Sunday, January 24, 2021

The House of Mirth (1905)

Edith Wharton's novel is the missing link I did not know I was missing between Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It has all of James's surging narrative style with Fitzgerald's impeccable eye for detail. Like song titles of Nirvana songs, "the house of mirth" never does show up in this novel, but unlike the Nirvana songs Wharton's poetic title has some meaning, as approximately the grasping social landscape of parties, looking good, getting rich, and having a fun time. Fitzgerald's world. Lily Bart, for most of The House of Mirth, is not having a fun time. She is beautiful, but pushing 30, and decisions about marriage must be made. She's also, well, not exactly destitute, but not really in the money either. At the beginning of the novel she has decided to marry a rich introvert, but bridles in the clinch, distracted by the man she really loves, who has no financial prospects. Subsequently, partly as a target of vicious rumor, her rich introvert bridles himself when he gets word of Lily's gambling debts. Those debts have been rung up at evenings of bridge. I didn't know bridge was played for money this way. Big debts as usual are what you get for playing with the rich. Wharton captures a late 19th-century portrait of New York City social life, and it's not pretty, but the novel is quite good. Her language moves comfortably through the architecture of the story—originally serialized, it is put together well, with a steady stream of events escalating the impossible tensions. It ends as a tragedy, a certain template for stories of later beauties such as Marilyn Monroe. I thought Lily's aunt was too hard on her but now I'm nitpicking. The House of Mirth was Wharton's second novel and more or less her coming out, considered her best by many (including Larry McCaffery), though perhaps not as many as her Age of Innocence. I'm not sure exactly what my expectations were but The House of Mirth beat them. In my old Riverside Edition paperback the introduction by R.W.B. Lewis, a very interesting piece (copyright 1963) itself, cautions against seeing Wharton as a missing link between James and Fitzgerald. In fact, it might be where I got the idea. But I am ignoring him on the point.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic.

No comments:

Post a Comment