Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Pretty Girl's Perils


the scribe just finished reading Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.” And it’s not that consecrated writers of classic, canonical literature need highwayscribery’s imprimatur, but this tale gets an A-plus.

The book was a Christmas gift from the scribe’s sister-in-law Laura and he is grateful to her for the journey through late 19th Century New York City’s high social class.

The greatest revelation in devouring this dense, but delicious tome is more personal than universal for the scribe determined that, after following Breton and Cocteau and Celine and the whole modernist crowd for so long, he writes most like...Edith Wharton (?).

Indeed, born to it, Wharton breezily confects a high-tone, baroque, and detailed English of the kind the scribe concocted, in a wheezing fashion, if not a breezy one, in his own “The Sidewalk Smokers Club.”

Reading Wharton is work. Don’t dare if you’re intimidated by 446 pages of tiny type filled-in with long sentences, characterized by many clauses, each of which slices the onion of truth a little more as you catch your breath so as to finish.

the scribe grew up in New York and is a product of its fine public school system and the fact he would approve, in the snobbish sense, of Wharton’s prose may say a lot about how much our English teachers of adolescence ultimately affect our tastes.

But enough about the personal.

“The House of Mirth” is an allusion to the high society world a mostly low-born girl of remarkable beauty, Lily Bart, would like to reside in.

This is the story of a pretty girl’s perils; not a pretty girl who has a job and a car and a sense of her own projection, but an old-fashioned pretty girl who was raised to behave as an ornament, whose fundamental purpose is to complete elegant tableaux.

Lily Bart moves amongst the sun-kissed of New York society (if that’s possible), but she is not truly of them. Her ticket to parties and outings of the rich people with whom she runs is her unique and singular beauty.

The story opens with Lily’s reputation a bit tarnished at the age of 29 by the number of suitors she has passed on. We join her in the opening fade to her personal blossoming. Because we know her innermost thoughts and fears, we can cozy up to Lily in the same way we can cozy up to a criminal who has escaped jail and is fleeing soulless police officers and their barking dogs.

But she is not a good person, having bought lock-stock-and-barrel into her mother’s vision of Lily as a piece of furniture that must be sold to the highest bidder.

Society turns out to be tricky and, as we meet Lilly, her swinging season is fast passing. The story details Lily’s descent out of society and into the working class where her beauty is naught but a hindrance to a gal trying to earn an honest dollar.

At first, it was a little hard for the scribe to determine what was going on and exactly whom had slighted or insulted whom at the parties portrayed by Wharton. These WASPy New Yorkers have always had a delicate touch and sometimes the scribe was forced to return to the scene of the crime, to see exactly what the crime was.

Keep reading. Soon enough you get the idea that being left off the yacht you’ve been invited onto is something like having a knife driven into your heart. Wharton literally provides an early 21st Century savage with a primer on manners so that by the time her one-time friend Judy Trenor runs into Lily at a restaurant, it is easy to see she has been slighted even though only the kindest of words have been exchanged between the ladies.

It’s a different world assayed here, one where a woman who has never had sex dies in shame, the victim of innuendo and false rumor. A world where a soft kiss to a suitor’s forehead is as “far” as things ever get.

Perhaps the only flaw in the story is the swift decline to death of Lily Bart after so arduous and complicated a fall from proper society. Maybe that’s what Wharton was trying to say; that a lady that’s good for nothing can find no way to live and will die shortly.

It would seem fatigue, hopelessness, and an addiction to a popular high of time, camphor, led to Lily’s death, but all along feckless men and rapacious socialites either watch her drown impassively, or duck her head under when she comes up for air.

In the end, Lily’s acts are characterized by nobility, but a self-destructive one that only serves to shorten her life. No Marxist scholar, Wharton nonetheless and slyly, throws light on the perils associated with trying to meet rich peoples’ standards and codes of conduct.

Stick with your own kind, Wharton seems to be suggesting, because being rich when you’re not can’t be done.

4 comments:

fjl said...

Sounds great, I'll check it out.

the highway scribe said...

Hi fjl, thanks for checking in with the scribe.

Stefanie said...

I loved House of Mirth. I felt so sorry for Lily. She is the complete opposite of someone like Becky Sharp. I've got to read more Wharton. I forget how good she is.

the highway scribe said...

When I re-read the post, the harshness of declaring Lily "not a good person" strikes me. Perhaps it would have been better to merely point out she had it coming. I loved her and winced for her in moments of cruel social decapitation.