Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exquisite Bracelets for Manacles

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905; republished by Simon & Schuster, 1995) 462 pages

Lily Bart. Still, her life haunts me as a lover of Edith Wharton's fiction. Not for me Countess Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence) or Mattie (Ethan Frome) or Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country). They all pale before Lily Bart. As I turn the pages of the novel once again, I still hope, fruitlessly, that she eludes her unhappy fate.

As the novel begins Lily is now 29 and has missed (or avoided) a few opportunities to marry "well" in her aristocratic circle during the Gilded Age of New York. She is captive to her materialistic desires and to the expectations of the repressive upper crust amongst which she moves.Wharton recognizes the type too well:
She was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.
Lily's dispirited father lost his fortune then slowly died (much to the disdain of his wife and daughter) leaving the Bart women at the mercy of rich relatives. Then Mrs. Bart too succumbs and Mrs. Peniston, Lily's paternal aunt, reluctantly agrees to take Lily on. She likes seeing Lily well dressed (as it reflected well on her aunt) and so would pay for her dressmaking needs but the young woman remained largely dependent on the charity or largess of her rich friends. And she develops expensive habits like playing bridge with her wealthy friends and wagering too much.

From the opening pages we meet the two men who will have the most influence on Lily Bart's life: Lawrence Selden, a fellow aristocrat living in more modest circumstances who admires Lily and Simon Rosedale, who is depicted as a nouveau riche interloper into high society who has his eye on Lily as pretty trophy wife with an entree into the best society.

When Lily visits Selden at his bachelor flat at the Benedick building she is being indiscreet by the standards of the day; a young unmarried woman visiting the home of a bachelor even though it is only to rest before her train trip to visit friends in the country. The seeds of her demise are sown here. Someone else has seen her at the building and means to take advantage of this information. They do. They assume that there is some sort of covert relationship between Lily and Lawrence.

There is an obvious attraction between Lawrence and Lily. He is drawn to her great beauty and wit; she values his honesty, intelligence and integrity. But there is an impediment. Lawrence cannot provide the wealth and security that Lily seeks in a husband as he well knows. He sees through her charms too well, sees all her manipulations and coquetry toward the male sex and the great hypocritical machinery of the aristocracy into which they were both born.

At Bellomont, the country home of her friends the Trenors where she was heading before she met Lawrence, Lily braces herself to try and tempt the very rich, very boring Percy Gryce. She cannot steel herself to it although she makes a few coy attempts to entrap him, posing as a modest, non-smoking, non-bridge playing, simple sort of girl. Some nobler element in her psyche won't permit Lily to subject herself to the degradation of marrying purely for money even though that is what is expected of her, what she even expects of herself. As her friend casually notes:
That's Lily all over...she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she over-sleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.

She misses her chance with Percy Gryce who has been poisoned by the well-placed,inscreet mutterings of Bertha Dorset who also has eyes for Lawrence and resents his interest in Lily. It will not be her only act of vengeance.

Simon Rosedale is a sinister new phenomenon for the old New York families of affluent Anglo and Dutch-Anglo aristocrats. As a Jew he represents a foreign element which is encroaching upon the effete and often defenseless members of Lily's class (defenseless in that they are seemingly no longer capable of hard work which they now view with contempt). Rosedale has drive, ambition, increasing wealth. His character is treated unsympathetically by Wharton, with overt racial disdain, even as he prospers and climbs ahead of the circle he wishes to join. He is perceived as vulgar and grasping, conforming to well worn and unpleasant stereotypes surrounding Jews.

Lawrence becomes more enraptured with Lily when she poses in a tableau vivant as Mrs. Lloyd in Joshua Reynolds' portrait Mrs. Richard Bennett Lloyd (1775) (detail of the painting to the right). This was an upper crust entertainment where the members of the party dressed and posed as famous individuals in celebrated paintings. Lily causes somewhat of a scandalized twitter amongst her friends with her beauty and the form fitting attire she dons for the tableau.

Despite some of Lily's societal successes, as she is widely admired for her social grace and beauty, Lily falters when she tries to alleviate her financial woes by asking Gus Trenor, the husband of her good friend Judy, for assistance in investments. He takes her small pittance and returns it to her handsomely and Lily, naively, suspects nothing. Lily thinks some harmlessly flirtatious remarks will be enough to reward and pacify Gus.

She is mistaken. He expects a great deal more.

It was part of the game to make [Gus] feel her appeal had been an uncalculated impulse, provoked by the liking he inspired; and the renewed sense of power in handling men, while it consoled her wounded vanity, helped also to obscure the thought of the claim at which his manner hinted.

One night, Gus tricks Lily into coming to the Trenor home. He wants payback for his generosity. Once Lily understands this she quickly leaves and to her great misfortune Lawrence inadvertently sees her late night departure and misconstrues the relationship between the two.

Lily spends a dreadful night tortured by what she sees as her future...she has become a toy of the powerful, malicious elements in her crowd - to be used by both the men and women whom she presumed to be her friends. The men now see her as vulnerable, perhaps desperate, due to her financial insecurities. The women see her a tool to be used in social situations because she is beautiful, relatively young and pliable.

