The House of Mirth
The House of Mirth, Penguin Books, 1993
|Publisher||Charles Scribner's Sons|
|October 14, 1905|
The House of Mirth is the fourth novel by Edith Wharton. First published in 1905, the novel is Wharton's first important work of fiction. It sold 140,000 copies between October and the end of December, adding to Wharton's existing fortune. The House of Mirth was written while Edith Wharton lived at The Mount, her home in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Although The House of Mirth is written in the style of a novel of manners, set against the backdrop of 1890s New York upper-class society, it is considered American literary naturalism. Wharton places her tragic heroine, Lily Bart, in a society that she describes as a "hot-house of traditions and conventions".
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", a reference to Wordsworth's poem "She was a Phantom of Delight." Wharton's working title for the book was "The year of the Rose."
The novel tells the story of Lily Bart, and unmarried woman in New York society. The book begins with Lily's visit to Lawrence Selden's apartment, a man whom she has feelings for, but to keep her social standing, Lily must marry a wealthier man than Selden. She turns towards Percy Gryce, a young and timid millionaire. When everyone is convinced that Percy will propose to Lily on the next occasion, she suddenly changes her mind and steps back. This is clearly caused by an unexpected visit by Lawrence Selden, who is now convinced of his love for her, but does not want to risk marriage. Gryce soon marries another girl from the same circle.
Lily's social standing erodes when her friend Judy Trenor's husband Gus gives Lily a large sum of money. Lily innocently accepts the money, believing that it is the return on investments he supposedly made for her. The rumors of this transaction, and of her mysterious visit to Gus in his city residence, crack her social standing further. One day Lily receives a note from Selden. She is sure he is going to propose and accepts the meeting the next day. Selden, frightened by this sudden change of her heart (earlier she virtually escaped when he tried to kiss her), flees to Havana, and then Europe, leaving no notice.
To escape the rumors and gossip caused by her deal with Trenor, and also disappointed with Selden, Lily accepts an invitation from Bertha Dorset to join her and her husband, George, on a cruise of Europe aboard their yacht the Sabrina. Unfortunately, while aboard the yacht, Bertha accuses Lily of adultery with George in order to shift societal attention from Bertha's own infidelity with poet Ned Silverton. The ensuing scandal ruins Lily, leading her friends to abandon her and her Aunt Peniston to disinherit her.
Lily tries to fight her way back to the high society, befriending Mr and Mrs Gormer, but Bertha Dorset gradually introduces them to Lily's 'scandals' and undermines her new position. Now Lily is left with but two of her friends: Gerty Farish (Selden's cousin) and Carry Fisher, who both are trying to help her cope with her changing situation. Their constant advice is that Lily marry, and quickly.
Lily descends the social strata, working as a personal secretary for a disreputable woman, Mrs. Hatch, but resigns after Lawrence Selden comes to rescue her from complete infamy. She then works in a milliner's, but produces poorly and is let go at the end of the season. Simon Rosedale, the Jewish suitor who had proposed marriage to her when she was higher on the social scale, tries to rescue her, but she is unwilling to meet his terms: he wants her to use love letters she accidentally bought from her servant which prove the affair Bertha Dorset and Selden had years earlier. Lily refrains for the sake of Selden's reputation, and secretly burns the letters when she visits Selden one last time. Eventually, Lily receives her $10,000 inheritance, which she uses to pay her debt to Trenor. Lily dies from an overdose, possibly accidental, of the sleeping draught to which she had become addicted. Hours later Selden comes to propose to her, but finds she has died. Only then is he able to be close to her in a way he never was able to when she was living and admit his true love for her.
The book received a good review in the New York Times, saying it was, "A novel of remarkable power," and that "Its varied elements are harmoniously blended, and the discriminating reader who has completed the whole story in a protracted sitting or two must rise from it with the conviction that there are no parts of it which do not properly and essentially belong to the whole. Its descriptive passages have verity and charm, it has the saving grace of humor, its multitude of personages, as we have said, all have the semblance of life."
There followed months of letters to the Times, arguing over the book. Some readers were enthusiastic fans, while others felt that the book unfairly impugned the city's social elite.
Film and theater adaptations
The House of Mirth has been adapted several times into other media:
- 1906 stage adaptation written by Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch.
- 1918 silent film adaptation, The House of Mirth (La Maison du Brouillard) directed by French film director Albert Capellani, starring Katherine Harris Barrymore as Lily Bart. This silent film is considered to be a lost film.
- 1956 The House of Mirth. Directed by John Drew Barrymore. Matinee Theatre: Season 2, Episode 56.(aired Dec. 4, 1956)
- 1981 The House of Mirth ( dir. Adrian Hall ) PBS, TV movie
- 2000 film adaptation, The House of Mirth, directed by Terence Davies, starring Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart.
- Wharton, Edith. "Introduction to the 1936 Edition of The House of Mirth." In Singley, Carol J., ed. (2003). Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth: A Casebook, p. 33. Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 18, 2014.
- Lewis, RWB (1984), "Introduction", The House of Mirth, Bantam Books (published 1986)
- "New York Society Held Up to Scorn in Three New Books," New York Times, October 15, 1905
- Letter to the editor of the New York Times Saturday Review of Books, March 3, 1906
- "The House of Mirth: The Play of the Novel, Dramatized by Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch, 1906; edited, with an introd., notes, and appendixes by Glenn Loney", Catalogue, Australia: National Library.
- The House of Mirth: The Play of the Novel, Dramatized by Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch, 1906; edited, with an introd., notes, and appendixes by Glenn Loney, Open library.
- Marshall, Scott (Jan 15, 2009), "Edith Wharton on Film and Television: A History and Filmography" (PDF), Edith Wharton Review (Washington State University): 15–25.
- Meyers, Jeffrey (2004), Introduction in Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. Barnes & Noble. ISBN 1-59308-153-7.
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