One of the books I picked up at Shakespeare & Company some weeks back during my Literary Afternoon in Paris was Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. This is the second of Wharton’s novels I’ve read, the first being The Age of Innocence which I devoured a few months ago during the holidays.
I’m particularly drawn to Wharton for she was, as I am, an American expat who chose Paris as her adopted home. I believe she remains the only American woman to have received the coveted cross of the French Legion of Honor. She was a strong-willed woman of birth and breeding, things that mattered a whole lot more at the turn-of-the-century when she began to write than they do nowadays. Apparently, her father and mother were the Jones, of the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ fame. Yet beyond her family notoriety and fortune, she was a highly intelligent, insightful woman with a keen, shrewd eye for social satire.
She fascinates me. As one of the ladies in the 20th century who carried on the tradition of Parisian literary salons, she left an invaluable mark on society through her words, thoughts and ideas.
From the introduction of the 1985 Penguin edition of The House of Mirth, written by Cynthia Griffin Wolff, professor of literature at MIT, we learn that the novel was Wharton’s first commercial success in 1905. Selling 30,000 copies in the first three weeks after publication and going on to sell a 100,000 after a month, The House of Mirth would most certainly be a New York Times Best Seller if it was released today.
So this makes me wonder: what made this book so popular at the turn-of-the-century? And perhaps more importantly, what continues to make Wharton one of the most critically acclaimed authors of the English language? I flatter myself in the belief that I have the answer to these questions. But I’ll give it a try in any case.
What flagrantly struck me from the first page of Wharton’s debut literary success – which I picked up on the heels of Nancy Mitford’s less accomplished, but no less entertaining Love in a Cold Climate and Other Stories – was her lyrical genius. The way she turns a phrase at times left me in awe.
Let me know share with you a few examples: (below emphasis added)
To explain the dilemma of the turn-of-the-century beautiful woman of being seen only as a decoration, Wharton wrote: “She could not figure herself as anywhere but in a drawing-room, diffusing elegance as a flower sheds perfume.”
“It was the very last topic she had meant to discuss – it really did not interest her in the least – but she was seized by a sudden perverse curiosity to know how the two colourless shrinking victims of young Silverton’s sentimental experiments meant to cope with the grim necessity which lurked so close to her own threshold.”
“She opened her eyes and saw the streets passing – the familiar alien streets.”
To illustrate how difficult it was at the time for a fortune-less women to be independent, Wharton wrote: “She was realizing for the first time that a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep up than her carriage…”
“He laid his hand for a moment on hers, and there passed between them, on the current of the rare contact, one of those exchanges of meaning which fill the hidden reservoirs of affection.”
“Lily had the odd sense of being behind the social tapestry…”
Wharton is celebrated for her social satire, her keen sense of perceiving the world around her from the point of view of an engaged outsider, even if she was inextricably enthralled in the fabric of the society she deciphered.
Some examples of her brilliant social commentary:
“You think we live on the rich, rather than with them: and so we do, in a sense – but it’s a privilege we have to pay for! We eat their dinners, and drink their wine, and smoke their cigarettes, and use their carriages and their opera-boxes and their private cars – yes, but there’s a tax to pay on every one of those luxuries.”
“Compared with the vast gilded void of [the nouveau riche’s] existence, the life of Lily’s former friends [old money] seemed packed with ordered activities. Even the most irresponsible pretty woman of her acquaintance had her inherited obligations, her conventional benevolences, her share in the working of the great civil machine; and all hung together in the solidarity of these traditional functions.”
Speaking to the power gossip played in her society, Wharton wrote: “What debt did she owe to a social order which had condemned her without trial? She had never been heard in her own defense; she was innocent of the change on which had been found guilty…”
“The discovery did not disturb Lily as it might once have done. She had passed beyond the phase of well-bred reciprocity, in which every demonstration must be scrupulously proportioned to the emotion it elicits, and generosity of feeling is the only ostentation condemned.”
Second among Wharton’s levels of brilliance is surely the subject matter upon which she wrote and the characters she brought to life. For those who lived during the turn-of-the-century, such exquisite rich luxury would have fascinated and rendered envious the average reader just as it would have shocked and scandalized the classes from whom Wharton derived her inspiration. The combination was irresistible. And it has remained so throughout the decades for the very same reasons: the modern reader is intrigued; we’re jealous; we’re lustful; we despise and fall in love and resist until we are ultimately left broken-hearted, our spirit nevertheless rejuvenated by the turbulent rollercoaster we’ve just experienced.
Wharton writes of a time we will never know, la Belle Époque, which many of us, myself included, look upon through rose-colored classes. In Woody Allen’s words, we suffer from a “romantization of history.” We long for the balls and the horse-drawn carriages, the elegant daintiness of the manners and the propriety of the customs. From our place of relative unencumbered social freedom, we yearn for the structure society bestowed upon its members, the very structure Wharton herself found so unbearably suffocating. One might reason along the same lines for why Jane Austen’s novels have proven so enduring throughout the centuries.
