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on 27 March 2018
Knowing Edith Wharton’s reputation as a writer but not having read any of her books, I was anticipating wit and dry humour. What I wasn’t quite expecting was the deft way in which the author wields the literary equivalent of a scalpel to dissect the snobbery, hypocrisy and downright cruelty of the New York social scene. I mentioned the mocking humour and here are a few of my favourite examples:

On the eligible but tedious bachelor, Percy Gryce: ‘Mr. Gryce was like a merchant whose warehouses are crammed with an unmarketable commodity.’

On Lily’s aunt, Mrs Peniston: ‘To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor.’

‘It was the “simple country wedding” to which guests are conveyed in special trains, and from which the hordes of the uninvited have to be fended off by the intervention of the police.’

‘Lily presently saw Mrs. Bry cleaving her determined way through the doors, and, in the broad wake she left, the light figure of Mrs. Fisher bobbing after her like a row-boat at the stern of a tug.’

And I have to mention the elegance of the writing that can convey so much in just a few sentences. For example, as Lily observes those she has regarded as friends: ‘That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement.’

Throughout the book, my sympathy was always with Lily and the situation she finds herself in. Yes, she has a role which is largely confined to being an ‘adornment’ to the social scene. However, I admired her determination to use the gifts she has been given, even if that does involve a degree of manipulation. Unfortunately, an entirely innocent action and a chance meeting set in motion a chain of events that put Lily in the power of others, risking her future happiness. Lily believes her beauty allows her to manipulate men but, sadly, she finds it is she who is being manipulated because of a mistake and the need to maintain her social status because of her (relative) poverty.

It transpires that navigating the social scene is akin to a game of snakes and ladders. Working your way up takes time, requires skill in order to cultivate contacts and involves being seen in the right places with the right people. ‘She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the humming-bird’s breast? And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature?’ However, one misstep, one troublesome rumour or item of mischievous gossip and you can slide down very quickly. ‘Lily had the doomed sense of the castaway who has signalled in vain to fleeing sails.’

Very few of the characters in the book come out well. So-called friends (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Fisher) prove to be anything but in Lily’s hour of need – because they are too timid, too afraid of what others will say or possess ulterior motives.

I’ll confess, I was unprepared for the impact the ending had on me. Part of me could understand why Lily did what she did and part of me wished she had found the strength to take another course. The romantic in me wanted another outcome altogether which, I’ll admit, would not have been true to the spirit of what the author was trying to communicate in the book. Call me an old softy.

This will definitely not be the last book by Edith Wharton I read. What an amazing author to have discovered; even more amazing when you realise The House of Mirth was Wharton’s first published novel.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 6 June 2017
Edith Wharton's 'The House of Mirth' focuses on the beautiful socialite Lily Barton, who is in her late twenties and, after ten years on the 'marriage market', is still looking for a suitably rich husband. Brought up to be purely decorative, Lily seemingly leads a life of luxury and pleasure, but we soon learn that she actually has only a very small income and lives on the charity of a rich aunt who is becoming increasingly disapproving of Lily's gadabout life. Worried about her gambling debts and desperately trying to keep up with the rich set, Lily sets her sights on the very wealthy, if boring Percy Grace, but her plans to snare Mr Gryce are ruined when she becomes attracted to the dark and handsome Lawrence Selden. Mr Selden, however, despite finding Lily breathtakingly beautiful, is a man of only modest means and being aware of Lily's ambitions to marry well, he tries to avoid taking her too seriously. As Lily and Selden circle around each other, both attracted to one another but neither of them willing to commit themselves, Lily becomes desperately worried about her increasing debts and she foolishly approaches the husband of one of her friends to help her to invest her small amount of capital. When it becomes apparent to Lily that the money she has been receiving is not from the dividends on her own money, Lily finds herself embroiled in a whole series of events that eventually lead to her fall from grace, but to reveal more would spoil the story for those who have yet to read it.

Beautifully written and perceptively observed, Edith Wharton's story of New York society and the lives of the rich and idle, juxtaposed with the lot of the much less wealthy and those who fall by the wayside, makes for a compelling read. Aside from the story's main protagonists, this novel is filled with a whole cast of interesting characters and is it easy to become drawn right into Lily Barton's life and watch her as she travels towards her downfall. Although, as bystanders, we can see the mistakes Lily is making and we may become exasperated with her for her foolhardiness, Lily is not as shallow as she initially seems, she does have scruples and she avoids taking others down with her, and the reader (or this one anyhow) feels for her in her predicament. First published in 1905 and one of Edith Wharton's best novels, this is a poignant and resonant story and one to read, to think about and to then put back in the bookcase to read again later. Recommended.

