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The House of Mirth

by Edith Wharton

PUBLISHED: 31st May 1993
ISBN: 9780140187298
From the esteemed author of The Age of Innocence—a black comedy about vast wealth and a woman who can define herself only through the perceptions of others. Lily Bart's quest to find a husband who can satisfy her cravings for endless admiration and all the trappings of the rich comes to a scandalous end when she is accused of being a wealthy man's mistress.
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PUBLISHED: 31st May 1993
ISBN: 9780140187298
From the esteemed author of The Age of Innocence—a black comedy about vast wealth and a woman who can define herself only through the perceptions of others. Lily Bart's quest to find a husband who can satisfy her cravings for endless admiration and all the trappings of the rich comes to a scandalous end when she is accused of being a wealthy man's mistress.


From the esteemed author of The Age of Innocence—a black comedy about vast wealth and a woman who can define herself only through the perceptions of others. Lily Bart's quest to find a husband who can satisfy her cravings for endless admiration and all the trappings of the rich comes to a scandalous end when she is accused of being a wealthy man's mistress.

Publisher Description

A black comedy of manners about vast wealth and a woman who can define herself only through the perceptions of others. The beautiful Lily Bart lives among the nouveaux riches of New York City - people whose millions were made in railroads, shipping, land speculation and banking. In this morally and aesthetically bankrupt world, Lily, age twenty-nine, seeks a husband who can satisfy her cravings for endless admiration and all the trappings of wealth. But her quest comes to a scandalous end when she is accused of being the mistress of a wealthy man. Exiled from her familiar world of artificial conventions, Lily finds life impossible.

Author Biography

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, during the American Civil War. Wharton published her first short story in 1891; her first story collection, The Greater Inclination, in 1899; a novella called The Touchstone in 1900; and her first novel, a historical romance called The Valley of Decision, in 1902. The book that made Wharton famous was The House of Mirth, published in 1905. She died in 1937.


With an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, Contemporary Reviews, and Letters Between Edith Wharton and Her Publisher " A frivolous society can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys."--Edith Wharton

Lily Bart knows that she must marry--her expensive tastes and mounting debts demand it--and, at twenty-nine, she has every artful wile at her disposal to secure that end. But attached as she is to the social world of her wealthy suitors, something in her rebels against the insipid men whom circumstances compel her to charm. "Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape," Lily muses as she contemplates the prospect of being bored all afternoon by Percy Grice, dull but undeniably rich, "on the bare chance that he might ulti- mately do her the honor of boring her for life?" Lily is distracted from her prey by the arrival of Lawrence Selden, handsome, quick-witted, and penniless. A runaway bestseller on publication in 1905, The House of Mirth is a brilliant romantic novel of manners, the book that established Edith Wharton as one of America's greatest novelists.

" A tragedy of our modern life, in which the relentlessness of what men used to call Fate and esteem, in their ignorance, a power beyond their control, is as vividly set forth as ever it was by Aeschylus or Shakespeare." --The New York Times

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1920 for The Age of Innocence. But it was the publication of The House of Mirth in 1905 that marked Wharton's coming-of-age as a writer.

Kirkus UK Review

Twenty-nine year old society belle, Lily Bart, is burdened with gambling debts. She intends to marry into money but her calculated plans to win the affections of dull but rich Percy Gryce backfire. In this literary classic, first published in 1905, the author scrutinizes the customs, mores and rituals of New York high society. With an introduction by Martha Banta. (Kirkus UK)

Review Quote

With an introduction by Elizabeth Hardwick, Contemporary Reviews, and Letters Between Edith Wharton and Her Publisher "

