Carlene Bauer has written on books, religion, music and other cultural phenomena for Salon, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Observer and Elle. She is currently at work on a book about growing up as a reader and a believer (in evangelical Christianity, the Smiths, Virginia Woolf, and New York, among other things), to be published in 2007 by HarperCollins. Carlene lives and writes in Brooklyn. Here she discusses Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.
Carlene Bauer on The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
I first read The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton's 1905 novel, shortly after I moved to New York. My roommate got to it first. When she finished, she came into my room looking dazed. 'You have to read this,' she said, as if she'd just gotten some rattling news from the doctor. I read without stopping, and I saw what put that look in her eye. This was a cautionary tale about what happens to girls without resources who ask too much from life - from New York. Here's the story: Lily Bart's parents raised her with money but died leaving her none. 'But you'll get it all back - you'll get it all back, with your face,' her mother had told her. She doesn't because, in addition to this ethereal beauty, Lily has a disdain for convention - for moral and aesthetic 'dinginess' - and it appears at the most inopportune moments, threatening her standing with the rich old aunt who funds her.
'Why must a girl pay for her least escape from routine?' Lily wonders. 'Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice?' Lawrence Selden, a lawyer standing bemusedly on society's fringes, shares her sentiments, but Lily wouldn't think of marrying him. She's holding out for someone with money - someone with money who is neither priggish nor philistine. Friends warn her against her confidence in her own powers: 'Oh Lily, do go slowly!' Those firmly ensconced in cushions of cash snip at her reluctance to marry just anyone: 'In Lily’s circumstances it's a mistake to have too high a standard.' My roommate and I also had no money but we had tremendous confidence in our own particular powers, and we were certainly not going to end up compromising to expand them. Were we doomed, then? Says another confidant: 'That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.' We could sleep so long and hard, you needed a cattle prod to get us out of bed.
I recently re-read The House of Mirth to see what had rattled us. (Plus, I wanted to confirm my suspicion that Candace Bushnell is not the second coming of Edith Wharton: she lacks the tenderness, the gravitas, the chops). Like Henry James's Isabel Archer, Lily is an exquisite objet who is approvingly, wonderingly murmured over - though unlike Isabel, Lily is fatally sure of her charms and their marketability. 'She could not figure herself anywhere but in a drawing-room,' Wharton writes, 'diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume.'
'This novel is Edith Wharton's finest achievement because money is the subject,' wrote Elizabeth Hardwick. If it is, it's also because Wharton is an unflinching accountant of the costs of ambition and idealism - of the bargains we make, of the shimmering high of delusion, the awful clarity of the moments at which opportunities slip away. Lily is tragic and captivating the way Thomas Hardy's heroines are tragic and captivating: their impulsive hearts may be unconventional, but convention wins out in the end and crushes them. 'Sometimes... I think it's just flightiness - and sometimes I think it's because, at heart, she despises the things she's trying for,' Lily's confidant says of her failure to 'settle'. 'And it's the difficulty of deciding that makes her such an interesting profile.' And makes the novel such a great piece of fiction. Lily is shrewd but blind, intelligent but glib, brave but cowardly. Through her, Wharton offers her vision of American tragedy: limitless possibility seems to surround us, and believing that limitless possibility exists may prevent us from ever deciding on the thing that might truly make us happy. Lily, who once spurned an Italian prince, is gradually reduced to considering the hand of a self-made man who can't stop saying 'ain't'.
Of course, Lily's dying of a (possibly) unintentional overdose of sleeping draught, after the ironies have piled on fast and furious, may be too operatic an ending for some. For me, though, there's nothing more thrilling than watching an author lovingly chart the movements of a character, their doom feeling inevitable even as we hope for the best, and just when we think we've run out of shock and sadness, they yank the curtain back on the final scene to call forth more. Some people watch The O.C. for this sort of thrill, but I prefer the 19th-century novel. These books seem to me invested in and predicated on character in a way most contemporary fiction isn't; the authors dedicate themselves to investigating how a life takes shape. Think of all those names in the titles: David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D'Urbervilles. 'The aliveness of the characters seems the novel's one assurance of prolonged survival,' Wharton wrote. I wonder if novels would become as talked over the way we talk over the lives of The Sopranos or the staff of The Office if more writers thought along her lines.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]