Earlier this week, one of my favorite television shows, "Gossip Girl," ended after six seasons. The program, which spotlighted the lives of New York City's social elite, was influenced heavily by Edith Wharton's work. The characters once reenacted The Age of Innocence in a school play, and one couple in the show, Lily and Bart Bass, were named after the protagonist of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart.
Wharton was a perfect inspiration for the teen TV hit, since she grew up among the power-players. As I've stated in my review of The Age of Innocence, her family originated the saying "keeping up with the Joneses." This Pulitzer Prize-winning author became the voice of the wealthiest Americans of the early 20th century.
The House of Mirth (1905) begins with Lily Bart, a single woman in her late 20s, suffering from gambling debt. Raised by a father who experienced financial ruin and a mother who resented him for their "dingy" lifestyle, Lily is a on a mission to find a rich husband.
Lily knows just how beautiful she is, so she decides to work her feminine charms on multiple prospects. There's Percy Gryce, a well-to-do but dull bachelor; Gus Trenor, a married man who helps with Lily's investments; and Lawrence Selden, a man with passion instead of a fortune.
Book One does an excellent job of introducing the many characters, with plenty of details about their family backgrounds, financial situations, and style of dress. Fitting into this elite world proves increasingly more difficult, given that every little mistake is noted and gossiped around town at lightning speed. Lily's confidence in scaling the social ladder fluctuates every day, depending on whether she garners male attention and a steady income.
On one hand, you want Lily to achieve happiness, but on the other, you have to shake your head at her foolish methods. Her vanity gives her a sense of entitlement, and her penchant for flirting with men for money without acknowledging the danger of that exchange gets her into even more trouble.
I'm a sucker for 'fallen woman' stories which highlight the battle between love and money, but as I'm halfway through this novel, I must say that although The House of Mirth is a well-written critique of New York's upper class, it doesn't hold up against The Age of Innocence. There's enough drama and backstabbing in this literary soap opera, but so far it lacks the romance as seen between Newland and Ellen.
Lily reminds me of Madame Bovary, in the sense that both women play a large role in their respective demises. Even though the novels don't have the fast-paced action many modern readers require, I love the social commentary because I feel that much of it is still relevant today. We are often just as concerned with reputation as these characters of 100 years ago. And as much as we'd like to think we choose significant others out of love, finances are still important in making and maintaining marriages.