The final element of Wharton’s literary success lies in her extraordinary vocabulary. It is rare nowadays for me to read an English book and have to underline and look up a word for which its meaning eludes me. I recently wrote about underlining words in a foreign language book as an effective method of improving your vocabulary in a new language. But while reading The House of Mirth, I found myself pencil in hand drinking down Wharton’s words with the same goal in mind. I’ve compiled a list below of the vocabulary I found so impressive in Wharton’s vernacular (which I am determined to include in my own speech and writing). Since finishing The House of Mirth, I have moved on to Henry James who wrote during the same era. The breadth of his lexis is similarly, if not identically, distinguished, which might suggest a sign of the times rather than a particularity of Wharton’s writing alone. This would denote, then, that over the last hundred years our ability to precisely and richly express ourselves has diminished. What a pity! (See list below)
It doesn’t surprise me one bit that Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence in 1920. What astonishes me is that she won no accolades for her writing in The House of Mirth. Having read both novels, I prefer the style and poise of the latter, as the plot symmetry, spectacular storytelling and dialogue, brilliant character development and unparalleled social satire rivals that of The Age of Innocence.
The lack of critical accolades at the time of The House of Mirth’s publication perhaps had a great deal to do with Wharton being relatively unknown in literary circles at the time as the book was one of her first novels published. Or perhaps critics were taken-aback, as I was myself, by the conclusion of the story. I won’t mention it as not to spoil the climax for those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading Wharton’s masterpiece. I’ll venture to say, however, that her reader is left bewildered, heartbroken perhaps, by the final stroke of fate Wharton bequeaths upon her providence-drenched cast. I put down the novel with a strange feeling of horror and awe, disbelief and admiration. I have rarely been as touched by an author as I was by the words of my fellow American expat who wrote over a century ago.
Impressive vocabulary list: (some of which I know/recognize by name or context but would be hard pressed to give a proper definition)
Abnegation – the denial and rejection of a doctrine or belief.
Agrope – ?
Alchemy – A medieval chemical philosophy having as its asserted aims the transmutation of base metals into gold, the discovery of the panacea, and the preparation of the elixir of longevity.
Aphorisms – A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion; an adage.
Apothegm – A terse, witty, instructive saying; a maxim.
Assiduity (Assiduously) – Persistent application or diligence; unflagging effort.
Centripetal – Moving or directed toward a center or axis.
Circuitous – Being or taking a roundabout, lengthy course.
Concavity – The state of being curved like the inner surface of a sphere.
Conjecturing – Inference or judgment based on inconclusive or incomplete evidence; guesswork.
Diatribe – A bitter, abusive denunciation.
Desultory – Having no set plan; haphazard or random.
Digitalis – A drug prepared from the seeds and dried leaves of this plant, used in medicine as a cardiac stimulant.
Discomfiture – Frustration or disappointment; Lack of ease; perplexity and embarrassment.
Effulgence – A brilliant radiance.
Effusiveness – Unrestrained or excessive in emotional expression; gushy.
Elucidating – To make clear or plain, especially by explanation; clarify.
Equanimity – The quality of being calm and even-tempered; composure.
Evinced – To show or demonstrate clearly; manifest.
Excrescences – An outgrowth or enlargement, especially an abnormal one, such as a wart.
Expletives – An exclamation or oath, especially one that is profane, vulgar, or obscene.
Expostulations – To reason earnestly with someone in an effort to dissuade or correct; remonstrate.
Fastidiousness (Fastidious) – Possessing or displaying careful, meticulous attention to detail; Difficult to please; exacting.
Fixity – The quality or condition of being fixed.
Forbearance – Tolerance and restraint in the face of provocation; patience.
Guileless – Free of guile; artless.
Inexorableness – Not capable of being persuaded by entreaty; relentless.
Illumined – To give light to; illuminate.
Imperiled – To place in danger or jeopardy; endanger
Impervious – Incapable of being penetrated.
Indolently – Disinclined to exert oneself; habitually lazy.
Innocuous – Having no adverse effect; harmless.
Languid – Lacking energy or vitality; weak.
Loquacity – Very talkative; garrulous.
Lugubrious – Mournful, dismal, or gloomy, especially to an exaggerated or ludicrous degree.
Mettle – Courage and fortitude; spirit.
Nebulous – Lacking definite form or limits; vague.
Opprobrium – Disgrace arising from exceedingly shameful conduct; ignominy.
Pallid – Having an abnormally pale or wan complexion.
Panacea – A remedy for all diseases, evils, or difficulties; a cure-all.
Penury – Extreme want or poverty; destitution.
Perfidious – Guilty, treacherous, or faithless; deceitful.
Pinions – The outer rear edge of the wing of a bird, containing the primary feathers.
Proffered – To offer for acceptance; tender
Propinquity – Proximity; nearness; kinship.
Propitious – Presenting favorable circumstances; auspicious.
Prosaic – Matter-of-fact; straightforward; lacking in imagination and spirit; dull.
Protracted – To draw out or lengthen in time; prolong.
Portentous (Portentously) – Full of unspecifiable significance; exciting wonder and awe.
Puerility – Belonging to childhood; juvenile.
Pyre – A heap of combustibles for burning a corpse as a funeral rite.
Rapacity – Taking by force; plundering.
Sardonic – Scornfully or cynically mocking.
Satiety – The condition of being full or gratified beyond the point of satisfaction; surfeit.
Shorn – A past participle of shear.
Tremulous – Timid or fearful; timorous.
Truancy – The act or condition of being absent without permission.
Tumult – The din and commotion of a great crowd.
Vacuity (Vacuous) – Total absence of matter; emptiness.
Vacillation – To sway from one side to the other; oscillate.
Vagrancy (Vagrant) – One who wanders from place to place without a permanent home or a means of livelihood.
Vicissitudes – Changes of fortune, life’s ups and downs.
Wan – Unnaturally pale, as from physical or emotional distress.