Discussion Question for Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION The House of Mirth , published in 1905, marks Edith Wharton''s emergence as one of America''s greatest writers. Although Wharton had previously published two collections of stories, The Greater Inclination (1899) and Crucial Incidents (1901) and the novel The Valley of Decision (1902), her decision to write about fashionable New York, a world she "had been steeped in since infancy," brought her immediate success and recognition. As she wrote in her autobiography, A Backward Glance (1934), her goal in The House of Mirth was to uncover the true nature of society''s power and to answer the question: "in what aspect could a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers be said to have, on the ''old woe of the world,'' any deeper bearing that the people composing such a society could guess?" By 1905, the genteel milieu of Wharton''s childhood was rapidly disappearing. Fashions--and economics--had changed, and Old New York society was forced to recognize the power of "new money" and even to accept the newly rich, with their tremendous wealth earned in a suspect marketplace, into their circle. It was a concession that would not only corrode their sense of style and decorum, but allow them to sacrifice the members of the "old" society who could not keep pace. Lily Bart, the heroine of The House of Mirth , is a victim of a large, unstoppable shift in the ways of the world. Launched into society at a glorious and very expensive debutante ball, Lily sees a world of unlimited possibility before her. But her father''s announcement that he is financially ruined, followed quickly by his death, leave Lily and her mother with only one "asset"--Lily''s extraordinary beauty and charm. At the age of 29, now orphaned, Lily lives with an aunt who offers minimum, often grudging, hospitality and financial support. A wealthy husband could satisfy her craving for luxury and admiration, but Lily is reluctant to consummate this kind of "deal." In a chronicle that richly details the follies of shallowness, and cruelties of society as it illuminates Lily''s own ambivalence about who and what she wants, Wharton traces her heroine''s decline from her elite position as a much-desired guest in exclusive social events, to her role as a liaison between rich "outsiders" eager to be accepted in society but ignorant of its ways, to her piteous existence when the homes of both old and new society are firmly, finally, closed to her. On one level a devastating satire of a world devoid of moral scruples, The House of Mirth is also a stringent critique of the particular restrictions and limitations such a world imposes on women. Lily is a woman not only of charm, but of intelligence; her outward beauty matched by a genuine, if undeveloped, appreciation of art and of nature''s beauty. By succumbing to society''s definition of her as a beautiful object and nothing more, however, Lily in many ways authors her own fate. Woven throughout the novel are threads of Wharton''s own experience. Born in 1862, Wharton spent her childhood in the staid brownstones of New York and the elegant country houses to which the rich retired during the summer, and was intimately acquainted with the styles of entertaining, of dress, and of conspicuous consumption favored by the people who inhabited them. She married five years after her own debut, late enough to have contemplated the likely fate of an unmarried woman in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Though her husband, Edward, was well-enough off to avoid working in the despised business world, the two were fundamentally incompatible. Edward admired Edith''s brilliance, but he was far from her intellectual equal and shared few of her interests. The critic Edmund Wilson speculated that Wharton turned to fiction to ease the tensions of her marriage; certainly the world she created through her writing must have been a welcome haven from the tedium and disappointments of life with Edward. But it is the very act of writing that separates Wharton from her fictional creation. Unlike Lily, Wharton took an active role in defining herself, becoming a masterful writer, and establishing that a woman need not depend on others to achieve dignity and a sense of worth. The world is much richer for it. ABOUT EDITH WHARTON Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones on January 24, 1862, during the American Civil War, into a world that could hardly have been more discouraging of her desire to be a writer. Her parents, George Frederic and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander Jones, descendants of prosperous English and Dutch businessmen, bankers, and lawyers, were pillars of the fashionable New York society Wharton would depict in many of her novels. It was a society in which the only acceptable aim for a young woman of the upper class was to enter into