Published in 1905, “The House of Mirth,” by Edith Wharton, sketches a portrait of fin-de-siècle New York’s high society, an era wherein, for women, the only road to social ascendancy, fame and fortune, lay in a marriage to a man of deep pockets, fashionable manners, and genteel taste.
At 29, Lily Bart, exquisitely beautiful, breathlessly charismatic, and blessed with a sharp intellect, finds herself swimming in the social currents.
After her parents’ premature demise, with no family member willing to shoulder the burden of the sort that comes with taking on a jeune fille à marier, her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, a wealthy window, stepped forward and took her into her affluent care.
Being elegantly attired, always, in expensive costumes, tailored by the best dressmakers of the times, commanding a posh residence overlooking Fifth Avenue and spending her leisure in the country homes of her rich friends, is hardly a lifestyle to gripe about.
Where it hurts, though, is that Lily’s gilded existence isn’t one that she owns.
To do so, she has but one instrument to employ, a triumvirate of her radiant face, her skill for tempered coquetry, and her “supple” disposition.
She has “fits of angry rebellion against fate” because “younger and plainer girls had been married off by the dozens,” leaving her with a shrinking pool of eligible suitors. Yet, she can’t “drop out of the race and make an independent life for herself,” for her meager income would only commit her to a life of much hated “dinginess.”
In her pursuit of marital ambitions, not only is success frustratingly out of her grasp, but each time, it eludes her, it heaps upon her a new scandal. None of that is for want of a brilliant combination of adroitness, artifice, and moral rectitude, on her part.
It’s the very set whose luxurious hospitality she wallows in, and aspires to be a bonafide member of, that, ironically, thwarts her mission.
Under an immaculate fabric of opulence and sophistication, is a cruel world rife with promiscuity, riven by petty jealousies, lingering insecurities, and bruised vanities, and though it, Lily must tread a cautious path.
Her nemesis takes the form of the loose Bertha Dorset, a woman of her own circle, who “delights in making people miserable” and “whose social credit is based on an impregnable bank-account.”
Just when Lily felt she was within a hair’s breath of a successful outcome of a “scheme of courtship,” Bertha let slip into the ears of Percy Gryce, a stupendously well-heeled, but a “shy,” prudish mama’s boy that Lily played cards for money. The vice turned him away.
In another instance, it was her best friend, Judy Trenor, who steered Lily to her own husband, Gus.
Carrey Fisher, a “striking divorcée,” most of whose “alimony was paid by other women’s husbands,” had so worried Judy that she assigned Lily to the task of fetching Gus from the railway station.
Not a move fraught with romantic peril, but this one-on-one encounter did set in motion the winds of a furious rumor mill that culminated in deep disgrace for Lily.
In Gus, a “coarse dull man,” with a fat stream of income from Wall Street, Lily sees a way out of her “tide of mounting debts.” In return for his favor of multiplying her investments for her, he demands her intimacy—a non-affair, really, judging by today’s liberal standards—that leaves her reputation irretrievably tarnished.
A maligned woman has always been an easy prey to more slander and odious gossip. So it is with Lily. Already seared with the unsavory label of “being on the hunt for a rich husband,” her hopes of securing one, are snuffed out in the wake of still more vicious tattle, this time involving Bertha’s cuckolded husband, George.
To make matters worse, when word of her precipitous fall in social standing reaches her aunt, she cuts her off of an inheritance, leaving her on the brink of insolvency.
The paradox of Lily’s situation can be summed up thus: had it not been for her desire to marry into a prominent household, she’d never have been scarred, but once that was a fait accompli, the only recourse for “social rehabilitation” is marriage to a respectable gentleman.
Her hardest smite comes when she’s forced to ask the very man she disdains, a crude Jewish banker named Simon Rosedale, to rescue her—and he refuses her.
If this is a tale of how a young woman’s aspirations for materials gains led her to her material ruin, then, it’s also one of a strong-willed, principled, and honorable woman, who despite sinking to the depths of penury and privation, rejects it; and rejects life itself.