5 Stars.
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on 11 April 2018
One can hardly call the story thrilling, with as much grip as a wet limpet. Repetitive with long drawn out sections which contribute meaninglessly; whilst the characters all seem similar in their individual grossness. Although good old Seldon, for all his blinkered arrogance, stands out as marginally pleasant. Meanwhile, his Muse? Not an enigma exactly, but full of meandering melancholy complexities, does herself no favours from the outset. Lily Bart, seemingly skilful in the art of keeping up appearances and deception, manages to destroy her only virtue. Sad, emotionally empty and devoid of self honesty, she stumbled from one wide eyed and conspicuously legless episode to another; swept along with the general tide of grasping decadent humanity. As for 'mirth', it was neither funny not particularly clever; the plot running on without momentum, throwing up some imaginary scandal to fill up the dull, monotonous and spiritless lives of the misguided society in which she exists.
The finale was predictably tragic for the age old lament of haplessly ignoring golden opportunities.
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on 11 September 2016
When I had read the first few chapters of this book I seriously considered abandoning it. However, I persevered and am so glad I did as this novel ended up having a big impact on me. I hadn't read any Edith Wharton before and I think this is a good one to start with. I loved the ins-and-outs of the relationships between the characters and imagine not much in society has changed throughout the years, apart from dress and modes of transport! The ending was a genuine shock and not the 'happy ever after' that's the norm. I think that's good sometimes though, as real life isn't a bed of roses, so why should fictional life be? I managed to snag a copy of 'The Age of Innocence' in a charity shop so look forward to reading that too.
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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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on 10 June 2018
Wharton's early novel of the clash between personal integrity, social inclusion and wealth: Lily Bart has been told from childhood that her beauty is social currency but, unable to force herself into a suitably wealthy marriage, she finds herself caught in scandalous rumours and a spiral of debt...

Acidic, critical, clear-sighted, probing and compassionate: Wharton exposes the workings of Old New York and the plight of a woman too intelligent for her own good.
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on 10 June 2013
This, in my opinion, is a story about stubbornness and missed opportunities. Our heroine, the beautiful Miss Lily Bart is a woman who has grown up on the fringes of late 19th century American high society. Lily is from a genteel but slightly impoverished background and she has cultivated a taste for fine living and also, rather unfortunately, a taste for gambling and is therefore very much in need of a wealthy husband. However, she is also a woman of independent spirit and therefore not inclined to settle for just any bloke with some money. When we first meet Lily Bart, she is 29 years of age and already running out of suitable options in the marriage market. The novel follows the ups and downs of Lily's fortunes and as the story progresses, a series of dubious decisions leads to a gradual decline in Lily's social standing.
This book is populated by well-drawn and believable characters, some of whom turn out to be surprisingly loyal friends to Lily despite her self-destructive path. The prose effortlessly evokes all the different locations in the book from the country houses of New England, to the glamour of the French Riviera and then New York City in all the seasons. The story is a bit long winded in places and some of Lily's foolish decisions are infuriating but the fact that the reader wants to continue to follow the story of this flawed heroine is testament to just how well written this book is.
Several suitable gentleman cross Lily's path, including Lawrence Selden who, although an intellectual match for Lily, does not have the wealth and social standing that she is looking for. Every time the paths of Lily and Lawrence cross, the reader is given a tiny bit of hope that they might live happily ever after. SPOILER ALERT - there is no happy ending. Lily nearly makes it so many times but is thwarted, sometimes by her so called friends but mostly by her own errors of judgement.
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Top Contributor: Doctor WhoTOP 50 REVIEWERon 3 September 2012
Lily Bart remains unmaried (gasp! shock!) at the ripe old age of twenty-nine; in New York society at the turn of the nineteenth century, her time for making her mark and settling herself in a way of life that she has become accustomed to is fast passing her by. Lily makes a determined effort to make herself more secure, but in doing so finds her heart perhaps is not so closed as she had imagined it was. But in opening herself to an emotional vulnerability, she finds herself also getting in deeper than she had ever imagined with men whose idea of a `favour' is not quite what she had in mind. All Lily ever wanted was to use her beauty to settle herself in a comfortable life; will her attempt to eke out her meager allowance and investments ruin her forever?

