Do you ever find that a book splits you into two people, each responding in contradictory ways to the story that unfolds before you? That was the experience that I had with this elegant and unspeakably cruel novel. I’ve read Edith Wharton before and always admired the brilliance with which she evokes the shimmering veneer of her chosen civilisation – if one can thus term the vicious moneyed tribes that people her narratives – and the ugliness and lack of human sympathy that lies beneath. Wharton’s world is the turn of the century upper class rich, as they play their frivolous and pointless way through the New York season and the Long Island summers in a series of house parties and entertainments. The sensation of reading her carefully choreographed sentences is much akin to sipping a long, cool drink in the shade on a sultry day, but what desperate human plights she evokes with them! For the splendour of her society does not mask its rampant materialism, its innate competitiveness and its brutality to those who fall outside the charmed circle, and it is usually in its excesses and crimes that Wharton finds her subject matter.
In The House of Mirth, the victim is the beautiful but underfunded Lily Bart, whose charm and good connections have so far kept her afloat with the sharks whilst she waits to make a good marriage. But Lily’s love affair with luxury is undermined by her own intermittent but genuine moral impulses. She knows she must marry to secure her future, but fecklessness, carelessness or simple abhorrence of the reality of the transaction have so far kept her single. Wharton’s gaze is unsparing on the people who surround Lily; the wealthy men are dull or vulgar, the women in whom Lily places her trust and friendship are jealous and self-centred. When Lily says to Lawrence Selden in the opening encounter of the novel ‘You don’t know how much I need a friend’, she is speaking in greater truth than she is herself aware. Unfortunately, as the narrative develops, it becomes clear that Selden is not the man she needs as her friend.
Wharton is at her most fiendishly brilliant in the portrayal of this relationship. Lily will not marry Selden because he does not have money, but she falls in love with his good faith in a part of herself that is better than the company she keeps. Selden loves Lily and idealises her, but in that very act of idealisation he overlooks the real dangers and constraints of her situation, and he will eventually condemn her on several occasions for the appearances that he purports to despise. Theirs is a romance that never crosses the borderline into a more sincere and helpful territory; instead it makes both protagonists act out of pride and caprice, when played differently it could have been the making of both of them. Lily Bart is an extraordinary creation, for Wharton balances the superficiality and childishness of her character with great depths of sincerity and good will and a fatal adherence to an altruistic sense of honourable conduct. Selden comes off worst; he watches Lily’s downfall and walks away at the times when she most needs him, and his inability to embrace the courage of his so-called convictions is ultimately what will damn him. Lily’s lack of a man by her side, and wealth to keep her buoyant, will eventually sink her under the weight of unjust accusation, debt and dishonour, and the great tragedy of her story is that the man she asks to be her friend cannot rise above his own self-centred demands for her idealised purity to really help her out. I couldn’t help but feel, reading this novel, that I had the American equivalent of Madame Bovary in my hands: same preoccupation with money and privilege, same foolish desire in the heroine’s heart for a bigger future than her circumstances truly prescribe, same condemnation of the impossible relations between the genders, but the emphasis in Wharton’s novel falls all on the power of money, rather than the power of sex.
I said this novel split me in two; on the one hand the professional side of me recognised the chilling brilliance with which Wharton planned the inexorable descent of her heroine, and admired the thousand details, placed with the artistry and exactitude of beading on an elaborate ball gown, that were used to support and reinforce the inevitability of her fate. Yet the simple reader in me cried out for justice for Lily Bart – a justice I knew she was destined never to receive, and I found the novel almost unbearable in its closing stages. I almost gave it up once it became apparent how the story would end, because I wasn’t sure I could tolerate that claustrophobia of narrative entrapment. I wanted there to be a glimmer of hope, but naturally, there was no such thing. On the most direct and personal level of reading, I just hate that in a book. But I also felt that Wharton is justly recognised as one of the most stylish and exceptional of writers, for all that her passion burns like ice, rather than fire.