“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
— Ecclesiastes 7:4
From this passage in the Old Testament comes the title of this early work from Edith Wharton, published in 1905, fifteen years before The Age of Innocence. It was one of two she had narrowed down, the other being A Moment’s Ornament, from the first stanza of the poem “She was a Phantom of Delight” by William Wordsworth. In either case, the purpose of the novel is to display the world of high society at the turn of the 20th century and how it can so completely destroy one of its own simply for not playing by the rules of expectation. In other words, it’s the struggle between who we want to be and who the world thinks we should be by decree of our place in it.
“When I wrote House of Mirth I held, without knowing it, two trumps in my hand. One was the fact that New York society in the nineties was a field as yet unexploited by a novelist who had grown up in that little hot-house of tradition and conventions; and the other, that as yet these traditions and conventions were unassailed, and tacitly regarded as unassailable.”
— From Edith Wharton’s 1936 introduction to The House of Mirth
So it is that Edith Wharton presents for us the tragedy of Lily Bart, a beautiful socialite on the cusp of her 30th year, practically in danger of becoming an old maid by the standards of that time. Expectation places her en route to a party at the country estate of her best friend, Judy Trenor, with a singular goal: to find a husband whose wealth and status will enable her to continue her own wealth and status as one of the New York social elite.
To those of her own circles, Lily would be described as being her own worst enemy. Having grown up with the luxuries and amenities that her wealth and station afford her, she has no knowledge of anything “lower” and would be completely lost without maids and footmen to order her world for her. She is, in a weird way, a victim of circumstance. Worse still, those circumstances are mounting in ways that her upper crust relations cannot abide. She’s been on the “marriage market” for a decade now, having rejected all other potential suitors thus far. Her heartfelt desire is to marry for love in addition to the creature comforts she’s accustomed, a theme of the nobility and landed gentry that goes back beyond the middle ages into classicism. To be free of the restrictions and routines means that she endangers her position with her loose habits. She has mounted a considerable gambling debt, and her inability to pay it means she has trouble affording the means by which she can even keep pace with her society friends. Threats to her reputation cast long shadows as she tries to make good on expectations while appearing as though nothing is wrong.
During the first week of the story, Lily’s friend Judy attempts to set her up with an eligible bachelor, Percy Gryce, which seems to go so well that society hears wedding bells. Then the threats to her reputation begin, and ultimately she borrows money from Judy’s husband Gus Trenor and has him make investments on her behalf to help pay back her rising debts, lacking the knowledge herself of how to do this. Gus makes it clear that he expects romantic attentions in exchange for his financial acumen. Not wanting to cause a scene or undo harm to her friend, she dodges him in an elaborate game of cat and mouse. From there, Lily’s life spirals beyond her control through a series of events that are particularly chosen to showcase the scandal and subversion that exposes the soft underbelly of the otherwise impenetrable dragon of high society while separating Lily from her friends, family, and the only world she understands.
On the surface, this is the stuff of prime time soap opera. But this is Edith Wharton, which means this story is so much more than the airing of dirty laundry for cheap entertainment. Both observer and participant in these circles, Wharton had a great deal to say about a world she understood intimately. In its own time, The House of Mirth achieved both commercial and critical success precisely for how effectively the class system is examined with a critical eye that speaks not only of its time, but of all times. I would rarely consider such a notion, but I don’t believe I would be out of order here in saying that this novel is the early 20th century equivalent to the plays of Shakespeare. It’s that well-constructed, it’s that memorable, it’s that poignant, and it’s most definitely that sympathetic to the human condition that readers can relate to Lily even if we have no idea how to identify with her world. Indeed, who among us would really want to identify with a world that destroys the roses in its own garden so as to preserve the weeds? The same criticisms that this book attracted upon release, both for and against high society, are the same criticisms we hear today when headlines speak to us of “the one percent.” What’s more, the ideas of identity and self-reliance come into question as we consider the world around us. Nature or nurture? Do we even understand these ideas half as well as we think we do? It would be so easy to shove this book into its own little genre niches if not for the sheer perfection of the writing style and character developments. But then, this is why this novel is a literary classic. It packs the same punch today that it did when it was first released over a century ago. It’ll still speak volumes long after the generations living on the planet right now have since turned to dust.
Any listener to an audiobook knows a narrator can raise up or tear down a novel through the quality of performance, or even a lack therein. When curating a novel of this caliber, it’s understandable to want the best presentation possible. Wanda McCaddon is easily one of the most magnificent narrators in the business, matching the prose and dialogue with pitch-perfect delivery and emotional gravitas. I’ve heard her performances on a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction works over the years, from novels that weren’t remotely worthy of her services to large historical tomes that harnessed her linguistic capabilities. She sometimes uses alternate names such as Nadia May or Donata Peters, and these seem to be dependent upon genre or style. Whatever the name, and whatever the book, it’s guaranteed that McCaddon will deliver at the peak of her ability. I could not have asked for a better author / narrator combination here. It’s like pairing a meal with a fine wine. Yes, it really is that exquisite. As crushing as this book can be, I feel it was a distinct privilege to have encountered it, to have come to know Lily Bart.