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"We would love you to join our book club for a discussion of "The House of Mirth." What a lovely invitation for a summer afternoon. Some friends invited me to come as their guest to a meeting of their book club. They were discussing "The House of Mirth" and knew that I was a big fan of Edith Wharton. I was thrilled to be invited and delighted to spend a summer afternoon talking about Wharton. On this beautiful summer day I could picture Edith Wharton's garden at the Mount, her home in Lenox, Massachusetts, and how it might look on this day in July. I love the Berkshires in Massachusetts and have visited Wharton's home whenever I have been in that area. The Mount is truly an autobiographical house, reflecting the owner Edith Wharton in so many ways. She was an authority on architecture, interior design, and European gardens. Her home, which she designed, reflects all these talents. And it was there that she wrote the book we were reading today.
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This year is the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton's birth and I was hoping to find time to revisit some of her books. "The House of Mirth" is one of my favorites. When I arrived at the home of the friend who was hosting the meeting, we all sat down to a lovely lunch and dove right into a fantastic discussion of this book. I hadn't read it for a long time and it was such a treat to discover this classic all over again. I marveled at the beauty of Wharton's writing and the compelling story of Lily Bart's downfall as she struggles to win a place in New York society but ultimately is tripped up by her own mistakes and errors of judgement.
The Fifth Avenue Hotel, a fixture of the Gilded Age social scene
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There was so much to talk about! We discussed the plight of Lily Bart, a woman with little money and only the currency of her good looks to buy her way into society. She had no family or any real friends, and was almost entirely on her own. It was sad to think of her complete lack of a support system. We talked about the financial anxiety that is at the core of her character and her desperate hopes to snag a husband based on her looks. She makes mistakes all along the way and passes up several opportunities for marriage. We all wondered if it was because she was foolish or she just couldn't face settling for a lifetime of boredom and a loveless marriage.
We discussed the fact that Edith Wharton was herself a member of the New York society that Lily Bart aspires to, and yet wrote books critical of this group. The people that she knew, their values and mores, came under her critical eye again and again and she skewered them, not just in this book, but others. We talked about the fact that Edith Wharton became a Pulitzer-prize winning writer despite the fact that she had no formal education and was discouraged by her family and friends. But we weren't surprised that she chose this alternative life -- she was a brilliant woman with a deep intellect -- considering the empty and meaningless life she would have led otherwise, based on the way she depicted it in her books. She became one of the most famous writers of the early twentieth-century and when she moved to France for the last few decades of her life, she moved in impressive literary circles. She also lent her time and vast wealth to the efforts to aid refugees during World War I. For her war efforts she was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
I loved revisiting Wharton through the book club's discussion of "The House of Mirth" and am looking forward to reading some of her other books during this anniversary year. When I got home I opened up "The House of Mirth" to look at some of my favorite passages. Edith Wharton has a style that is distinctively her own and many of her passages of dialogue and description have a richness, rhythm and beauty that take my breath away. They reveal a writer with real insight into the way people behave. There is no one like Wharton for getting to the heart of the struggle in people between individual freedom and fitting in, and also depicting the world of old New York as it existed during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth-century. Wharton's ability to convey the accumulated damage to the emotions and hearts of her characters caused by the pressures of society has no peer. Her novels are a gift to readers. If you are in a book club you might want to read one of her books this year so you can celebrate her 150th birthday!