< American Icons: The House of Mirth



Friday, October 29, 2010



KA intro:   Meet Lily.

PLAY SATC theme music up


She's a smart witty single woman—and a stunning beauty. She's at parties every night and on the prowl for a mate. But Lily is anxious about turning thirty and she struggles to manage her money, friendships, and romance.


Fade out SATC/bring up1890s music


This isn’t Sex and the City. It's New York in the late 1890s. And Lily is Lily Bart, from Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth.


The novel appeared in October 1905 and sold 140,000 copies its first year alone.  Today, selling one quarter that number would make a bestseller.


As part of our series on American Icons we set out to discover why Edith Wharton’s novel written at the turn of the 20th century feels so modern 105 years later.  Studio 360's Michele Siegel steps inside The House of Mirth.


Michele: So, um how many times have you read the book?

HH: prob 20x or more I’ve read it so many times and every time I see something dif in it

CB:  I've studied it.

TD: I did fall in love w/it because of not only the marvelous use of English--it's wonderfully written, but it is the most savage satire.   

RR: it has all the attributes of a romance.//You are seduced by this notion of happiness and delight and the  end is so shattering. 




The House of Mirth opens in Grand Central station.  It’s where the bachelor Lawrence Selden spots Lily Bart.


EXCERPT: Selden had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing.


Here's what you need to know about the book — It's New York City just before the turn of the 20th century.  Lily Bart is 29 years old.  Her parents have died and her family money is gone.  Her beauty is beginning to fade – the very looks where her value lies.   A wealthy aunt takes her in, but Lily's spending and gambling habits go far beyond her allowance. 


The House of Mirth chronicles Lily’s quest to find a husband – and fast -- for Lily, this means saying yes to every social function.




EXCERPT: She looked down the long table, studying its occupants one by one, // How dreary and trivial these people were. Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience: Carry Fisher, with her shoulders, her eyes, her divorces, //  young Silverton, who had meant to live on proof-reading and write an epic, and who now lived on his friends and had become critical of truffles;  


TD: Nothing is said, nothing overtly savage happens but below the surface you’re in deadly danger from the moment you get up til the moment you go to bed.  And That’s what’s terrifying.


Terence Davies wrote and directed the 2000 film adaptation of The House of Mirth.  He took a lot of his dialogue straight from Wharton.  In this scene a friend warns Lily about the backstabbing ways of their mutual acquaintance: Bertha Dorset.


“Oh I don’t say there’s any real harm in Bertha, but she delights in making people miserable.  Especially her husband. Poor George. But she is dangerous and you’re not nasty. And for always getting what she wants in the long run, commend me to a nasty woman."

"I thought you were so fond of Bertha."

"Oh, I am—it's much safer to be fond of dangerous people."


HH: the upper class here is gross. And Animalistic. And   Horrendous.Totally immoral.  


Hildegard Hoeller teaches American literature at the City University of New York


HH: Wharton calls it the tyranny of the tea tray.

You know the minute the tea tray comes into the room, everybody has assigned roles. Certain things can no longer be said can no longer be done, everybody has to perform according to that tyranny. 


The book had all the trappings you’d see in a novel of manners…like something from Jane Austen.  But with an edge. 


Wharton was one of the first American novelists to write about money and class.


With finance capitalism on the rise  — people were getting rich quickly, not just inheriting their wealth. In the House of Mirth old money clashed with new. It made the novel a sensation. 

And writer Roxana Robinson says American readers hadn't seen a tragic heroine like Lily Bart before.

RR:  I Would compare it to Anna Karenina. Plus which there was this notion of the upper classes the classes of privilege. When they were written about they were perceived as conquerors and triumphant so those endings were usually happy.  And to have this inner view of a world that most ppl only saw from the outside and to see the extraordinary pain that could be felt there was just a revelation I think.   


Robinson first read the novel as a teenager.  She had a glamorous aunt --  a former model who worked at Vogue -- who turned her on to the book.  Robinson immediately related to the endless social rules Lily has to obey.


The suffocating world depicted in the book was also Edith Wharton’s reality.


RR:  She was still stuck in this circle of ppl who judged her on the length of her skirt and the set of her shoulders.


EXCERPT: A woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman?


RR: Wharton was not a beauty and she wasn’t rich, it wasn’t for 6 yrs that she became engaged. and he wasn't a catch //Edward Wharton was 12 yrs older than she was , he never had a job, lived with his mother, and his father was in an insane asylum. Writing saved her sanity and certainly was her greatness, but she still was held a prisoner in a marriage and a life that she couldn’t escape from.    


MS ON TAPE: so, it’s not an autobiography of Wharton but it is like an emotional autobiography of her


RR:  Yes// she was writing what happens to a woman who loses that central vein of forward motion. there’s no where for her to go.// so I think, In that way she’s not punishing Lily she’s saying, this is what  it feels like to me.  I am devastated and I am suicidal.


EXCERPT Everything in the past seemed simple, natural, full of daylight--and she was alone in a place of darkness and pollution.--Alone! It was the loneliness that frightened her.


Some modern readers might dismiss this as turn of the century “chick lit.”  But Edith Wharton wasn't just making entertainment. She took a risk in writing seriously about women's lives and emotions.


Through Lily she posed questions women AND men still ask:  how will we lead our lives? What will become of us?  And Wharton didn't stop there. She critiqued the society she lived in. She exposed how it treated women and how it was governed by money, class, and taste. 