The novels of Edith Wharton, and Henry James, are wonderful slices of life in America as the nineteenth century turns to the twentieth - the scandals, the scheming, the society way of life - all quite ghastly to us now at our distant remove. The House of Mirth presents this world to the reader in such a way that the horror of falling on the wrong side of societal expectations is still as fresh as it was when the book was first published in 1905.

This is a brilliantly witty and searingly insightful book into the life of a young woman who sees her opportunities, as her youth, passing her by. In the changing society in which Lily lives, where divorce may be slowly becoming more socially acceptable, her fall to gossip and scandal is all the more painful for her having lived for so long on her wits and beauty. While the world we live in now is far from perfect, at least women generally have more opportunities than having to `make a good match' or live from independent means in order to be `accepted'. Totally recommended.
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on 20 February 2013
This is the second work of Wharton that I have read, the first being the spectacular "Age of Innocence" (which I understand was written after "House of Mirth" as an apology for it's biting and critical satire) and as I enjoyed "Age of Innocence" so much, I knew that "House of Mirth" would be my next read.

Lily Bart is presented by Wharton as a woman whose family background has tainted her ambition for anything other than success in the social realm in which she tries her best to thrive in. She connives and plots to marry a variety of individuals in the hope that she will flourish financially as she believes she should. Her sense of entitlement is alienating yet almost understandable; she is surrounded by an assortment of rather loathesome characters who really care nothing for each other apart from what others may help them achieve for themselves.

Lily stumbles into a half-belief that she could achieve a real, loving relationship rather than based on her desire for a luxurious and easy life. Her liaisons with Selden, a man who is cynical about "their world" and the superficiality and narcissim which is so present in the wealth of New York society.

Lily is a flawed heroine and the beautiful language that Wharton employs (much like in "Age of Innocence") really illustrates the inner turmoil that she suffers. Lily is a strangely likeable woman, despite her sometimes less than likeable traits.

This is a tragic, insightful novel and certainly needs to be read by anyone interested in literature.
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on 17 November 2011
When this book appeared in 1905 it was received with high acclaim from both critics and public alike. Completion of the first chapter alone is enough to leave the reader in no doubt as to the feast to come, and why The House of Mirth merits its place among the highest ranking novels of the twentieth century. The reviewer has never read one she liked better.

It's said that you can't judge a book by its cover. No more can you assess it by its title, taken here as the introduction tells us, from the book of Ecclesiastes. According to the ancient scribe, such a dwelling is attributable to the abode of fools--- and fools there are aplenty; fools who subordinate their natural desires in order to conform to the stifling etiquette of nineteenth century New York high society. And those who contribute to its moral decline. Acceptance as an elite socialite requires descent from the right family, membership of the right club, and most of all money. Old money; and lots of it.

Among this clique arrives twenty nine years old Lily Bart; single, tall, sophisticated, strikingly beautiful, and endowed with all the grace and charm of a goddess. She comes from a `good' family of modest means compared to the society she's entering, and it soon becomes apparent that her looks are going to take her further than her money will. She needs money to support her expensive tastes, which are why she's still single: for only a rich husband will do; a very rich one. And to boot, she will only marry for love. She relies on invitations to join her rich friends at their houses, or in their migrations between America and Europe according to the `season'; her world one of luxurious mansions, Paris, the French Riviera and the transatlantic yacht of the family who will eventually destroy her.

True Lily has many faults, but principles too, and her charisma and vulnerability elicited the reviewer's support. She enjoyed the wit and perspicacity Lilly uses to defend herself from unwanted suitors. She mourned for her when the hardyesque misunderstanding and spite her pride allows no retaliation against, starts her on the slippery slope to ruin.

Despite her looks tact and charm, marriage evades Lily. Among the eligible bachelors only smart lawyer Lawrence Selden truly loves her, but his lack of true wealth eliminates him. Sadly for both of them Lily, who adores Selden, restrains her own love. Whenever they're together the air is charged with feeling. Wharton--`But something lived between them also, and leaped up in her like an imperishable flame: it was the love his love had kindled, the passion of her soul for his.'

Nothing this reviewer can say can follow that.
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