Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth (1905)

The House of Mirth

It took me far over two months to decide whether I wanted to review The House of Mirth or not. For some reasons, I found this book profoundly disturbing.

While reading  The House of Mirth I felt like I was watching a fly getting trapped in a spider’s web. At first, when they notice that they are trapped, they wiggle frantically, hoping to be able to free themselves but, in doing so, entangle themselves even more. Comparing the stunningly beautiful Lily Bart to a fly isn’t doing her any justice, but the way she’s trapped by the society she lives in, and the way in which she tries to free herself, is not much different from the poor fly. I’m still a bit shocked. I knew nothing about The House of Mirth and to find that Lili Bart is just as tragic – maybe even more so – as Effi Briest or Mme Bovary (only without the adultery), came as a huge surprise.

Lily Bart comes from a formerly rich family who has lost everything, Her parents are dead and Lily depends on a rich aunt and her friends. She spends a lot of time at her aunt’s New York home or at the country houses of her friends, on the Hudson. Lily is lucky; she’s stunningly beautiful and people like to adorn their parties and evenings with her. She is also a great conversationalist. Everyone is sure she is going to marry rich but the years go by, Lily is already 29, and she still hasn’t settled.

At the beginning of the novel, she meets the lawyer Lawrence Selden. Lily clearly fancies him but since he’s not rich, she doesn’t think of getting married to him. Accidentally meeting at the train station is surprising for both of them and it triggers something reckless in Lily. She spontaneously decides to follow him home for a cup of tea. Something that would be of no consequences nowadays sets in motion Lily’s downfall and shows how much it costs her at all times to play by the rules. The visit is harmless enough. Lily and Selden chat and speak about mutual acquaintances. The tragedy is set in motion because Lily bumps into someone on her way out and abashedly lies about where she’s been. What follows is a series of bad decisions (on Lily’s side) and shameless exploitation, petty jealousy and revenge (on the society’s side). The story has a lot in common with a Greek tragedy in which the heroes fail inevitably.

As much as some elements of the plot shocked me, I loved this book. The prose is luminous, the descriptions are masterful. I went over many passages repeatedly, before moving forward. The book is written from different points of view, each adding another element, another voice. Selden’s passages are analytical, while Lily’s are far more descriptive and atmospheric.

I found Lily Bart one of the most interesting fictional characters because she’s such a bundle of contradictions and – in many ways – her own worst enemy. At least in the beginning. From a 21st Century perspective one is tempted to condemn her at first. But her upbringing really didn’t equip her for an independent life. She has examples of people around her who are independent, but they are outside of the society whose member Lily wishes to stay. Still, they could inspire her and they do eventually, only by then it’s too late then. What makes Lily endearing, is the way she self-sabotages herself constantly, because these acts of sabotage show that she’s not that corrupted, that she actually despises the society she lives in.

The biggest shock is to see how especially women contribute to Lily’s undoing and how much they relish watching her going down. The House of Mirth is an illustration that – I hate to say this – as long as women actively contribute to undermine, discredit and harm other women – out of jealousy or envy – there will never be true gender equality.

I’ve read The Age of Innocence, Ethan Frome and Mme de Treymes, three very different books, which are all great, but none of them quite equals The House of Mirth. I’m pretty sure, I will re-read it. Now that I know the story, I’ll be enjoying the writing even more.

77 thoughts on “Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth (1905)

  1. The Custom of the Country is my favourite Wharton but this one is near the top of the list. Yes, I think Wharton hits on something very special here when she captures how society works to undermine individual choices, and also, the way that women are the hardest on Lily Bart.

    • Good to know, that might me my next one then. Although, I think, I’ve got another one somewhere.
      The women are positively scary in this book. Unfortunately I’ve witenessed and experienced similar things. I suppose that’s why the book shocked me.
      I was wondering – have you seen any of the films? The choices for Lily are a bit weir.

      • I have a copy of the film, but I haven’t watched it yet. Gillian Anderson is supposed to be fantastic as Lily. I must watch it some time.

  2. Excellent review. I’ve yet to read any Wharton (I’ve only ever got halfway through Ethan Frome) but I can see I must do so soon!

    • Thanks, Karen. I’m sure you’ll like her very much. Ethan Frome is quite different and so bleak. It was good but I didn’t really like it. This one is dark in its theme but the setting is luminous. And Lily Bart is a great character.

