The House of Mirth
Publication Date: August 10, 1999
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Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all timeIn The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton depicts the glittering salons of Gilded Age New York with precision and wit, even as she movingly portrays the obstacles that impeded women's choices at the turn of the century.
The beautiful, much-desired Lily Bart has been raised to be one of the perfect wives of the wealthy upper class, but her spark of character and independent drive prevents her from becoming one of the many women who will succeed in those circles. Though her desire for a comfortable life means that she cannot marry for love without money, her resistance to the rules of the social elite endangers her many marriage proposals. As Lily spirals down into debt and dishonor, her story takes on the resonance of classic tragedy. One of Wharton's most bracing and nuanced portraits of the life of women in a hostile, highly ordered world, The House of Mirth exposes the truths about American high society that its denizens most wished to deny. With an introduction by Pamela Knights.
The upper stratum of New York society into which Edith Wharton was born in 1862 provided her with an abundance of material as a novelist but did not encourage her growth as an artist. Educated by tutors and governesses, she was raised for only one career: marriage. But her marriage, in 1885, to Edward Wharton was an emotional disappointment, if not a disaster. She suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns in 1894. In spite of the strain of her marriage, or perhaps because of it, she began to write fiction and published her first story in 1889.
Her first published book was a guide to interior decorating, but this was followed by several novels and story collections. They were written while the Whartons lived in Newport and New York, traveled in Europe, and built their grand home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. In Europe, she met Henry James, who became her good friend, traveling companion, and the sternest but most careful critic of her fiction. The House of Mirth (1905) was both a resounding critical success and a bestseller, as was Ethan Frome (1911). In 1913 the Whartons were divorced, and Edith took up permanent residence in France. Her subject, however, remained America, especially the moneyed New York of her youth. Her great satiric novel, The Custom of the Country was published in 1913 and The Age of Innocence won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.
In her later years, she enjoyed the admiration of a new generation of writers, including Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In all, she wrote some thirty books, including an autobiography. A Backwards Glance (1934). She died at her villa near Paris in 1937.
With an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick,
Contemporary Reviews, and Letters
Between Edith Wharton and Her Publisher
" A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys."--Edith Wharton
Lily Bart knows that she must marry--her expensive tastes and mounting debts demand it--and, at twenty-nine, she has every artful wile at her disposal to secure that end. But attached as she is to the social world of her wealthy suitors, something in her rebels against the insipid men whom circumstances compel her to charm.
"Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape," Lily muses as she contemplates the prospect of being bored all afternoon by Percy Grice, dull but undeniably rich, "on the bare chance that he might ulti-
mately do her the honor of boring her for life?" Lily is distracted from her prey by the arrival of Lawrence Selden, handsome, quick-witted, and penniless. A runaway bestseller on publication in 1905, The House of Mirth is a brilliant romantic novel of manners, the book that established Edith Wharton as one of America's greatest novelists.
" A tragedy of our modern life, in which the relentlessness of what men used to call Fate and esteem, in their ignorance, a power beyond their control, is as vividly set forth as ever it was by Aeschylus or Shakespeare." --The New York Times
Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in
1920 for The Age of Innocence. But it was the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 that marked Wharton's coming-of-age as a writer.