The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

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Gillian Anderson in House of Mirth, 2000
The House of Mirth had been on my Netflix queue for a long time, and I was so struck with the movie when I saw it that I picked up the book, which turned out to be even better - this is usually, though not always, the case.

 Anderson is phenomenal as the central character, Lily Bart, to the point of making one regret all the years her range as an actor was wasted as David Duchovney's co-star. The book, and the movie, are full of amazing moments of subtle interchanges in which people are able to use a very few well-chosen words to convey something entirely different. 

Wharton's writing is precise: each chapter has clear purpose and the feeling of being as necessary as the links of a chain. There are beautifully memorable character descriptions in the book:

The first two weeks after her return represented to Mrs. Peniston the domestic equivalent of a religious retreat. She "went through" the linen and blankets in the precise spirit of the penitent exploring the inner folds of conscience; she sought for moths as the stricken soul seeks for lurking infirmities. The topmost shelf of every closet was made to yield up its secret, cellar and coal-bin were probed to their darkest depths and, as a final stage in the lustral rites, the entire house was swathed in penitential white and deluged with expiatory soapsuds.

Grace Stepney's mind was like a kind of moral fly-paper, to which the buzzing items of gossip were drawn by a fatal attraction, and where they hung fast in the toils of an inexorable memory.

His [George Dorset's] face, with its tossed red hair and straggling moustache, had a driven uneasy look, as though life had become an unceasing race between himself and the thoughts at his heels.

It was, however, only figuratively that the illumination of Mrs. Hatch's world could be described as dim: in actual fact, Lily found her seated in a blaze of electric light, impartially projected from various ornamental excrescences on a vast concavity of pink damask and gilding, from which she rose like Venus from her shell. The analogy was justified by the appearance of the lady, whose large-eyed prettiness had the fixity of something impaled and shown under glass.
and brilliant moments of psychological insight:
Moreover, by some obscure process of logic, she felt that her momentary burst of generosity had justified all previous extravagances, and excused any in which she might subsequently indulge. Miss Farish's surprise and gratitude confirmed this feeling, and Lily parted from her with a sense of self-esteem which she naturally mistook for the fruits of altruism.

...it was characteristic of her [Lily] to feel that the only problems she could not solve were those with which she was familiar.

The movie, as much as I liked Anderson and the gorgeous costumes and settings, makes significant changes, including including conflating Grace Stepney and Gertie Farish whom the book specifically describes as differing from each other as much as they differ from the elegant and beautiful Lily. There are also radical, probably unforgivable, changes made to the end of the book.

The actual end of the book, however, is itself dissatisfying. There is a brief encounter in Lily's last few days with a character named Nettie Struther, who, though her background was unfortunate, has managed to become poor but happy through the love of a good man and a baby. The book, as I read it, presents this as a possible solution to Lily's insoluble problems that she has missed in her quest for social status and an aesthetically luxurious life, which rings false and seems surprisingly sentimental for such a penetrating novel. If it had been more clearly Lily's vision - another form of romanticizing her problems away - that could have been interesting, but I don't see that separation of author from character in the way this scene of domestic fulfillment is presented. When I tried to put it in words to my dad, he described it with the phrase “a coda of self-delusion,” which perfectly captures it. Certainly, money (and the lavish lifestyle that goes with it) never make up for a lack of warm, authentic human interactions, but neither does love make up for circumstantial hardships, like continual poverty, which can often put stress on and splinter human relationships. And not all relationships are uncomplicated; most contain their own disappointments and stressors.

Bizarrely enough, the character of Rosedale, to me, is the great achievement of the book, although I suspect Wharton herself would not have seen it this way. He is presented initially in the book as a Jewish business man on the make: "a plump rosy man of the blond Jewish type, with smart London clothes fitting him like upholstery, and small sidelong eyes which gave him the air of appraising people as if they were bric-a-brac" (Ch. 1). There are a number of small but distinct ethnic slurs (phrases like "the instincts of his race") embedded in the text, and then there is Lily's disgust with Rosedale's manner and clearly mercantile view of the world.

Throughout the book there is a strong contrast between the aristocratic elite and the up-and-comer nouveau-riche: the circle of the Gryces, Trenors and even the unscrupulous Berthe Dorset, are presented as innately superior to the upwardly mobile Brys, Gormers, and Mrs. Hatch. Lily herself is the product of a higher, more cultured social background, with its tastes and expectations, but having lost the money to support the lifestyle. She attempts to master the offenses to her sensibilities that contact with the lower social classes produces in her as she moves downward through the social strata. But Rosedale, who if anything, personifies the monied social climbers who are infiltrating the New York elite, turns out to be one of the most likeable characters, because he is sincerely upset by Lily's circumstance, and pragmatic enough to be ready to do something for her, and honest enough to come to the point in a way that the more refined Lawrence Seldon is unable to speak out in the most critical moments. Lily, and the book, I think, conclude with holding Rosedale in a high respect, even though Wharton never glosses over his lack of good breeding. He is coarse, in his manners, in his speech, in his view of the world, but he is genuine and ready to act.

Wharton passes on, leaving the closing chapters for Seldon to make his appearance at Lily's bedside (and wish he had said or done something sooner). There is some romantic nonsense about feeling closer to her in death than he had in life ("at least he HAD loved her...if the moment had been fated to pass from them before they could seize it, he saw now that, for both, it had been saved whole out of the ruin of their lives.") But I think it is remarkable that Wharton, along the way, showed a human and even admirable side, to a repellent character who continued to hold the basest, most avaricious view of life as an exchange of goods.