  3. I like that your review emphasizes the interplay of individual needs (and mistakes) and an irrational social system. Poor Lily cannot rise about her situation to see how she is betraying herself until too late. Wharton does a masterful job in making us feel for Lily, in spite of her imperfections.

    • That’s how I felt about the book exactly. I liked how she played with the ambivalence. Our ambivalnece torwads Lily’s and her own. Its’ chilling to watch her go down.

  4. Hi, Caroline. I’ve read “The Custom of the Country,” “The Age of Innocence,” and “The House of Mirth,” and not “Madame de Treymes,” but I have to confess I don’t like Edith Wharton’s society novels as much as I like Henry James’s. He, of course, was her model for what she did, but for some reason I can bear such longueurs as occur in his better than I can those in hers. I am by contrast extremely fond of “Ethan Frome,” and think it one of the best early modernist novels around. I know this evaluation is almost exactly opposite how you feel about them, by what you say, and I think from that that you are perhaps a more careful and exact reader than I and pick up on things that are more intellectual in the book. Any time I read a book where I feel a lot of pain behind the author’s writing, it alienates me a bit, because it’s as if the author is being sadistic not just toward the characters, but toward the reader, expecting the reader to be abused in his or her feelings for the characters to an extent I can’t tolerate. This, I suspect, is a very naive way of reading, to relate to the characters so closely, but it seems to me that in “Ethan Frome,” the pain is more crystallized, better realized artistically with less emotional remainder to drain into the reader, if that makes any sense at all. It may not; I can be whimsical in my likes and dislikes as much as the next person.

    • I find this a very interesting comment and funnily -I’ve started a review about a month ago in which in which I wondered whether Wharton didn’t secretly relish Lily’s (and other women character’s downfall) – for the very same reasons the women in the novel do. Since that was such a wild assumption, i moved away from it, in the end.
      Inspite of my praise of this and other Wharton novels – Henry James is the one I prefer if I have to choose. Some of his novels are written in a tedious style but the others are among my very favourite books. Now, The House of Mirth comes very close to his best, I think.
      I’m sensitive to moods and atmopsheres in novels and the atmosphere in Ethan Frome was more oppressing and it was quite violent.

      • Have you seen the movie version of “Ethan Frome”? I’m not sure after all this time, but I think Liam Neeson was the male star in it. You’re right, it’s violent, even less so in a way relating to physicality than in a way relating to emotional unrelentlessness and repression. I can’t really explain why I like it best; I guess I can take it better when a male protagonist suffers in fiction for something, however well inspired and inspirited, that he’s done rather than when a woman author makes a female character suffer endlessly, though there is of course the unremitting suffering of the girl in the story? Your remark about Wharton possibly wanting to punish her female characters I find intriguing.

        • Maybe it’s unkind to think that way about Wharton but aren’t most of heroines very pretty or beautiful and they all somehow pay for it? Maybe she wass just a keen observer but maybe it was more. Hard to tell. I haven’t seen the movie version of Ethan Frome. Liam Neeson is a good choice.
          There was just something that I found very raw in Ethan Frome.

          • Yes, the weather for one thing was raw New England weather and it was depressing in the movie when it snowed too. It was as if the characters had imbibed the cold and the granite; in fact, I believe it says something in the book about the granite having entered their souls, or some such. But I found the inset narrators a good functional device to help distance some of the pain, and it was interesting to see a more elevated societal figure such as occurs in the other novels looking on at a scene of common life. I think the contrast is what saved it for me, in the book at least.

            • I’m very sensitive to weather descriptions. I think, now that you mention that, that dragged me down. There isn’t a lot of beauty in the world, while the settings in The House of Mirth are all so grand and beautiful.
              One could understand why she didn’t want to leave it. Lily loved beauty more than anything.
              I don’t remember the granite compariosn in Ethna Frome but it makes sense.

  5. Glad that you wrote this outstanding commentary Caroline.

    I found this book to me moving and disturbing as well. Your fly in the spider web metaphor is very appropriate. The entire feel to Lily’s decline really created a sick feeling for me when I read this. Part of that feeling was driven by the fact that, as you allude, Lilly seems so complex and real.

    I understand vacillating upon writing blogs on books that really bother you. Lately I have been thinking about this as I have had a similar experience. Sometimes I think it is better to keep some of our reactions out of the public sphere.

