nine her options are beginning to narrow, so she must do it soon before her beauty begins to fade. But Lily has a problem – she is unable to bring herself to marry purely for money and has met only one man who inspires passion – a man who doesn't possess either the wealth or the desire to live the kind of life Lily must have. This is the story of Lily's gradual descent through the social classes as a series of bad decisions causes her to lose the one thing more important to this shallow society than beauty – her reputation. Along the way, she will gain some self-knowledge and learn to value her self-respect more than her status. Well, almost...

If only I could have loved Lily! If I could at any point have felt that she were worthy of a week of my life, or a moment of Selden's (an adulterer, so not a particularly high standard to reach)! It is undoubtedly true that books affect us differently depending on when we read them, and I suspect that had I read this when I was eighteen, it would have delighted me nearly as much as Ms Austen's books did at that age and, like them, would probably then have remained a favourite. In fact, for a large part of the beginning, I found myself comparing Lily to Austen's equally unlikeable heroine Emma. But even in Emma, Austen tempers her view of a society that restricts women to the unpleasantnesses of the marriage mart by having a little humour and some fundamentally decent characters. In The House of Mirth, Wharton invites us to sneer at the characters rather than laugh with or even at them, and the most decent man is an adulterer who then snubs Lily for doing considerably less than he did. Accurate, of course, as a representation of the inequality of women, but hardly likely to make the reader warm towards him. Not this reader, at any rate.

The book gives a cuttingly brilliant portrayal of this society and of the basic amorality at the heart of it. Money clears the path to good reputation – one can be forgiven anything if one is rich enough. But commit the crime of poverty and one is left balancing precariously on a high wire, without a safety net. And Lily doesn't have the self-control to stop herself from swaying with each wind that blows. Her fall is described with what feels like great authenticity. She doesn't plummet to her doom – rather she lands high up on a hill and then slips gradually down. This lets Wharton show the various strata of society, from the established and well-born, through the nouveau riche, to the rich but not quite respectable, and finally to the dinginess of genteel poverty that Lily has been brought up most to fear. Lily has opportunities to break her fall but each time, as she reaches the crunch, her pride won't let her make the sacrifice that would be necessary.

Mild spoilers ahead...

The writing is, of course, excellent, as is Wharton's insight into the workings of this society and the characters who inhabit it. But I found it a cold novel, without the contrasts that might have lent it some much needed warmth. I liked no-one, and actually I suspect that was Wharton's intention. Being shallow, however, I need someone to care about to make a novel really work for me – and I couldn't care about Lily, however hard I tried. Oh yes, by the end I felt sorry for her but, truthfully, not terribly. Her ambitions are so petty, her hardships so cushioned, her decisions so egotistical. She represents everything that is worst about a society where worth is measured by wealth, and just as I wouldn't regret the passing of that kind of society, I couldn't get worked up about this one unimportant little hanger-on. Get a job, was my constant cry! But no, Lily couldn't even manage that. Become a companion to a rich old lady, then, I shrieked at her! No, no, she replied, I must attend parties and look more beautiful than everyone else or my life is not worth living. I felt forced to agree with the latter part of that sentence. And thus, when we wound slowly, slowly, slowly to the inevitable end, I regret to say I... giggled. I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to, honestly! I really hoped I'd sob!

End of spoilers...

I don't at all think my reaction means that the book fails, however. Apart from a rather sickly sweet finale (hence the giggling), I suspect my reaction was very much what Wharton intended to inspire. Certainly she wasn't holding these people up for admiration and, as a social critique, I feel the book works wonderfully well. (I felt at points, though, that Wharton was far from immune from the attitudes and snobberies she was criticising – her depiction of Rosedale, for example, and her stereotyping of the 'poor'.) In the end, the lack of any characters that I could fully sympathise with (poor Gerty, too pathetically good to be true, I fear), meant that, like Emma, my admiration for the book never quite grew into love.
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