marriage with a gentleman of the upper class and become mistress of a household. Edith''s mother, a notoriously commanding and aloof woman to whom the birth of her daughter relatively late in life was an embarrassment, was perpetually critical and disapproving of her daughter''s intellectual ambitions. But Edith demonstrated early a formidable intellect and a great love for books. Though her education--at the ends of a series of governesses--was intended only to provide her the social graces necessary for a society wife, she spoke three languages before adolescence, and read widely in the great literature of Western culture. She first attempted to write a novel at the age of eleven, but her mother criticized her first lines, effectively dissuading her from fiction writing for several more years. She did, however, begin writing poetry, and achieve her first publication at the age of thirteen when a magazine published her translations of several German poems. Attempting to elude the negative economic repercussions of the Reconstruction, the Jones family moved to Europe for six years beginning in 1866, when Edith was five; when she returned to America, after a life-threatening battle with typhoid fever that would indelibly mark her consciousness, she found her country ugly and deeply depressing. Though the family''s move to Newport, Rhode Island temporarily revived her spirits, Wharton''s affinity for Europe and her ever deepening loathing for the increasing materialism of American life would lead to many return trips to the Continent. She would settle permanently in Paris in the early 1900s. In 1885, after the death of her beloved father, when she was twenty-three and thus dangerously close to being considered a spinster, Edith married Edward "Teddy" Wharton, a gentleman from Boston of appropriate social background twelve years her senior. The first years of her marriage were spent in frequent travel and in making the proper social rounds in New York and Newport. Edith was pleased to be mistress of her own house and garden. But as her confidence grew, and she became more and more involved in and excited by her writing, her kindhearted but intellectually unimaginative husband and their stultifyingly predictable, possibly sexless married life began to drain her spirits. In 1907, at the age of forty-five, she would begin a passionate love affair--apparently the only of her life--with the journalist Morton Fullerton. The relationship was brief, but it marked a profound emotional and sexual awakening for Wharton. Teddy, meanwhile, began to suffer from mental illness--possibly manic depression. He also took a mistress, and embezzled money from his wife to buy his mistress a house. He was institutionalized in 1912, and in 1913, Edith divorced him. She would never remarry. Wharton published her first short story in 1891; her first story collection, The Greater Inclination , in 1899; a novella called The Touchstone in 1900; and her first novel, a historical romance called The Valley of Decision , in 1902. That same year she began a correspondence with Henry James, to whom she had been introduced by mutual friends. He judged her at the time as a gifted writer but perhaps too imitative a student of his; their friendship would grow, as would James''s estimation of his friend''s talents, until; James''s death in 1916. The Age of Innocence , written soon afterward, is marked by several allusions to Wharton''s dear friend and to his novel The Portrait of a Lady . The book that made Wharton famous was The House of Mirth , published in 1905. Between that book and the publication of her autobiography, A Backward Glance , in 1934, she published sixteen novels and novellas, eight collections of short stories, several works of nonfiction, and two volumes of poetry as well as many articles, translations, introductions, and reviews. The novel she was working on before her death, The Buccaneers , was published posthumously in 1938. This impressive productivity was spurred on in part by the fact that many of her works, including The Age of Innocence, were contracted by magazines to appear on a serial basis, requiring her to produce a certain number of words within a limited amount of time and space. Wharton both prospered and chafed under this regime; she wrote prolifically and made a tremendous amount of money, but many critics have noted that the quality of her work, particularly after World War I, suffered under the influence of its rapid production for a mass market. Beyond her writing, Wharton''s life was also distinguished by her selfless service to France and to the European refugees who flooded Paris during World War I, work for which the French government made her--the first woman so recognized--a chevalier of the Legion d''Honneur. When she died in 1937, her coffin was attended by French war veterans on recognition of her adopted country. Though she was a well-known public fi