    • Thanks, Brian. It’s not a book that lets one cold, is it? I always thought, she’d be able to get out of the mess. Maybe not end up married to Selden but independent.
      It took so little to make her fall but I think its a very accurate description.
      I’m glad I waited a few months. That way, I wasn’t tempted to overshare. But I’ve read quite a few books, non-fiction mostly, that I don’t even review, for that reason. I can understand were you’re coming from.

  6. Beautiful review, Caroline! I have this book on my shelf but haven’t read it yet. Nice to know that you loved it and Wharton’s prose is beautiful and the story is wonderful though a bit bleak. I don’t know what the ending of the story is and what happens to Lily and I can’t wait to find out. I hope it is not as bad as what happened to Emma Bovary and hope that maybe there is a silver lining as how it looks like to Scarlett O’Hara. Your thoughts on how sometimes women might undermine other fellow women were very powerful and thought-provoking.

    • Thank you, Vishy. I hope you’ll read it soon. I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m not going to say anything about the ending.
      I loved the descriptions of those wonderful houses. And places. I could understand that growing up in this environment of elegance, Lily didn’t want to let go.
      It’s something that has made me sad more than once – to see how cruel women can be to other women.

  7. Yes! It’s a really disturbing book, and for all the reasons you mention – the way that society stacks the deck of cards against some people, Lily’s tendency to self-sabotage, and the vindictiveness of women who feel that in order to maintain their status they must destroy others. It’s a car crash book from what I recall of it – you have to keep reading, even though you know in your gut it will only get worse. Great review, Caroline. I am a big Wharton fan and recommend also The Mother’s Recompense if you can get hold of it.

    • Thank you, Litlove and thanks for the recommendation as well. I was at first not sure if I should say how disturbed I was. It seemed an extreme reaction but I see I’m not alone.
      It’s a total car crash story. It shows so well how a combination of seemingly small things can build up and turn into a major tragedy.

  8. I’ve never read this but I do remember watching the film adaptation some years ago and was quite affected by the storyline too just from the film, so I don’t know if I’d brave the book. This is a lovely, thoughtful review. Lindsay

    • Thanks, Lindsay. It was quite an experience. I’m sure it works well as a movie too. I hoped until the end that things would turn out differently. Maybe once you know the story, it’s easier to read. It has such wonderful passages.

  9. Great review – I have this book on my shelves and reading your review makes me want to pick it up! I’ve yet to read any of Wharton’s society novels, but I thought Ethan Frome an excellent novella.

    • Thanks, Jaqui. I hope you’ll like it. I find her society novels wonderful but they are dark as well. Maybe I’d have to read Etan Frome again some day. I liked the books with a city setting better.

  10. I read Madame Bovary last month as part of a read-along, and several reviewers drew parallels between Emma Bovary and Lily Bart. It’s interesting that you are mentioning the two in the same sentence as well. I am planning to read The House of Mirth fairly soon, but I am still recovering from The Age of Innocence — my new favorite book.

    • I loved that too when I read it but I think I like this one even more.
      There’s a similarity with Mme Bovary but I find the tow characters very different. I didn’t really pity Mme Bovary. Far less also the Effi Briest.

    • I hope you will like her. She writes really well. I thought this one was stunning. Very unexpected. I could imagine you’d like Ethan Frome as well.

  11. I love Edith Wharton and by chance I had picked up The Custom of the Country this weekend as my classic (following poor Balzac). I think Undine Spragg is going to be a most intriguing heroine–and I get the feeling she will not be especially likable, which should make an interesting comparison to Eugene Rastignac–another social climber. I went through a big Edith Wharton phase in my 20s, but there are a number of her books I never did get to–House of Mirth also being one of them. I think The Age of Innocence is one of my favorite novels and have read it at least three times. She is someone you can read and read and always get something out of–and even these car crash sorts of stories or books with difficult characters are so good to read! You write about it really well and make me want to read this one next now!

    • Thanks, Danielle. I’m sure you’d love this but it’s really bleak. The Age of Innocence isn’t as dark. I’ll have to re-read it.
      I remember Emma’s review of The Custom of the Country and Undine Spragg seems to be really unlikable. Lily’s not but I had moment in which I wanted to shake her.
      I looked at the book Litlove mentions and that should be a great book too. I was tempted by Hudson River Bracketed but it’s so long. I might read it anyway. As soon as I’ve picked the last from my piles. 🙂

  12. I’m glad you liked it! It’s one of my favourite books, and probably my favourite Wharton novel. I really like the way Wharton skewers patriarchal hypocrisy. I tried to watch the House of Mirth movie but I thought it was fairly terrible. Gillian Anderson didn’t channel Lily very well and I decided to stop watching so as not to spoil my memory of her.

