Sunday, March 09, 2008

"The House of Mirth" & The Last House in March

Edith Wharton and her home in Lennox, Mass.

I have been listening to the Recorded Books version (unabridged) of Edith Wharton's famous novel, The House of Mirth. It is read, very well and in an appropriately restrained fashion, by an actress called Barbara Caruso.

I don't know how I got this far without having read The House of Mirth but I am glad I didn't land on it until I was 43. I don't think I would have been quite ready for it much before now. I can see why it would be an agony for a high school student, or even a bright undergraduate. It travels slowly. My audio version is 14 hours long. The incidents are small, the humor wry and quiet. (One of my favorite lines in the book comes as Wharton is describing a rich, dull young man who is a marriage prospect for Lily. He inherited a fortune from his father, who had invented "a patent device for excluding fresh air from hotel rooms." LOL as they say). This kind of writing demands an educated reader as well as an intelligent one. Maybe most of all, as it is so famously a novel of manners, the topic is one which would, I think, bewilder the masses. Reading some commentary about the book on the web yesterday I came across this summary of Wharton's work, "a guy meets a woman and can't sleep with her for five years." Here is the Publisher's Summary (from the website):

Lily Bart, a beautiful, intelligent, but penniless young woman, lives on the outskirts of New York's high society, craving the luxurious lifestyle of her wealthy contacts. But while Lily possesses the grace, taste, and morality of the ideal turn-of-the-century lady, her delicate innocence threatens her survival in that very world. As she fights to maintain her newfound place among the aristocracy, Lily struggles mightily against what lurks beneath all the glitter and gold - greed, vulgarity, and ruthless competition. In her brilliantly perceptive novel, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton, the peerless, Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of Old New York, provides yet another heartbreaking glimpse into the world of manners, privilege, betrayal, and shocking falls from grace.

Frankly, I think this summary is a little too generous to Lily. One of the things I love about the book is that Lily is a morally ambiguous character. She isn't good or bad - or, better,she is both good and bad, like most of us. She is false and dissembling, but she is also noble. She has chance after chance to simply marry a rich fool, which marriage would deliver her from her constant money problems (another way she is like us!) but doesn't take those chances. She has it in her power to destroy a social enemy when some compromising letters fall into her hands, but she doesn't use it. Still, she schemes unendingly, she evades, she feigns emotions she doesn't feel, she takes moral short cuts. Her inner life is so beautifully described and Wharton's powers to set a scene and to observe details are to me awe-inspiring.

About 10 years ago, I listened to the Recorded Books version of Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw." Wharton and James were friends, and anyone could see why. Both were bona fide literary geniuses whose time and place on earth happened to coincide. With Wharton, as with James, I have found myself enjoying the complexity of the language and the craft of the work. With the "Turn of the Screw", I remember thinking how no one writes like this now - with big words and long sentences - but everything so well bolted together and so carefully observed and plotted.

One other special thing about The House of Mirth for me was that I grew up in Upstate New York. The fragments, at least architecturally, of the world of Lily Bart live on in the Hudson and Mohawk Valley towns where I spent my childhood and early 20s. My mother remarried when I was 19 and she and her new husband bought a house in Schenectady, built in 1904 for the president of Schenectady Chemicals. It was a family home straight out of that gilded/industrial age (servants quarters, dressing rooms, 4 fireplaces). All over upstate, in all the rust-belt towns along the Erie Canal and the Hudson River are remains of the fancy neighborhoods of a hundred years ago. I loved that house and still think of that kind of place (big old house on the edge of an old city) as a kind ideal. As for the manners of those days, I saw them reflected in the petty bourgeois attitudes of my maternal grandmother. She grew up in the Catskills at the early part of the century. Her family never strived for an elite position of Lily Bart and her ilk but the moral code of those days, where rich people were expected to behave in an exemplary manner, was stamped on her as surely as it was on Wharton's characters. See my old post on "My Church Ladies and Me" for more on this topic.

I know that Wharton's home in the Berkshires is open to the public and I have been thinking that I would go visit this summer when I am back in Albany visting my family. (See the picture at the beginning of this post). I checked out the website for "the Mount" and saw that there is an imminent panic there that the place will be foreclosed upon and closed to the public. What a shame that would be. I, for one, would be disappointed to miss it, now that I have made Wharton's acquaintance. (Unfortunately Lily and I share a similar financial situation or I would write them a check). Anyone who wants to help out should check on the website. The link is posted here in the sidebar.

On a More Homely Note

March has been grinding away on us here on the Vermont/Quebec border. Yesterday (Saturday) it was a mix of rain and freezing rain all day long. At about 6 PM, the power went out. We had just daylight enough to light candles and lanterns. Kids and I took bets about when the power would come back on. Kid 2 won (a Canadian dollar). He guessed 8:30 PM(the latest guess). In fact, it was about 10:30 PM and we were all in bed and asleep by then. I only knew it had come back on because I was laying down in Kid 2's room and his lava lamp came on, waking me up.

After the power went out, the kids and I passed the time listening to Philip Pullman reading The Golden Compass on the laptop (another fabulous recorded book) til the laptop battery died. We then played two games of Clue by candlelight. Then kids and I piled into bed together with a lantern. I was just starting to read to them from Peter and Iona Opie's collection of classic fairy tales when the lantern sputtered and died. The timing was good. Kid 2 was already asleep and I told Kid 1 a story of my own making. Once she was asleep I migrated to Kid 2's empty bed (hence, the lava lamp). Kid 1 is downstairs now, still in her pajamas. She just said, "I hope the power goes out again tonight!" The way the wind is blowing and the the snow falling, it just might.