Edith Wharton's beautifully crafted and passionate 1905 novel, The House of Mirth, poignantly depicts the hypocrisy and superficiality of upper class Old New York. Edith Wharton, raised as Edith Newbold Jones in the old-money New York family that spawned the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses", knew well the strictures and dissimulations of high society, and so was able to write about life among the glitterati with a 'been there, done that' ironic detachment that brings home to us how empty and despondent living that life must have been.
At the beginning of Mirth, Lily Bart's only desire is to marry well and live a life of luxury like that of her wealthy New York friends. Lily's father lost all of his money on Wall Street when she was young, and since then, Lily has sought to recapture the feeling of security that money once provided for her. As a single, beautiful socialite, Lily is constantly called upon by her richer friends to their luxurious country homes to fill a place at the card table, to help entertain, or to distract spouses from covert affairs happening right under their noses. As we discover, the rich of old New York have no scruples. They cheat on their spouses, borrow money from friends, amass gambling debts which send their less fortunate relatives into poverty, and backstab each other with heartless regularity.
Lily's desire to be as wealthy as her friends and live a life of ease is taken advantage of by her society friends, and it leads to her undoing. She is tricked into believing Gus Trenor's offer to invest money for her, only to discover later that he was giving her money, not investing it...with definite strings attached. Whoops. Lily is later thrown under the bus by another of her friends, Bertha Dorset, when she accuses Lily of having an affair with her husband George...when in reality Bertha had asked Lily along on the trip to keep George's attention away from her own extramarital affair. Thanks to this scandalous and untrue accusation, Lily is written almost completely out of her wealthy aunt's will and is left only enough money to pay back what she owes Gus Trenor. When society cuts Lily, she discovers that she does not have a friend in the world except her cousin Gerty Farish, an independent working woman, and Lawrence Selden, an attorney who falls for Lily but is rejected by her because he is not wealthy. They both try to help Lily imagine and create a new life outside of society, but this is unsuccessful, as Lily discovers that she is unfit for any life besides that of the affluential. But even the horrors of a dismal, 'dingy' life do not turn Lily to the Dark Side. When she is given a chance to get even with Bertha Dorset, which might have led to a triumphant return to society, she doesn't take it. An accidental overdose of sleep medication prevents us from ever knowing if Lily would have been strong enough to survive outside of the society spotlight. I am torn as to whether or not Lily would have made it.
This was my third re-read of The House of Mirth. The first time I read this book, it was as a disillusioned college junior, trapped in an English class I hated, with a professor I hated MORE. The second read was on the heels of my enthusiastic read of another of Wharton's books, The Age of Innocence, which I loved. I remember liking Mirth more than I had the first time. This third time was my most emotional and involved reading of this book, and was actually the first book on the ML list that engendered such emotion. I immediately empathized with Lily, who was only trying to recapture the questionable security of her own childhood by seeking wealth and stability, and was cast out onto an island without a friend and with nowhere to go as a result of her quest. I felt Lily's pain at being alone and rejected and misunderstood and lied about, probably because I had been in Lily's shoes at one time or another since I first read the book.
It was amazing to me, even though I knew what was coming in the plot and how the story would end, how involved I became in this story. I think it only proves that Edith Wharton knew well the harshness and heartlessness of the society she wrote about, and probably witnessed its woundings first-hand. I can completely understand why she would eventually leave her wealthy husband and New York for writing and Europe.