    • I’m glad to hear that you feel the same. It’s an utterly hypocrite world, isn’t it. And to be trapped in it.
      I could imagine it will be my favourite as well. I won’t bother watching the m ovie. there’s an older version with Geraldine Chaplin. I think she’s a good actress but I never pictured Lily like her. Nor Gillian Anderson.

  13. Caroline,
    I so admired your review of House of Mirth. Brava. I think you are right on about all of your observations of the gender and cultural dynamics in the book. It’s one of hers that I’d very much like to read again.
    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

  14. I read this book years ago , but still feel traumatised by what happened to Lily and the choices she made.
    I’ve been hosting a Wharton review this month on my blog and I’ve been reading Wharton’s bio and memoir. Her relationship with her mother was very problematic all her life – I’m still trying to work out how that then played out in her portrayal of women in her novels.

    • I’m relived to see I wasn’t overreacting. It made me feel bad for a long time and redminded me of some bad things in my life- one of which the dreadful relationship with my mother. So I’m very glad for this comment.
      I should maybe explore her biography. Some elements of the book make perfect sense in light of this.
      I didn’t know about a Wharton month. Too bad. I’ll have a look.

      • Here’s the link for The Wharton Review masterpost (it’s not too late!) http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/2014/05/the-wharton-review-may-2014.html
        Edith obviously has some issues of her own – including a dud marriage, affairs, and numerous lifelong close friendships with gay men.

        I’ve just started reading about her marriage – it’s quite confusing, esp as her memoirs tell her story exactly as she wanted them told (ie carefully edited) and she had the habit of destroying all correspondences with people when they died, so there is no record of their relationship.
        I understand her need and concerns about privacy, but as a lover of her books it is very frustrating!

        • Thank you for the link. I’m afraid, I won’t be able to contribute anything else but I’m following you on bloglovin now, so I’ll see when you organize another event.
          Yes, it is frustrating when you’d like to know more but I get her wish for privacy as well. It must have been twice as frustrating for a biographer.

  15. I loved this book. The writing is beautiful and Lily is quite a character. Most of the time I thought she made poor decisions and I was squirming in my chair waiting to see how it would play out. I recently read Ethan Frome. I enjoyed it, but I still think this is her best that I’ve read. Now I need to find the time to review Ethan.

    • It’s a very special book but not easy to read. I was telling myself all the time – it’s just a book – get a grip. But it did affect me.
      I want to read more of her and her biography as well.
      I’m looking forward to your Ethan Frome review. It will refresh my memory.
      Good luck with your move. Such an annoying thing to happen.

  16. Excellent review, Caroline. I wanted to like this book so much because of the writing, but I just didn’t. Since she was a member of the upper class, Wharton had a front-row seat and made great use of it. But I prefer the writings or her close friend, Henry James.
    Haven’t read Ethan Frome since high school, but I did like that one.

    • Thanks, Carole. It’s hard to read but I still liked it. At first maybe not so much because I resented her for how she ended the book.
      I think I also prefer Henry James. I thought Ethan Frome was well done but too gloomy for me.

  17. Excellent point! regarding women doing a disservice to other women.

    I need to reread HoM, too. When I first read it, I only focused on the plot, and how painful it was to follow Lily, but I did not fully absorb Wharton’s masterful use of language.

    • I felt the same way. i could appreciate the writing but it was often just overshadowed by the plot. Especially since I’ve never read a summary or anything about it and was totally unprepared.

  18. Sorry I’m late to this post! I really enjoyed your review and agree with your perspective. I find this story just as relevant today as it was 100 years ago with regard to how society treats women and how women treat each other.
    It took me so long to read the novel because I kept going back to reread passages. The pages of my book are all turned over and highlighted.

    • It’s surprising how relevant it still is and sad as well. I read it pretty quickly but then needed a lot of time to process it.
      It’s a book that makes a huge impression, that’s for sure.

  19. Great review Caroline. Depressing isn’t it that it continues to have any relevance?

    I was actually undecided between whether this or Custom of the Country would be my next Wharton. Oddly, after reading your review it’ll be Custom, because my last was Ethan Frome and I’m not sure I fancy two narratives by her about people caught like animals in a trap in a row. Custom then this I think.

