The House of Mirth is a novel of New York society manners. The heroine is Lily Bart an impoverished socialite who lives off a small inheritance and her Aunt Julia’s generosity. She travels the inner circle of the New York elite by being charming and beautiful; something she finds increasingly more difficult the older she gets. There is a price to pay, when living off the rich. Lily has to be lively and entertaining, even when she doesn’t feel up to it.
Lily has had many opportunities to marry and have the life she was "trained" to have. She always seems to throw them away. Her friend Carry says she manages "to be off on a picnic" when opportunity presents itself. The fact is Lily doesn’t really want that life: the loveless lives her friends have. She’s really in love with Lawrence Seldon, a lawyer from a good family, who lives just on the outside of society. He looks down on the lifestyle of these people and feels that Lily shouldn’t really be one of them. Although it’s he that she loves, she can never really let go of the material things she’d miss if she married him.
Lily finds herself, through a bad investment, in the middle of a scandal. Try as she might, she only gets in deeper, mired in the mud with social climbers, adulterers, and false friends. Lily knows that only the richest can come out of it clean. She has to decide what is truly important to her: money or her morals.
This is a re-read for me. I read this last winter and this time around with my book club. I loved the way Wharton writes. It’s rich and descriptive. You can almost feel the silk of Lily’s dress. She’s as good at describing a New York drawing room as she is the worries and thoughts running through Lily’s mind. Wharton is brutally honest and hard on New York society, of which she herself was born into.
I have yet to read more of Edith Wharton, but I’m sure I will in the future.