I’m so glad to host Edith Wharton on her blog tour for The Classic Circuit. I’ve discovered her only recently, watching the BBC 1995 adaptation of her last unfinished novel, The Buccaneers. Then I’ve also recently read her The Age of Innocence and seen its film version directed by Martin Scorsese.

When I finished reading The Age of Innocence, I was sad and moved to tears for the intensity of the protagonist’s long-lasting love. In the end, when he could finally achieve to fulfill his wish, he decided to keep his love alive in his memory renouncing to living it in his real life. Too late, it was too late. Finishing The House of Mirth I was depressed and unhappy, stunned and helplessly sorry. It is a very good novel but so bitter and hopeless. Again: too late, it was too late.

*spoiler alert*

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH (1905) The title derives from Ecclesiastes 7:4: The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. The manuscript had originally been titled "A Moment's Ornament”. It is considered the first Novel of Manners in American Literature. The House of Mirth is as bitter as The Age of Innocence in its attempt to satirize the well-off upper society of the period and their empty wordly life but it lacks, totally lacks, the romantic features of the other. Clearly Wharton conceived of the novel as offering a picture of “the shallow and the idle” whose existence is assured by their capacity to lay waste to positive human possibilities.
Like most Wharton novels, The House of Mirth examines the conflict between rigid social expectation and personal desire. Lily Bart is adept at playing society's games, which expect her to achieve an advantageous marriage. Lily has, in fact, two main goals in the book: marriage and wealth. It is her hope to marry a rich man, thereby securing her place in society, but due to her own indecision, she passes up numerous chances, always thinking she can do better. Unfortunately, Lily's true love, Lawrence Selden, does not have enough money for her to marry him.

(It is definitely impossible to tell about this novel without giving spoilers away. I’ll stop here with the plot, then. If you are interested in a very deatailed summary go to http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/mirth/summary.html )


Appearance is what counts in the world described in the novel; the appearance of propriety or of impropriety is more important than the actuality.Forced by her shrinking income to live more and more by her wits, Lily does attempt to adapt and change. The majority of the most crucial incidents in the novel, in terms of the narrative progression of Lily’s slide to poverty and obscurity, are occasions upon which she is exposed as having misjudged the extent to which she is qualified or permitted to be a participant in the changing social order.To become a working girl is finally the only alternative left to Lily but she now considered herself “ a very useless person” (p.270), simply unfit to go on fighting for survival in the competitive modern world.

These are Wharton’s words about the enduring value of Lily Bart’s tragic parable:
“ The problem was how to extract from such a subject the typical human significance which is the story – teller’s reason for telling one story rather than another. In what aspect could a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers be said to have, “on the old woe of the world” , any deeper bearing than the people composing such a society could guess. The answer was that a frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys. Its tragic implication lies in its power of debasing people and ideals. The answer in short was my heroine, Lily Bart”. (from "A Backward Glance", p. 207)


Lawrence Selden is the only person in the novel who is able to move within the elite social circles and yet view them with the detached scrutiny of an outsider. Not wealthy himself, Selden has a distant relationship to money, believing love and happiness to be found instead of purchased. He is one of Lily’s few consistent friends, always providing lively banter, a shoulder to cry on, and honest advice. Selden’s rational thinking often overpowers his romantic side, and it eventually causes him to realize how much he is in love with Lily just when it is ... too late.


The House of Mirth is a novel about the personal struggle to fit into society and, ultimately, to get married. This places the book in a long-standing literary tradition known as the novel of manners, a form developed most notably by Jane Austen. Her Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are pioneer works of this literary genre. The tradition developed in England throughout the 19th century, as authors such as George Eliot and Henry James explored the place of women in society and the social effect of marriage, showing in particular the problems that come with marriage and conforming to society. In America, the novel of manners genre has included works such as Hannah Foster's The Coquette, the novels of James, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and even Kate Chopin's The Awakening.
The form developed some specific conventions in the 19th century:

• First, the protagonist is usually a single woman looking to get married.

• Second, socio-economic class must be a factor in determining whom the woman will marry.

• Third, the novel must include many scenes that portray the proper and improper way to act within high society, and also outline differences and relations between classes.

• And finally, the novel of manners usually ends with either the marriage or death of the female protagonist.