The scene, set dead centre in the novel and representing a personal climax for Lily and the reader, is written in a somewhat overwrought manner as Lily pictures her worries as furies which pursue her right to the door of her friend Gerty Farish but the threat is real enough. Lily is unfortunately establishing a reputation as a young female who is preying on the married men in her circle because of her financial woes. As such her prospects for a reputable marriage dwindle, her circle of protective allies shrinks. The first priority is the protection of wealth, when an outsider (or an insider) threatens that, it is he or she who is expelled, not the wrongdoer.

That episode with Trenor, and the newly malicious chatter surrounding Lily, persuades Lawrence to not keep an appointment the next day where he was to profess his love to Lily. Instead he leaves for the Riviera on last minute business without a word to Lily.

Lily, in desperation, requests financial assistance from her aunt to remove herself from the obligations to Trenor; Mrs. Peniston indignantly refuses. The subject is closed. Money, and the lack of it, is one of many things which may not be discussed.

By a stroke of luck (to Lily's fevered mind) she is invited to spend some weeks on a Mediterranean cruise on the yacht of George and Bertha Dorset. The usually unfriendly Bertha (who still harbors ill feelings towards Lily) has a motive for this - she wants Lily to entertain her husband while she continues her fairly open dalliance with a young poet named Ned Silverton. But that, too, backfires for Lily when the scales fall from George's eyes and he realizes that Bertha is having an affair with said poet and leans on Lily for emotional support.

Bertha's behavior serves as a telling contrast to Lily - her extramarital behavior is notorious but she remains protected under the mantle of her marriage and her great wealth. Lily's supposed transgressions, which are minor to non-existent, elicit ostracization and snickering contempt from her "friends".

Bertha contrives to create a fictitious controversy around Lily and forbids her to return to the Dorset yacht. Even Lily's relations who are vacationing nearby are reluctant to associate with her so Lily must shamefacedly leave. She returns to New York to find that her aunt has died and disinherited her - leaving her a small sum which will only cover her debt to Trenor. But the legacy, ten thousand - almost the exact sum to be repaid to Trenor - shall not be paid for many months.

Lily also finds that, due to her extended travel, Bertha's poison has preceded her and members of her circle have swallowed Bertha's lie whole that Lily was trying to come between Bertha and George. So Lily is further removed from her small rarefied group. Bertha is more wealthy, more powerful, and people are afraid to alienate her. Lily drifts into a circle which is considered to be more déclassé - the Gormers, the newly rich, the scheming-to-be-richer rich, those who aspire to be the Bertha Dorsets of Lily's world. In this crowd, Lily merely serves as a flunky, a social secretary to one Norma Hatch, as she is in dire need of money now.

Gillian Anderson as Lily in The House of Mirth (2000). The choice of Anderson 
was intriguing as she so physically resembles the portraits of John Singer Sargent, the 
painter of "Mrs. Astors' Four Hundred". See the portraits of "Mrs. John D. 
Chapman", "Mrs. Waldorf Astor", "Alice Vanderbilt" and others in the slide show.

Selden is horrified by this turn of events. A young boy in their old circle, heir to a large fortune, has become involved with an older woman in the Gormer set who means to marry him. There is speculation that Lily is colluding with this new group to entice the boy into this relationship. At Lawrence's urging Lily leaves her position lest she be implicated in the brewing scandal but the damage is done.

Lily even seriously considers marrying Rosedale but he has risen too far now and she has sunk too low in his estimation, even for the still smitten Rosedale. He urges her to destroy Bertha's reputation as Berttha has destroyed hers. If she does, and Lily is reinstated with her old group of friends, Rosedale will marry her.

She lives in even more degraded circumstances, finally moving from her aunt's house to various hotels to a dreaded boardinghouse and taking up a position as a milliner making hats, a job she neither really masters nor loves. Lily who fears and dislikes dinginess, who gravitates towards beauty, is compelled to endure both her impoverished circumstances and the company of working girls who disdain her for her fall from grace.

Lily, who still harbors a secret about Bertha's past relationship with Lawrence, cannot bring herself to topple her enemy if it means Lawrence will be harmed. With the final payment of her legacy and her dismissal from the milliner's, Lily makes some fateful choices. She will pay her debt to Trenor and others and she will end her misery.

Edith Wharton
I understand that the Victorian pathos of the plot may be difficult to swallow for the modern reader. As Lily's situation degenerates, the pathos heightens as does the purple prose. Lily's choices sometimes seem inexplicable, the melodrama is perhaps cranked too high but Lily still pulls at one's heart. As Wharton repeatedly underlines, she is a victim of her circumstances and the society into which she was born. She was born only to please, to adorn, never taught skills or self-sufficiency. When her material world crumbles so does she - as admirable as she may appear in many ways, as admirable as she truly is.

Wharton's bravery still moves me. She could easily have remained in the rarefied circles of the very rich with no real obligations or responsibilities but perhaps her own marital troubles and the difficulty of extricating herself from them made her more sensitive to the gilded cages that women in her class belonged to.

Lily remains close to my heart, close to my secret desires and failures.


Cheryl said...

What an interesting story! I will have to read this.

Michelle said...

It's very moving Cheryl. If you get past the Victorian melodrama, the writing is beautiful and story very poignant.