Excerpt from Book

Chapter One SELDEN PAUSED in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart. It was a Monday in early September, and he was returning to his work from a hurried dip into the country; but what was Miss Bart doing in town at that season? If she had appeared to be catching a train, he might have inferred that he had come on her in the act of transition between one and another of the country-houses which disputed her presence after the close of the Newport season; but her desultory air perplexed him. She stood apart from the crowd, letting it drift by her to the platform or the street, and wearing an air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose. It struck him at once that she was waiting for some one, but he hardly knew why the idea arrested him. There was nothing new about Lily Bart, yet he could never see her without a faint movement of interest: it was characteristic of her that she always roused speculation, that her simplest acts seemed the result of far-reaching intentions. An impulse of curiosity made him turn out of his direct line to the door, and stroll past her. He knew that if she did not wish to be seen she would contrive to elude him; and it amused him to think of putting her skill to the test. "Mr. Seldenwhat good luck!" She came forward smiling, eager almost, in her resolve to intercept him. One or two persons, in brushing past them, lingered to look; for Miss Bart was a figure to arrest even the suburban traveller rushing to his last train. 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. Was it really eleven years, Selden found himself wondering, and had she indeed reached the nine-and-twentieth birthday with which her rivals credited her? "What luck!" she repeated. "How nice of you to come to my rescue!" He responded joyfully that to do so was his mission in life, and asked what form the rescue was to take. "Oh, almost anyeven to sitting on a bench and talking to me. One sits out a cotillionwhy not sit out a train? It isn''t a bit hotter here than in Mrs. Van Osburgh''s conservatoryand some of the women are not a bit uglier." She broke off, laughing, to explain that she had come up to town from Tuxedo, on her way to the Gus Trenors'' at Bellomont, and had missed the three-fifteen train to Rhinebeck. "And there isn''t another till half-past five." She consulted the little jeweled watch among her laces. " Just two hours to wait. And I don''t know what to do with myself. My maid came up this morning to do some shopping for me, and was to go on to Bellomont at one o''clock, and my aunt''s house is closed, and I don''t know a soul in town." She glanced plaintively about the station. "It is hotter than Mrs. Van Osburgh''s, after all. If you can spare the time, do take me somewhere for a breath of air." He declared himself entirely at her disposal: the adventure struck him as diverting. As a spectator, he had always enjoyed Lily Bart; and his course lay so far out of her orbit that it amused him to be drawn for a moment into the sudden intimacy which her proposal implied. "Shall we go over to Sherry''s for a cup of tea?" She smiled assentingly, and then made a slight grimace. "So many people come up to town on a Mondayone is sure to meet a lot of bores. I''m as old as the hills, of course, and it ought not to make any difference; but if I''m old enough, you''re not," she objected gaily. "I''m dying for teabut isn''t there a quieter place?" He answered her smile, which rested on him vividly. Her discretions interested him almost as much as her imprudences: he was so sure that both were part of the same carefully-elaborated plan. Inj udging Miss Bart, he had always made use of the "argument from design." "The resources of New York are rather meagre," he said; "but I''ll find a hansom first, and then we''ll invent something." He led her through the throng of returning holiday-makers, past shallow-faced girls in preposterous hats, and flat-chested women struggling with paper bundles and palm-leaf fans. Was it possible that she belonged to the same race? The dinginess, the crudity of this average section of womanhood made him feel how highly specialized she was. A rapid shower had cooled the air, and clouds still hung refreshingly over the moist street. "How delicious! Let us walk a little," she said as they emerged from the station. They turned into Madison Avenue and began to stroll northward. As she moved beside him, with her long light step, Selden was conscious of taking a luxurious pleasure in her nearness: in the modelling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hairwas it ever so slightly brightened by art?and the thick planting of her straight black lashes. Everything about her was at once vigorous and exquisite, at once strong and fine. He had a confused sense that she must have cost a great deal to make, that a great many dull and ugly people must, in some mysterious way, have been sacrificed to produce her. He was aware that the qualities distinguishing her from the herd of her sex were chiefly external: as though a fine glaze of beauty and fastidiousness had been applied to vulgar clay. Yet the analogy left him unsatisfied, for a coarse texture will not take a high finish; and was it not possible that the material was fine, but that circumstance had fashioned it into a futile shape? As he reached this point in his speculations the sun came out, and her lifted parasol cut off his enjoyment. A moment or two later she paused with a sigh. "Oh, dear, I''m so hot and thirstyand what a hideous place New York is!" She looked despairingly up and down the dreary thoroughfare. "Other cities put on their best clothes in summer, but New York seems to sit in its shirt-sleeves." Her eyes wandered down one of the side-streets. "Some one has had the humanity to plant a few trees over there. Let us go into the shade." "I am glad my street meets with your approval," said Selden as they turned the corner. "Your street? Do you live here?" She glanced with interest along the new brick and limestone house-fronts, fantastically varied in obedience to the American craving for novelty, but fresh and inviting with their awnings and flower-boxes. "Ah, yesto be sure: The Benedick. What a nice-looking building! I don''t think I''ve ever seen it before." She looked across at the flat-house with its marble porch and pseudo-Georgian facade. " Which are your windows? Those with the awnings down?" "On the top flooryes." "And that nice little balcony is yours? How cool it looks up there!" He paused a moment. "Come up and see," he suggested. "I can give you a cup of tea in no timeand you won''t meet any bores." Her colour deepenedshe still had the art of blushing at the right timebut she took the suggestion as lightly as it was made. "Why not? It''s too temptingI''ll take the risk," she declared. "Oh, I''m not dangerous," he said in the same key. In truth, he had never liked her as well as at that moment. He knew she had accepted without afterthought: he could never be a factor in her calculations, and there was a surprise, a refreshment almost, in the spontaneity of her consent. On the threshold he paused a moment, feeling for his latch-key. "There''s no one here; but I have a servant who is supposed to come in the mornings, and it''s just possible he may have put out the tea-things and provided some cake." He ushered her into a slip of a hall hung with old prints. She noticed the letters and notes heaped on the table among his gloves and sticks; then she found herself in a small library, dark but cheerful, with its walls of books, a pleasantly faded Turkey rug, a littered desk, and, as he had foretold, a tea-tray on a low table near the window. A breeze had sprung up, swaying inward the muslin curtains, and bringing a fresh scent of mignonette and petunias from the flower-box on the balcony. Lily sank with a sigh into one of the shabby leather chairs. "How delicious to have a place like this all to one''s self! What a miserable thing it is to be a woman." She leaned back in a luxury of discontent. Selden was rummaging in a cupboard for the cake. "Even women," he said, "have been known to enjoy the privileges of a flat." "Oh, governessesor widows. But not girlsnot poor, miserable, marriageable girls!" "I even know a girl who lives in a flat." She sat up in surprise. "You do?" "I do," he assured her, emerging from the cupboard with the sought-for cake. "Oh, I knowyou mean Gerty Farish." She smiled a little unkindly. "But I said marriageableand besides, she has a horrid little place, and no maid, and such queer things to eat. Her cook does the washing and the food tastes of soap. I should hate that, you know." "You shouldn''t dine with her on wash-days," said Selden, cutting the cake. They both laughed, and he knelt by the table to light the lamp u

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Edith Wharton
Penguin Books
Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century
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United Kingdom