The House of Mirth

by Edith Wharton

This Edith Wharton novel is the story of a stunningly beautiful high-society socialite for whom all is not as it seems to those in the outside world who might otherwise envy her. The protagonist stumbles in both money and love, and those missteps are just enough when combined to kill a young woman living in the early twentieth century. The House of Mirth, the title of which comes from a verse of Ecclesiastes, is over 100 years old. As I read this book, I find myself thinking alternately: Not much has changed in the expected behaviors of men and women in 100 years...AND...Thank God things have changed in the expected behaviors of men and women in 100 years.

This book abounds in the narrative of missed opportunities, misconstrued situations, and misunderstood communication. (Additionally, the protagonist suffers from horrible timing!) Couple all of these missteps with some of the filthy rich's savage judgment and treatment of their own kind, and the rotten luck of being born female, and it's one-two-three strikes you're out of the 1900s!

At once amidst all of those foul-ups and apart from them, there is a love story that, tragically, never gets off the ground. The book offers some good advice/spiritual counsel, in the form of high concept, for those of us who have ever suffered on either side of a love that—for whatever reason—just has never coincided to be requited. "He saw that all the conditions of life had conspired to keep them apart...But at least he had loved her—had been willing to stake his future on his faith in her—and if the moment had been fated to pass from them before they could seize it, he saw now that, for both, it had been saved whole out of the ruin of their lives." So there's something to help you feel better the next time that happens. You can spare something as pure as love itself. If you never express it, it never gets ruined. (I actually think I could find some solace in this.)

To give you a bigger bite of this book, Classic Bitch would like to paraphrase one section of The House of Mirth for you here. The pages of this book contain one of the most powerful scenes of conniving ever put on paper. For readers of the classics who also like the TV show Punk'd, for example—Are there any of you out there??—or who take especial schadenfreude in watching other people get "played," Edith Wharton is your bitch! Get this... You are female and your married female friend asks you to keep her husband company (hang out with him, flirt with him, flatter him etc.) in order to distract him from observing that his wife is actually the one having an affair. In exchange, you get to live rent free on their yacht in Europe all summer long! Sound like a good deal? Well, be careful before you take that deal, because when the husband finally does catch wind of the affair and tells you—because you're his pal now, and all—and you tell your female friend to brace herself for the husband divorcing her because he knows...the tables get turned! Your female friend now has the perfect defense, and is undivorceable for cause. After all, her husband's been seen arm in arm with "another woman" (read: you) all summer long... Congratulations, you're now the world's biggest tool—and that word, in that context, hasn't even been invented yet because it's only 1905!?

This book is predominantly about class, money, and love. But I have to close with a quote about fashion—also a great concern of The House of Mirth. So here's a fashion tip from Edith Wharton to you, spanning the centuries with its timeless relevance: "[I]t is almost as stupid to let your clothes betray that you know you are ugly as to have them proclaim that you think you are beautiful."