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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton

Of course Gillian Anderson has played Lily Bart in a movie version of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel, The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth (1905)
by Edith Wharton

  I read this whole novel under the mistaken impression that the Author was Evelyn Waugh.  So.... yeah.  Evelyn Waugh is a dude, of course.  Pretty funny that. Although the modernity of milieu (upper class New Yorkers around the turn of the century) is fresh, the story is a familiar one, the decline and fall of a young woman with taste and no money, raised to marry, and who fails to marry.

  Hard to imagine that Henry James was in his proto-stream of consciousness mode at exactly the same time Wharton was turning out work that could have been published 80 years before without even changing the names of the characters.  Frankly, I preferred The House of Mirth to James' dense and near unreadable The Ambassadors.  They both document the same people, more or less, but The House of Mirth is a lark and The Ambassadors is a slog, and The Golden Bowl is damn near unreadable.  All three books were released within a couple years of one another but the difference between Wharton and James is like the difference between a horse drawn carriage and a car.   Some surface similarities, but the car has an engine, and the carriage has a horse.

  I rather liked Lily Bart, the Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) of the book.  To read the novel through history is to become intimate with a succession of fascinating, beautiful women who are obsessed with marriage.  It's quite the cultural quirk when you stop to think of the specificity and limited life experience of the main characters of all marriage centered novels written until well into the 20th century.

 It certainly shows you who the fuck the Audience was for all these novels- the exact same women.  These women actually appear in the pages of The House of Mirth, a kind of precursor of the celebrity culture of the 20th century.  During her decent into obscurity in the last third of the text, Lily Bart runs into "fans" who read about her set in the society pages of the newspapers.   Bart's decline mirrors the later day rise and fall of "celebutantes" today and "it girls" of yesterday.  Lily Bart is maybe the first character in a Novel of this nature who comes off as a modern girl.

 Certainly her tragic death (at the hands of morphine she took in drop form to sleep) is very contemporary.  I can't remember a similar drug od ending any other marriage plot type novel.

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