The House of Mirth

Re-read this after a decade of letting it moulder in the memory banks. Truthfully, as I read, it was as if I’d never turned the pages before, everything brand new and fresh. Another great Wharton work, this one a bit more maudlin than Age of Innocence, as Lily Bart dies in the end (intentional overdose of the drug she used to sleep?). The book is a catalog of the wearing away of a charming and beautiful (yet unmarried) lady who must live by her wits since her allowance from her aunt doesn’t cover all the expenses of a modern girl (namely, her gambling debts from bridge and extravagant dress bills). The presence of Lawrence Selden through the book is supposed to work as an anchor, to bring her back to remembering that this life she’s chosen is hollow and meaningless, but she has no other choice, women had only one way to survive – through marriage to a rich man. She works against her best interests, luring rich Percy Gryce only to throw him away so she can sleep in (instead of going to church) and have an afternoon walk with Selden. She begins to borrow money from her friend’s husband, who thinks she owes him affection in return (scandal!). Gradually the invitations to friends’ houses decreases, and shockingly she is expelled from the Dorset yacht in Monte Carlo near midnight with nowhere to go (women not allowed to check into hotels, she must scurry to the protection of her cousin Jack, who reluctantly grants it). Lily is in possession of the means to take down Bertha Dorset (she purchased love letters that Selden had trashed but continues to protect him) but refuses, she is too much a lady to stoop to such secret blackmail. The Dorset expulsion causes her aunt to leave her with a fraction of the sum she had intended to inherit, and her options wane as she bounces from friend’s house to hotel to finally boarding house. She attempts to become a working girl, making hats, and is fired from that job. The night she dies, she receives the $10k from her aunt and promptly writes a check to pay off the debt to her friend’s husband, leaving her with nearly nothing again.
For fun, here’s my silly and short review from 2004.