    • Thanks, Max. Yes, utterly depressing. I haven’t read The Custom of the Country, so I can’t really say much. However, I think that this is a great companion to The Age of Innocence.
      I didn’t think it was as bleak as Ethan Frome. I’ll be looking for your thoughts on either of them.

  20. Hi, Caroline. You mention that you haven’t read “The Custom of the Country.” In some ways, it’s a lighter work than either “The Age of Innocence” or “The House of Mirth.” While it’s not a walk in the park or a joyous party, it relies on broader social stereotypes (of Americans of the time in particular) and is therefore not without its moments of broad humor. It’s interesting too because it deals with the subject of divorce, and it’s odd how Wharton distances herself from the main female character (who gets divorced), considering her own history. You’d think she’d have more empathy, or at least sympathy. Perhaps she was saying to herself, “I certainly hope no one thinks I’m like THAT character!”

    • Interesting, Victoria. I found her lacking empathy in The House of Mirth as well. Maybe it’s a blind spot. Writer’s have blind spots. I wasn’t sure whether she tried to be partcularly truthful or if she didn’t somehow agree with the society for punishing Lily. I’ve heard that the main character in The Custom, unlike Lily, is very unlikable. I’ll probabyl read it sooner or later as well. At the moment I’m tempted by Hudson River Bracketed. Have you read that as well?

  21. To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve never even HEARD of “Hudson River Bracketed.” Is that Wharton too? Is it a series of sketches, or is it a full work? Or is it short stories (I ask about the sketches because at the time she was writing, travel sketching–in words as well as pictures–was very popular. Henry James did a lot of it too. Frankly, I find nothing more boring than reading HJ on the places he’s visited; his words are lovely and ornate, but I’d rather read about places I myself have seen than about places I missed. He makes me feel envious, and that’s a nasty feeling to have!)? Maybe Wharton is better, if it’s travel sketches.

    • No, it’s anovel. I discovered it recently because I saw a new German translation and many reviews of it and then went huntig the English edition.

      Here’s the blurb
      “Naive young writer Vance Weston, convalescing by the Hudson River, meets Halo Spear and is fired by her passion for literature. They meet again, much later, and, with her rich, cultivated husband, Lewis Tarrant, she introduces him to New York’s literary and artistic circles. But an impulsive marriage has brought Vance poverty and unwelcome responsibilities which inhibit his writing until one summer, Halo inspires him to write the novel which makes his name. The conflict between New York sophistication and Midwestern naivety leads to painful dilemmas, involving both couples in perplexity and loss.”

      I think it sounds wonderful.

  22. Yes, it does at that! I think it’ll be especially interesting (and maybe the differences between the male protagonist and Wharton’s female protagonists will be significant) to see what she does with a male ingenu.

  23. I have read The Custom of the Country and enjoyed it. The novelist’s touch is lighter than in The House of Mirth. While the heroine is not exactly likeable, she did look out for her own interests and her appraisal of her social situation was realistic, mostly. You will find some good social humor. I loved the description of the aristocratic French women working away on their dreary embroideries and bored to tears — but sure they were the most superior characters on earth.

    • Thanks for this comment, Silver Season. Now I’m in the mood to pick it up. I’ll have to have a look at the chronological order of her books. Would like to know if she got lighter later or if she started that way.

  24. This is the next Wharton I’ll read. You need to read Custom of the Country. It’s a masterpiece, really.

    Contrary to male writers (like Henry James) Wharton has experienced woman pettiness first hand, as she’s been among women without the presence of men. (I mean that James being a man, the women he observed were probably in a better behaviour than they would have been without him in the room)
    This fact doesn’t change with more freedom: see what a spider web an office full of females can be sometimes.

    • You’re very right. James’ perspective was one of an outsider and even if he could put himslef in women’s shoes it’s quite different whe you haven’t had the experience.
      I know you liked The Custom of the Country very much. I really want to read it as well.

