The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth

Title: The House of Mirth
Author: Edith Wharton
Publication date: 1905
Genre: Literary naturalism

What’s it about?The House of Mirth

Lily Bart, a penniless young woman who nevertheless moves in high society, needs to marry a rich husband to continue living in the manner to which she is accustomed. However, an unwillingness to play the game and a desire for something (freedom?) beyond this blinkered life leads to an ongoing struggle with her ultimate adversary: money.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I downloaded this one for free to my Kindle app.

What did I learn from it?

I’m debating whether to continue with this section on my blog posts. Usually what I ‘learn’ from a book are facts about the world in which it is set, in this case New York high society of the 1900s – and other than saying ‘I learned about this period’, I don’t always feel there is much worth expanding upon. Maybe just a brief overview will suffice?

On other occasions, however, I learn things about myself – but then I wonder whether this is in any way different to the next section, ‘How did it make me see the world differently?’ Am I repeating myself? I’m not so sure about that. The things I might learn (or, more accurately, be reminded of) about myself aren’t necessarily the same as the way the world works – so perhaps it is worth pursuing this train of thought after all.

Let me know in the comments below if you’ve found these sections particularly enlightening, or, conversely, no use at all! But this year may be more of an exploration to home in on what each book has truly done for me – and perhaps that is in itself a learning experience.

How did it make me see the world differently?

This was a perfect example of the environment being described having a resonance for me with regard to a totally different set of circumstances.

Lily Bart loves the high life, having been raised with a taste for luxury. However, she has an independence of spirit, and enough self knowledge to recognise that her love of the moneyed life is shallow and, ultimately, unsatisfying for the soul. She has romantic feelings for a man, Lawrence Selden, who is not rich enough to offer her the society marriage she believes she needs; however, with him she can be truly herself, unbound by the conventions of the ‘in crowd’. Her dilemma is whether she can overcome her desire for affluence and choose the authentically free life she could have with Selden.

I do not have luxurious tastes. I chose to leave the perceived security and status of full-time employment and go freelance, precisely because my freedom is more important to me than being able to afford holidays, fancy cars, new clothes and any of the other trappings that come with a comfortable income. I actively choose to spend less because this means I have to work less, and this is a pay-off I am more than willing to make. In Lily’s terms, I have opted for the life with Selden rather than that with the Trenors, the Van Osburghs and the Dorsets.

However, this does not mean that I am impervious to the charms of money. While I try to avoid over-working (as this leads to enormous stress and a tendency to eat and drink unhealthily), it does occasionally happen, for example when a client project grows beyond its expected bounds or when I overestimate my stamina levels. And when I do work extra hours, this results in extra money… and it is hard not to feel excited by the total figure in the bottom line when I’m totting up my invoices.

Whenever I go through a busy patch, the boost to my income means that I am able to look forward to more months of financial security than if I just did the bare minimum. But while the lack of freedom I’ve experienced while working leads, in theory, to a prospect of more freedom in the months to come, the extra bulge in my bank account means I can easily be tempted to splash out on all those little treats I usually deny myself in the pursuit of a peaceful life.

This book is a salutary reminder for me, not necessarily to think I can ignore the issue of money (as Lily finds out, it is good to have principles and dreams, but we still need to be able to pay the bills), but to ask myself the question every time I take on a piece of work: do I really need the money, or am I being distracted from what is really important?

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

The novel is set at a time when people used wax to seal their letters and stamp them with their own design. Lily Bart’s seal is a picture of a flying ship, with the word ‘Beyond!’ inscribed beneath it. I think this is meant to represent her desire for something more meaningful (again, that word ‘freedom’…) beyond the conventions of the society she inhabits.

For years I have had a desire to get a tattoo – something small and elegant, maybe in a location where it can be hidden if I so choose – but I’ve never known what design would sum up my thoughts or express my feelings.

But now I do 🙂 As soon as I read about Lily’s seal, I knew that this was the design I’ve been looking for. It represents my urge to go beyond the boundaries of what the world tells us is possible, and branch out on my own to uncharted territories, by unconventional means.

Without wanting to give away any spoilers, I will say that Lily’s story doesn’t develop in quite the way I’d hoped. However, I am a different person, living in a different age, and getting this design etched on to my skin will, I hope, be a continual reminder to do the things that were perhaps denied to Lily: to live my life in my way, and enjoy the freedom I have always craved.

A musical interlude

Something new I’m going to try for this year’s Book Diaries is to post a video of a music track that each book has inspired me to think of.

This week it’s the Flying Lizards, and Money

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!