The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton ★★★★
Set in and around New York in the 1890’s, The House of Mirth tells the story of the beautiful and charming Lily Barth, who at 29 is still unmarried, but has hopes of making a brilliant match. Lily’s friends are all members of New York high society, a well-heeled crowd made up of Wall Street financiers and their wives, such as fashionable hostess
Judy Trenor, who takes great pride in entertaining crowds at Bellomont, her summer residence where one of the preferred activities is playing bridge for large sums of money. Lily’s biggest problem is keeping up with these big spenders, and though she is a regular at Bellomont, where her good looks and well-honed social skills are well received, she finds it demeaning that Judy makes her pay for her keep by giving her little jobs to do, such as helping her keep guest lists in order.
While she has been brought up wanting for nothing and making regular trips to Europe, following her father’s bankruptcy, Lily’s now-deceased parents have left her destitute. She has since been living with her old aunt Julia Peniston, and while Mrs. Peniston gives Lily money here and there so that she can keep herself in the latest fashions, she isn’t so generous as to allow her niece any financial independence, and Lilly soon finds herself in trouble with a huge bridge debt to pay off. She sees this as a temporary setback, since Lily and her friends look forward to her marrying a rich man within their circle. But her situation becomes more desperate when she learns that her latest prospect has plans to marry to another woman. Lily appeals to Judy’s husband Gus Trenor, a Wall Street financier, who promises her that a small investment and a few transactions on the stock market will give her great returns. This arrangement proves to be very profitable for the young woman, but things soon start unravelling for her when her reputation is put into question as Gus, expecting her to show her gratitude by spending time with him, ultimately puts Lily in an impossibly compromising position.
I enjoyed the wonderful writing in this novel of manners, my first by Edith Wharton, and it was clear that she was writing about a milieu that was very familiar to her. The prevailing attitudes of the time and the class of people she describes were meticulously rendered and came to life very realistically, and their concerns, which might seem outrageous to the modern reader still seemed all too understandable. However, about halfway through the novel, I started feeling things dragging along while all the elements of the drama were being put in place, until quite suddenly a scene with Gus Trenor indicated the beginning of a much steeper downward slide for the lovely Lily. As much as I hate to say it, the worse things got for her, the more interesting the novel became, despite the fact that—or perhaps because—I could imagine all too well what kind of distress Wharton’s heroine must have suffered. A great introduction to Mrs. Wharton, I look forward to following up with The Age of Innocence, which has been patiently awaiting it’s turn on my well-stocked shelves.