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.

Henry James: Mme de Mauves (1874)

It was exactly one year ago that I reviewed Edith Wharton’s Mme de Treymes. Mme de Treymes – Mme de Mauves? Both novellas, both set in Paris, or in the case of Mme de Mauves in St-Germain-en-Laye. It’s hardly a coincidence. And who was influenced by whom is also not hard to find out as James wrote his novella in 1874, while Edith Wharton published Mme de Treymes in 1907.

Henry James and Edith Wharton are both novelists whose each and every book I would like to read sooner or later. Discovering Madame de Mauves of which I hadn’t known anything before was a real pleasure and the first sentences managed to capture me right away.

The view from the terrace at St.Germain-en-Laye is immense and famous. Paris lies spread before you in dusky vastness, domed and fortified, glittering here and there through her light vapours and girdled with her silver Seine. Behind you is a park of stately symmetry, and behind that a forest where you may lounge through turfy avenues and light-chequered glades and quite forget that you are in half an hour of the boulevards. One afternoon, however, in mid-spring, some five years ago, a young man seated at the terrace had preferred to keep this in mind. His eyes were fixed in idle wistfulness on the mighty human hive before him.

Like in Mme de Treymes we have the theme of intercontinental marriage and its difficulties. The young American Longmore, the narrator of Henry James’ novella, meets the beautiful and sad Mme de Mauves on one of his walks in St. Germain. A mutual friend introduces them and before leaving for London asks him to keep her company and distract her, as she is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Mme de Mauves is a young, very rich American woman, married to an aristocratic Frenchman. While she married because she romantically idealized the title, she also married for love, while he married her for the money only. It is known that he not only spends her money but has one affair after the other.

The more time Longmore  spends in her company, the more he admires her, pities her and finally falls in love with her. He would want her to confide in him but she refuses. As much as he is in love with her, he would never attempt anything and is taken aback when her sister-in-law suggests they should have an affair. It’s only natural, according to the sister-in-law, for a Frenchman to have affairs but it isn’t natural for a woman to make him one scene after the other and to torment him with reproaches. In an earlier conversation with Longmore, M de Mauves complains about his wife. He thinks that she is too morbid, to fond of reading and solitude.

A lot of what we find in James’ later novels can already be found here. The contrast of morals between France and America, the almost impossibility of a marriage between a rich American and an aristocratic Frenchman. Adultery. Divorce seems no option although Longmore hopes so at a certain point. I think it would be really great to read Wharton’s and James’ novella together. Both have drastic and surprising endings but in the case of Mme de Mauves, I’m not sure whether it isn’t surprising because it is implausible. If anyone has read the novella I’d love to discuss the ending.

It seems that of all of his novels The Golden Bowl is the most similar to this novella, although, without the tragic end. The negotiation that fails in Mme de Mauve is successful in The Golden Bowl, or so it seems. I have not read the Golden Bowl yet but would like to very much.

The writing in Mme de Mauves is complex, typical for James, it’s by far less readable than Mme de Treymes.

While this may not be his best work, it has reminded me of all I like in his writing and has certainly put me in the mood for another of his longer novels.

Has anyone read Mme de Mauves? Which are your favourite Henry James novels? Portrait of a Lady is one of my favourite novels but I also like many of his other books with the exception of The Turn of the Screw. I didn’t get along with that at all.

Edith Wharton: Madame de Treymes (1907) Novella with Parisian Setting

Madame de Treymes (Penguin 60s)

Set in Paris, Wharton’s 1907 novel explores the theme she and Henry James so often examined; the conflict between American innocence and corrupt Europe.

Even a short novel like Madame de Treymes (just 80 pages long) shows you what a masterful writer Edith Wharton was. This is the oldest of her novels that I have read so far. It came out after her enormous success The House of Mirth (1917) which I want to read very soon as well. The Age of Innocence (1920) and Ethan Frome (1911), both books that I have read, are later ones. Another one that I have found in my hopelessly overstuffed book shelves is Summer (1917).

Madame de Treymes has a Parisian setting which always appeals to me, as sentimental as this may be. It is a cruel little book and a very surprising one. All in all there is not a lot of description of the city itself, the novel rather offers an analysis of the society. It is interesting to see how Americans perceived the Parisian society and the differences in their respective values.

John Durham knew Mme de Malrive when she was still called Fanny Frisbee. Once a lively young American woman, she has become but a mere shadow of herself. She married into the Faubourg St Germain society, meaning Parisian upper-class. Stuffy, traditional and very unwelcoming to outsiders. She lives separated from her husband as he has cheated on her. She would like a divorce but is afraid to lose her son and doesn’t want to move him from Paris. Durham always liked Fanny and intends to marry her and, if needed, stay with her in Paris.

The only person Fanny trusts is Mme de Treymes, her sister-in-law, who disapproves as much of her brother as Fanny herself. Durham turns to her for help and what follows is a tragedy of manners, if I may say so.

This little story, as beautifully written as it is, made feel quite chilly. I am surprised to see that the Parisian upper-classes (to which I never belonged but am fairly familiar with) haven’t changed that much.

The differences between the American and the Parisian way of life is nowhere to be seen so well as when Durham and his sister visit Fanny at her house. The house, a rundown old mansion in a poky street, causes the follow exclamation from his sister:

“Well, if this is all she got by marrying a Marquis”.

Wealth meets status and it is funny to see how those down-to-earth rich Americans are absolutely not impressed with the shabby elegance they encounter. On the other hand, they were not aware of the power of ancestry and heritage which reignes in the society into which Fanny has married.

Durham felt, as he observed them, that he had never before known what “society” meant; nor understood that, in an organized and inherited system, it exists full-fledged where two or three of is members assembled.

But Wharton doesn’t only dissect the French society she also lays bare the lack of culture of some of the Americans.

To Mrs Durham, with her gentle tourist’s view of the European continent, as a vast museum in which the human multitudes simply furnished the element of costume, the Boykins seemed abysmally instructed, and darkly expert in forbidden things (…)

As the title indicates, Mme de Treymes is the central figure, the most complex character, much more than you can deduce from this post. She is also married to the wrong man and lives a scandalous life, having a  lover, yet she would never even think about leaving her husband. This would be too open a rebellion against the society of which she is a much more integral part than Durham and Fanny realize.

Mme de Treymes is a wonderful example of what an adept writer can achieve even in such a short form as the novella.

The topic of the American in Paris is interesting and would certainly be worth exploring further. Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and many more come to mind who wrote about it.

I think that to this day Paris is the city Americans are mostly likely to visit if they have to make a choice. At least that is what I have been told lately by different Americans. Maybe we could call this the “mythical Europe”.

Should you like to read another review of one of Edith Wharton’s books, Guy Savage just reviewed The Old Maid which rekindled my interest in Wharton that had unfortunately been dormant for a while. As soon as I get a chance I will continue with Summer and The House of Mirth. She is such a wonderful writer and one of a few where I could imagine reading everything she has written.

Which is your favourite Edith Wharton novel? I remember I liked The Age of Innocence a great deal.