An Anti-Valentine’s Day Read: The House of Mirth

There are a lot of good bookish romance links out there today. You can find a list of the most romantic novels of all time on Goodreads, find out what your literary crush says about you (for the record, my crush is obviously Mr. Darcy but in terms of this article, I’m a Gilbert Blythe kind of girl. Which reminds me, I need to re-read Anne of Green Gables), or what your love story is.

My post today will not be among the most romantic links on the interwebs. I’m here to talk about The House of Mirth, which might be more of an anti-Valentine’s Day read (not that I’m anti-Valentine’s Day).

I read The House of Mirth this week and was honestly caught off guard by the ending. I should have caught on – Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart was compared to Anna Karenina after all but I didn’t.

I loved this book and I suspect that there is an entire generation of young women that would love it as well.

the house of mirth

Lily Bart has been raised to be a perfect New York wife. She is used to a life of luxury and being surrounded by all the best people. Her parents are both dead and she doesn’t have anyone to look out for her best interests and find her the best possible match. She has an old widowed aunt who doesn’t care to socialize in the same way that Lily must so she is very much left to her own devices. At 29, Lily knows that she must marry soon; her income is dwindling and she can’t count on her friends to sustain her lifestyle for much longer. At 18 or 19 she was entertaining and fresh, but a decade on she knows that her charms must be waning.

Even though she knows that she has to get married, she continues to spurn suitable matches and gets caught up in an unsuitable relationship that sees her given money she thought had been invested wisely on her behalf. In all of this is Mr. Lawrence Selden, a lawyer of no great fortune who has always been a great friend and at various moments each of them has wanted it to be more, but never at the same time.

When Lily finds herself cut loose from the people she has always considered her good friends, she winds up at a loose end, unable to sustain herself on her own income and has to find ways of earning her own way. Which in the 1890s, for a woman of her social standing, was nearly impossible. Definitely not respectable.

It’s devastating. Even in these conditions, when she knows that the only way back to the societal place that she used to occupy is to marry the right man, still she balks at giving up her independence this way.

She is a very modern heroine in a time when women could barely speak to a man in public if they were unaccompanied. Reading this book made me so thankful for the rights and freedoms that I enjoy as a human being, not based on my gender. I related to her desire for independence and sympathised with her inability to be taken seriously as a person on her own merit. Unless she becomes a Mrs and soon, she just ceases to count in her circle of ‘friends’.

In the end, when she does the right thing despite all the temptation not to, and things finally seem to be working out for her and everything truly falls apart…it’s a spectacularly tragic ending. It was too bad that I wasn’t at home where I would have been mostly free to totally fall apart. At work, you tend to look a little crazy if you lose it in the lunch room crying over a book.

The House of Mirth has found itself on to my list of favourite books. I will be reading this again and in the meantime I will be recommending it to everyone I know. I’m also on the lookout for Wharton’s The Custom of the Country which will complete my reading of her “Novels of New York.”

Do you have a favourite tragic romantic novel?

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9 thoughts on “An Anti-Valentine’s Day Read: The House of Mirth

  1. I think I have read this! But I was much younger then and like the way I felt about Jane Austen then, I didn’t get the whole concept of marrying out of necessity. I think I found it to much to process.

    Glad you liked it – I was older when I read The Age of Innocence and really enjoyed it.

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    • The ending was so devastating. I feel like Edith Wharton is enjoying a bit of an uptick in popularity right now. She’s a very modern voice in a very old fashioned period of time. She’s definitely a new favourite of mine.

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