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?


When the Book Alone Isn’t Enough: Binging on North and South

I totally binged on North and South last week.

Let me rewind a little bit. I first read a book by Elizabeth Gaskell in university. Mary Barton is a Victorian novel examining the disparities between rich and poor. It also deals with the realities of the working class in an industrial city during the Victorian era. It was grim and sad and difficult to read but it was so great.

Then I read Cranford, another Victorian masterpiece of reality. Mrs. Gaskell doesn’t sugarcoat the future facing unmarried women of a certain age. It’s pretty grim as well.

A few weeks ago, I read Wives and Daughters which I loved. That’s when I realized that actually, I really like books by Elizabeth Gaskell and next time I was in the library, I picked up North and South.

This might be my favourite. I need to own a copy.

Margaret Hale has spent her teenage years living at a fashionable address in London, the playmate of a wealthy cousin. When her cousin gets married, Margaret returns to the parish where her father is the parson. But due to a crisis of conscience, her father leaves the church and moves the family away from their home in Helstone, to the Northern, industrial city of Milton. Here he will tutor the sons of local families while Margaret attempts to overcome her prejudices against Northerners, and especially against self-made men, like Mr. Thornton, who she doesn’t consider gentlemen.

Margaret forms an unlikely friendship with Bessy Higgins and her family. Bessy has lung problems from having worked in the mills for so long. Her father, Nicholas, is a Union man, bent on organizing a mill strike to get better wages.

So much happens in this book. That’s a bare bones assessment. People die, people travel, there’s a strike that boils over, a mutiny at sea, a cast of characters that includes a disapproving mother, an insipid aunt and a potential benefactor.

But can we just take a moment to talk about Margaret and Mr. Thornton? North and South was published in 1855, a full 42 years after Pride and Prejudice (here we go with the Jane Austen again) but while the subject matter, the customs, and definitely the setting, are all completely different, in Margaret and Mr. Thornton we find some semblance of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

Which is awesome.

Beautiful Margaret Hale is a young woman used to going her own way. Although women of her class didn’t tend to mix with working class men like Nicholas Higgins, Margaret goes out of her way to visit and befriend him, learning a lot about life in Milton. Mr. Thornton is also used to getting his own way and rigidly adheres to the customs and codes of life to which is he is accustomed. He can be quick to make judgements and when his idea of Margaret as pure and noble is challenged, he has a hard time moving past it.

These two spend the whole book clashing until finally realizing that actually, they love each other. A lot.

When I finished (it does end kind of abruptly owing, no doubt, to the fact that North and South was serialized originally and needed to be wrapped up in a certain number of installments) I wasn’t ready to let it go. So I went to Netflix and binged on the 2004 BBC miniseries. If you have four hours, I would recommend you do the same. Here’s a little taste to wet your appetite.


Pride and Prejudice – The Rant

My book club has been meeting every 6-8 weeks for 2 years now. In that time we have covered So Much For That, A Fine Balance, One Day and the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena. We have encountered parents that abandon their children, virgin cures, Southerners rising up against racism and the tempestuous relationship between a writer and his naive wife.

And in all this time I had no idea that I was among Pride and Prejudice virgins.

I can’t remember exactly how it came up but it turned out that at least half of the girls had never read it! Which for me, amounts to blasphemy.

I should probably take this moment to let you all know that Pride and Prejudice is my number one all time favourite book ever. Nothing will ever usurp its place in my mind as being the single greatest book of all time. When I move and I get to set up my bookshelves again, it is the first book I put back. I have at least 4 different copies and always look for other pretty additions to add to my obsession. I watched the miniseries when I was 11 and my mom told me it was a book and I read it. And didn’t understand the whole thing. But I knew I was in love.

Since that time I have probably read it a million times. There was one summer when I was in Holland that it was the only book I brought that I could stomach reading more than once. I would finish it, take a moment to reflect on its most perfect ending, and start again from the beginning. When it was one of the books on the syllabus in grade 12 I re-read it for pleasure but didn’t have to attend the classes on the book because I knew it so well.

So, I just don’t understand how any woman can have made it to their late 20s without reading it at least one time! It’s the most perfect story ever. I mean, we’re all over reading Fifty Shades of Grey and apparently we have no issues with the eroticization of Jane Eyre (probably best not to get me started on that) but to never have even read Pride and Prejudice? The most perfect example of the manipulation of the English language to evoke love and feeling and human nature? I don’t get it!

If you haven’t read it yourself, please don’t tell me. My heart can’t take it. Just do yourself a favour and pick up a copy and read it. Then tell me how much you loved it. Book club is going to remedy this catastrophe by reading it. And then we all get to watch Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy.

The ultimate reward.


Jane Austen Re-Read

The other day I was all set to read Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie when I got the overwhelming urge to re-visit the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility.

Turns out, today is the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. Which is sad, because she died young but cool because of the coincidence. Reading Sense and Sensibility on the anniversary of her death? It’s like she’s sending me a message that she approves.

Which of course she would because Sense and Sensibility is funny and great and timeless.

I saw this on twitter about Jane Austen and roses (which is how I realized it was the anniversary of Austen’s death – thanks Twitter!), click here if you’re into it. It will make you want to visit Jane Austen’s house if you don’t already.

Now let’s get back to Sense and Sensibility and how great it is.

I’ve read this book a few times – there’s something special about re-reading books that you love. It’s less about the story (you know how it will end) and more about the people that tell the story. I am loving visiting with Elinor and Marianne right now. It’s a different experience from the last time I read it – no idea when that was but I don’t remember laughing at it so much!

There is this whole passage where Austen basically rags on women who indulge their children to a point of obsession and come on, we all know those women. There’s a whole blog about those women (STFU Parents). And the girl-on-girl hate that Lucy Steele exhibits – why have I never noticed that before? I mean I knew she was being cruel on purpose with the whole “Edward Ferrars and I have been secretly engaged for 4 years but please don’t tell anyone” thing but this time it seems so much harsher.

Can I say ‘harsher’ when talking about a Jane Austen work? She’d probably hate it.

You know what else I noticed? Good guys totally finish first in Austen books. Edward Ferrars? Colonel Brandon? Nice guys. Same can be said for Mr. Bingley or Mr. Knightley. Mr. Darcy is essentially a good guy, he’s just misunderstood for most of the book. You know who doesn’t finish first? The bad boys. Mr. Wickham ends up married to Lydia and totally pissed about it. Willoughby gets the fortune but his reputation is destroyed. Mr. Elton in Emma? Please. With that wife? You know he’s miserable.

I know that we read Austen like it’s our job and hold her heroes up as the ideal of manhood and yet? We still labour under the misapprehension (stole that from Austen) that nice guys finish last.

They so don’t!

Anyway, I love re-reading old favourites. Jane Austen books will always be my go-to when I want to read something I love. Her books are well worn on my shelves.

Oh and if you love Jane Austen but you’re looking for a new take, have you ever read these?

Book love.

What books do you like to re-read?