Edith Wharton published this book, ‘The House of Mirth‘ in 1905 and it is about a beautiful and once-wealthy socialite of New York, Lily Bart and her slow social downfall. It also has an intricate and complicated love story with a tragic end.
It took me some time to get accustomed to the slow pace of the story set in the early 20th century. In that era, being single at 29 for a woman was a cause of concern. Lily was brought up by her mother to achieve one goal: marry a wealthy man. Since her father had suffered financial ruin and her mother died resenting the downfall and ‘dingy’ lifestyle she was forced into by the circumstances, Lily’s mission is to find a rich husband. She knows she has beauty and charm and if she plays her cards wisely she can win the perfect husband.
Lily spends a lot of her time at the Bellomont, with the wealthy Gus and Judy Trenor, who throw lavish and extravagant parties regularly. They play bridge for money which is responsible for Lily’s gambling addiction. Sadly, she loses a lot of money that eventually leads to her decline.
Money is required for the upkeep of her beauty and lifestyle. Her aunt, Mrs. Peniston provides some money and a place to live but she has to depend on her wealthy friends to keep up with their ranks. Lily wants to scale the social ladders but unfortunate circumstances create her fall from grace. She loses her aunt’s inheritance. She is unable to pay her debts.
Lily takes sudden cruise vacation with her friends, a wealthy couple, George and Bertha Dorset and the latter is responsible for spreading distasteful rumors about Lily for her own selfish and vengeful reasons. Lily is humiliated and ostracized by her friends and a gradual downward spiral starts, leaving Lily depressed and lonely. Only one faithful friend, Miss Gerty Farish, stands by her side in this ordeal.
The love story of Lily and Lawrence Selden, a young lawyer, is beautifully woven across the book that shows they are emotionally and intellectually connected to each other but since Selden is not a wealthy man, Lily is conflicted between her choice and her mission.
Adverse incidents cause Lily to lose her reputation and plunge into a bottomless pit of misery to such an extent that she feels nothing more is left in her life.
Lily’s story in the second half is heart wrenching and a reader can truly empathize with Lily and her situation.
There is no mirth in this story, if only Lily could understand this, she would have allowed herself to be wise and adjust to the changing circumstances.
This book written more than a century ago by Edith Wharton is definitely a must-read for every woman. Wharton’s masterful style of social realism is simply perfect.