HH: Every couch every pillow every meal is about this sense of entrapment. And this sense of being determined by those things. //and Taste is something you can’t acquire. //Even though you can have the money but you can’t have the class b/c you don’t have the taste.


Lily's goal is to keep her footing in the upper class, but the very notion of class that Lily aspires to … well, it was becoming nostalgic.  This plays out in her relationship with Sim Rosedale.


He's a successful investor and he's single, but he's an outsider because he’s Jewish. Rosedale needs Lily to help him climb the social ladder. Early on in the novel, Lily is repulsed by him. She rejects his advances.


A year passes, and she's in a much more desperate situation. She tells him she’s ready to marry him. But now, he sees things differently.

MOVIE SCENE: “Miss Lily what I mean”

"what You mean to say that I'm not as desirable a match as once you thought me?"

You know as well as I do: Last year you wouldn't look at me: now, you appear to be willing to do so.. what has changed in the interval? Your situation, Then you thought you could do better; "

"You think you can?"   

" yes I do.

CB: I mean All of EW’s books are about money .There’s an exchange in every single encounter . It’s an exchange of value

In the 1990s Candace Bushnell began to write about the same themes. First in her newspaper columns and then in her novel:  Sex and the City.


CB: The exchange of being seen with the right person will elevate you in society.   There's always a tit for tat. and That is still very very true in New York society. it goes on under the surface or it’s blatant.  



What are you getting so uptight about?
Money is power. Sex is power.
Therefore, getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power.
Don't listen to the dime store Camille Paglia.
I don't know whether to take it as an incredible compliment...or as an incredible insult.  
Just take it, period.  


The Sex and the City TV Series was based on Bushnell's book and starred Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw.


Excerpt: I'm just gonna write the whole thing off as a bad date with a cash bonus.


DJ:  Bushnell had very early on tried to kind of position herself with Wharton as something of a social commentator on this milieu of privileged new york society. They kind of move in broadly similar circles 100 yrs apart.


That’s Deborah Jermyn. She lectures on contemporary television at Roehampton University in London. 


DJ: What’s interesting about both Lily and Carrie//they're   both Really caught up in that world and seduced by that world.  But they also Stand outside it sometimes and, criticize it and feel uncomfortable in it.

EXCERPT: Younger and plainer girls had been married off by dozens, and she was nine-and-twenty, and still Miss Bart . She was beginning to have fits of angry rebellion against fate, when she longed to drop out of the race and make an independent life for herself. But what manner of life would it be?

Excerpt: What if Prince charming had never showed up?
Would snow White have slept in that glass coffin forever?
or would she have eventually woken up, spit out the apple, gotten a job, a healthcare package and a baby from her local neighborhood sperm bank? I couldn't help but wonder…


MTS with DJ:  So, does it surprise you that in this respect, so little has changed?…so much has changed in 100 years but also so little?

DJ:  although women have clearly moved on//underneath it all there's a kind of a continuing strand of the difficulty of  what marriage represents for women. the Difficulty of gender inequity that still exists  between men and women despite the fact that women clearly have careers they couldn’t have dreamed of 100 yrs ago. What Wharton shows is how difficult it is for women to maintain or pursue close friendships. by the time you get to Satc.  A key difference is women are able to celeb friendships together.


EXCERPT: SATC: Don't laugh at me, but maybe we could be each other's soul mates.//well, THAT SOUNDS LIKE A PLAN

CB: Just before I started writing SATC, a girlfriend and I had read HoM.  And We vowed that we must never end up like Lily Bart. //It was kind of eye opening that if you are kind of hoping that in some way you’re going to be saved by society, you really may not be. 


By the end of the book Lily gets fired from a hat maker's workshop, her stitching just wasn’t up to snuff, and so with very little money left, she's forced live in a boarding house.

EXCERPT: her whole past was reenacting itself at a hundred different points of consciousness. Where was the drug that could still this legion of insurgent nerves? //She put out her hand, and measured the soothing drops into a glass; but as she did so, she knew they would be powerless against the supernatural lucidity of her brain. She had long since raised the dose to its highest limit, but tonight she felt she must increase it. She knew she took a slight risk in doing so—she remembered the chemist's warning. If sleep came at all, it might be a sleep without waking.

Lily Bart doesn't wake up.

TD: What do you do if you think you know the rules and then you don’t and you’re destroyed by them.  But in that process you find you have moral integrity.


 RR: This character whom you have come to live in as yourself. You live in LB’s mind

HH: We identify with her weakness. And Most of us are quite entrapped ourselves. We want fashion we want to be beautiful. We compromise ourselves.


RR: and you’re so hoping that she’s going to find the pinnacle of the life she’s capable of. And it’s so devastating to see her descend from those heights.  And to realize that Wharton constructs this perfectly. There is no other ending that’s possible for Lily Bart. There’s nothing else.


Edith Wharton created a breakthrough novel and The House of Mirth was her personal breakthrough too.

She was 43 years old when it was published.  And it gave her success and freedom she’d never had before.  And in 1920 she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction-- a first for a woman—for her novel The Age of Innocence


Towards the end of her life Wharton wrote an autobiography-- it’s called a Backward Glance,


And in it she tells a story about her time as a war correspondent in France during WWI.


She went to ask a French official for permission to go to a battlefield. And the official refused her, but then he went to go talk to the general and when he returned he says to Wharton: "Are you the author of the House of Mirth? Because if so, the general says you can have a pass."

For Studio 360, I'm Michele Siegel



Emily Botein and Michele Siegel