America and Europe of the 1800s were stiff, gilded, formal place, full of "old" families, rigid customs and social transgressions. Especially for women.
And nobody chronicled them better than Edith Wharton, who spun exquisitely barbed novels out of the social clashes of the late nineteenth century. "The House of Mirth" is one of her darker stories, where scandals and lack of conformity trigger a tragic downward spiral for a vibrant woman.
Like most not-so-rich women, Lily Bart is on the prowl for a marriage to keep her in luxury and affluent circles. What's more, she has a rapid intellect and striking looks, but she is also a habitual liar who defies society's strictures (she gambles and smokes). Her only friend is Lawrence Seldon, but she is determined not to marry for love alone.
Unfortunately, her schemes and plans start to collapse -- her adoring suitors either aren't rich enough, or her independent spirit sends her off. Her desperation becomes even more intense as she finds herself in the thick of a scandal, spun up by a malicious society matron to cover up her own affair. With her reputation in ruins, Lily's life spirals down into a new life of unemployment, poverty, and the final tragedy.
Edith Wharton always paid a lot of attention to a woman's restricted life in the Gilded Age, and how scandals, unconventionality and society's hypocrisy could ruin them. But "The House of Mirth" pays more attention to this than most -- it's a bleakly realistic story, unflinchingly showing Lily's slow descent into miserable loneliness.
Despite that, Wharton's writing is pure flowering poetry with a knack for evocation ("Her small pale face seemed the mere setting of a pair of dark exaggerated eyes"), and has a sensual quality with all the descriptions of silks, plants, soft light and luxurious mansions. And she vividly portrays the upper echelons of New York society at the time -- affairs, gossip and gilded salons -- as well as the restricted lives of women
But Wharton is just as capable of describing the darker, sadder world that Lily falls into ("... blurred the gaunt roof-lines, threw a mauve veil over the discouraging perspective of the side streets"). Sedoesn't pull any punches with the tragic finale, which has a distinct air of inevitability about it -- no fairy-tale last-minute save by a Prince Charming.
Lily starts out the book as a glimmering satellite of society, who can be rather selfish and cruel, but who nevertheless gains some sympathy for her terrible plight. The cruel, glittering society of the time had no room for women who stood outside the lines, especially if they tried to lie at all the wrong times. And so we see poor Lily, driven into miserable poverty and drug addiction.
"The House of Mirth" is anything but mirthful -- it's the study of a woman's slow downfall, and the cruel society that left her friendless and disgraced. Haunting and vivid.