      • Actually, James was capable of a certain kind of “female” pettiness himself (I did my thesis on him and occasionally found myself smiling wryly at his spite), and some other male writer, i can’t think who it was now (probably someone like Hemingway or etc., who fancied himself the essence of manhood, or etc.) said something like “My favorite female writer is Henry James.” It shows that men can pass what they think are insults on other men, who have in their own way (like James) created female characters who are less than stellar in their characteristics as people. But I guess as far as James has any resemblance in his writing to “The Custom of the Country,” it’s in the question of class issues: the female character in “The Custom” is so clearly a James creation that Wharton might almost (though not quite) be accused of borrowing too heavily to create her. James had a lot to say about the way Americans of his time showed a lack of class and were crass and vulgar individuals, and Wharton is clearly of his frame of mind in creating the main characters in “The Custom” (I can’t seem to remember their names, sorry, but even those had a parodic, mid-Western jarring sound quality to them, names right out of James’s catalog of supposedly “vulgar” names, the name “Spragg” pops into mind, although why that should be considered any more vulgar than any other name I’ve no idea; it’s not exactly melifluous, but as Shakespeare said more famously “What’s in a name?”). Anyway, Is it Undine Spragg? Is memory at last coming to life? She is very like some Jamesian characters in the novels and tales, and though I admit Emma’s point that James and Wharton were respectively outsider and insider in terms of sex, I think they were in strong agreement on most issues of class.

        • Undine Spragg is the name of the heroin. “Undine” because of the French “ondulé” (curly). Her mother says “Why, we called her after a hair-waver father put on the market the week she was born–” Vulgar. In today’s France, the equivalent would be to be named Kimberly.

          PS: I loved the James novels I’ve read so far.

          • Yes, your memory of the book is better than mine. But the last names of the characters are significant too. As if “Undine,” poetic as it might otherwise be if it weren’t taken after a hair-curler, weren’t bad enough, James (and Wharton too, like him) sometimes choose names like “Spragg,” curt monosyllables that don’t have poetic sugggestiveness or mellifluous “flow” to them for characters who are not originally of the upper middle class, or who have acquired sudden wealth. Contrastingly, Wharton chooses the name “Lily Bart” for a character in her other novel, and though at first glance it might sound like “Undine Spragg” (poetic or very feminine first name coupled with monosyllabic last name), Lily’s birth, which is better than her circumstances, is suggested by the fact that “Bart” is an English abbreviation for “baronet.” I think the first James novel I read was “The Portrait of a Lady,” and it wrenched my heart, but I ended up finally working on “The Ambassadors,” which was one of James’s later novels. If you like that one, you might find a particular art work by the same title, with which James was almost certainly conversant, interesting: it’s a picture by Hans Holbein (and no, I can’t recall if he was “the Younger” or “the Elder”) in which two richly dressed men stand facing the viewer with a table in between them of worldly goods. What one misses at a casual glance is the distorted shape of a skull, indicating mortality, underneath the table. I got a few paragraphs out of that, I think, as I was wending my student’s neverending Jamesian path across the text! I like Wharton, but my feeling about her long novels (other than “Ethan Frome,” which I really love) has always been that she paid too much attention to James’s advice, and should have struck out on her own more. I feel that he intimidated her, and some part of that was at least half-way intentional, because James didn’t like competition all that much.

            • The Portrait of a Lady is one of my favourite books. I like it more than any Wharton novel. But I’m very fond of The Europeans as well.
              I haven’t read The Ambassadors. I’ll have to have a look at that Holbein painting.

              • Funnily enough, James once reproached Wharton for imitating him, and suggested that she write more from her own experience, but even though she was of wealthier background than he, they really were of the same world, so it’s sort of like James is saying (in a self-serving way) “Dahling, don’t imitate me; it’s so gauche of you! Write a little thing of your own, why don’t you!” (He could be a real b–ch!).

            • You know that in French, anglophone names often mean “lower social class” except for a few ones. (like Kevin because there are so many of them now) Lots of Ethans in my children generation.

              • I sometimes think the key to the whole book of “The Europeans” is in the remark James makes in it (which he has made elsewhere in his own voice in an essay or two) about the U.S. having a shortage of doors to shut off “the open doorways of home,” whereas European households (in his estimation) have lots of hidden compartments and recesses for privacy. He preferred the European style of architecture because it allowed for this same privacy, whether of one person alone or of more than one having a secret discussion. In the same way, “the Europeans” in his book of that title have a secret, and manage to keep it hidden most of the time from the Americans, whereas the Americans (to James) seem flat and without depth or interest of character, stern and plain. There’s more to the book than just that, of course, I don’t want to seem reductive, but I think it was a “key” to the door of James’s mind and suppositions. He always seemed to resent the publicity of the American style, and I can’t say that I always blame him.

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