Filed under: Books
My library copy of The House of Mirth was partly read by an enthusiastic underliner; partly only as the pencil marks stop around page 73. The underliner also provided some marginalia, most of it boring, but with some personality-suggesting bits. She (and I am entirely stereotyping here with my guess as to this reader’s gender) underlined the following on page 57: “Silverton…had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles.” The reader commented in the margins with “me,” then added below, “Lol. How can one be critical of truffles?” I could almost smell the chocolate emanating from the pages that this invisible reader had turned before me.
I read The House of Mirth with eagerness at first, then dread as Wharton dragged her character deeper and deeper into a quagmire. There’s some writing advice for novelists: get a girl in trouble, then get her out again. Wharton missed the last part. I stopped reading for a few weeks, then spurred on by the looming library due date, I raced to the end. Though the big flashing foreshadowing fifty pages or so before the end left no further doubt as to Lily Bart’s outcome, I still read hoping that my friends R. and M. were wrong and that Selden somehow swoops in to save the day.
Since finishing the book, I now want to re-read it, at a much later date when my depression for Lily’s fate subsides. I revised my initial opinion that it was a pretty good book to it was a very good book.
Wharton was a brilliant writer. Does anyone know of a contemporary writer who can write as insightfully about merdeufs and hipsters and right-wing nutjobs?
A few of my favourite quotes from The House of Mirth:
- She wanted to get away from herself, and conversation was the only means of escape she knew. (Page 18)
- Mr. Gryce was like a merchant whose warehouses are crammed with an unmarketable commodity. (Page 21)
- But she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life. (Page 27)
- To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor. (Page 39)
- Mrs. Trenor was a tall fair woman, whose height just saved her from redundancy. (Page 42)
- It was difficult to define her beyond saying that she seemed to exist only as a hostess, not so much from any exaggerated instinct of hospitality as because she could not sustain life except in a crowd. (Page 42, also describing Mrs. Trenor.)
- “…It’s rather clever of her to have made a specialty of devoting herself to dull people – the field is such a large one, and she has it practically to herself.” (Page 43)
- “…It’s much safer to be fond of dangerous people.” (Page 46)
- One of the conditions of citizenship is not to think too much about money, and the only way not to think about money is to have a great deal of it. (Page 72)
- [She] behaved as though she thought a house ought to keep clean of itself, without extraneous assistance. (Page 106)
- No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity… (Page118)
- Selden senior had an eye for a picture, his wife an understanding of old lace; and both were so conscious of restraint and discrimination in buying that they never quite knew how it was that the bills mounted up. (Page 161)
- The man who built it came from a milieu where all the dishes are put on the table at once. His façade is a complete architectural meal; if he had omitted a style his friends might have thought the money had given out. (Page 168)
- “Peas?” said Mr. Bry contemptuously. “Can they cook terrapin? It just shows,” he continued, “what these European markets are, when a fellow can make a reputation cooking peas.” (Page 193)
- It certainly simplified life to view it as a perpetual adjustment, a play of party politics, in which every concession had its recognized equivalent. (Page 271)
- The situation between them was one which could have been cleared up only by a sudden explosion of feeling; and their whole training and habit of mind were against the chances of such an explosion. (Page 293)
- It was a meagre enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff – a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss. (Page 337)