During the late 19th century, the novel of manners was one of the most popular novel genres, but it was also a predominantly British form. Many people questioned whether such a genre could exist in America, where there were no official social classes. Wharton adapted the form in her own way to better suit the New York society. Instead of a legitimized aristocracy, Wharton creates a social circle comprised of elegant New York snobs. Class mobility, not present in most British novels of manners, is a large factor in The House of Mirth, which shows the attempts of Lily to assimilate herself into the elite group, only to slide down the social scale into the working class before her tragic end. In fact, Lily's primary goal is not to marry for happiness, as it happens to Austen’s main characters, but rather for social security. A marriage to Percy Gryce, Lily decides at the beginning of the novel, would be the best way to assure herself of good social standing and a steady income. In Jane Austen’s novels this open search for a marriage of convenience is a common features for minor characters or comic ones.
Wharton's manipulation of the genre makes the novel a good example of the American realism movement, which began roughly after Reconstruction (the late 1870s) and lasted until just after World War I (the early 1920s). The English novel of manners was developed during the Romantic Age, which placed a literary emphasis on emotion rather than reason, and the ideal rather than reality. Realism, to which Wharton subscribed, grew out of Darwinist ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest. To Wharton, the existing novel of manners had not adequately dealt with the fall from society that many people in New York experienced if they ran out of money or did not marry well. The House of Mirth, then, can perhaps best be viewed as an attempt to add a very dark truth to an otherwise optimistic genre, an attempt consistent with the literary spirit of the time in which Wharton was writing.

The pictures in the post are mostly my caps from THE HOUSE OF MIRTH (2000) which I saw soon after finishing the novel and is definitely worth seeing!


Mary Gray said...

I felt the same way when I finished reading The Age of Innocence. I was so sad and surprised by his choice not to see Ellen, but at the same time thought it was sweet in a quiet sort of way.

Laura's Reviews said...

Wow - what a fantastic review! I love Edith Wharton. The Age of Innocence is my favorite novel, but The House of Mirth and Custom of the Country and close seconds. Great discussion of the novel of manners.

I think Lily was so indecisive because although she may have wanted to marry for mercenary reasons, her heart truly belonged to Selden.

JaneGS said...

This was a really great review, Maria. I especially enjoyed reading how Wharton and House of Mirth fit into the novel of manners genre, especially in the American context. V. interesting.

Wharton is so eloquent and her prose so fine that I find I can still enjoy her heartbreaking stories because of how her artistry.

> The House of Mirth, then, can perhaps best be viewed as an attempt to add a very dark truth to an otherwise optimistic genre, an attempt consistent with the literary spirit of the time in which Wharton was writing.

Nicely put.

I haven't read HofM yet, and so I skipped the spoiler section, but it is on the list...definitely.

Judy said...

On top of your posting about E M Forster, this is another great one. I love Edith Wharton and recently read her novellas in 'Old New York', which are wonderful - one of them, 'The Old Maid', was adapted as a Bette Davis film many years ago. I haven't read 'The Buccaneers' as yet or seen the TV adaptation, but it is definitely on my list! I love both 'The House of Mirth' and 'The Age of Innocence' and the film versions.

Luciana said...

Mi inglés es demasiado pobre para intentar dar mi opinión sobre este triste pero maravilloso libro.
Lily Bart es un personaje trágico, rodeada e influenciada por una sociedad hipócrita a la cual desea pertenecer.
"Cerró los ojos un instante y la ociosa rutina de la vida que había elegido se extendió ante ella como una larga carretera blanca sin curvas ni declives; era cierto que la recorrería en coche y no a pie, pero a veces el caminante saborea la diversión de un atajo cuyos placeres están vedados a quienes viajan sobre ruedas."
Preciosa obra. Espero que entiendas el castellano, porque aunque puedo leer el inglés, mi escritura es pobre.

Rebecca Reid said...

What a great post! When I read House of Mirth, I hadn't thought about the connection to the novels of manners, but you are certainly right. I found this book horribly depressing and I think that's the point.

Thanks for this great review and thanks for joining the Circuit!

andalucy said...

Great post. I preferred Age of Innocence to House of Mirth. How about you?

Maria Grazia said...

@M.Gray, Jane GS,Laura
You are very kind,as usual. Thank you for reading and supporting me.
I liked them both too but TAOI much more! The two adaptations were good as well, but Martin Scorsese's movie was remarkable. I was hooked by DannyDeeLewis's performance!
Hola! Entiendo pero mi castellano es como tu inglés. Mejor leerlo y entenderlo que hablarlo o escribirlo! Gracias, todavìa. Y cuando quieres comentar, castellano es perfecto para mì!
@Rebecca Reid
It's a great pleasure to be part of such a great event! Thanks to you Rebecca!
I loved The Age of Innocence and I was completely caught while reading it. The House of Mirth is a very well written novel, so interesting but ... I was less involved. Anyhow, I admire E. Wharton so much that I want to read more. Thanks for dropping by and commenting!