Book Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth2About the Book

Lily Bart, beautiful, witty and sophisticated, is accepted by ‘old money’ and courted by the growing tribe of nouveaux riches. But as she nears thirty, her foothold becomes precarious; a poor girl with expensive tastes, she needs a husband to preserve her social standing and to maintain her in the luxury she has come to expect.

Whilst many have sought her, something – fastidiousness or integrity- prevents her from making a ‘suitable’ match.

Format: ebook (268 pp.)                            Publisher:
Published: 16th May 2012 [1905]             Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Classics

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My Review

Knowing Edith Wharton’s reputation as a writer but not having read any of her books, I was anticipating wit and dry humour.  What I wasn’t quite expecting was the deft way in which the author wields the literary equivalent of a scalpel to dissect the snobbery, hypocrisy and downright cruelty of the New York social scene. I mentioned the mocking humour and here are a few of my favourite examples:

On the eligible but tedious bachelor, Percy Gryce: ‘Mr. Gryce was like a merchant whose warehouses are crammed with an unmarketable commodity.’

On Lily’s aunt, Mrs Peniston: ‘To attempt to bring her into active relation with life was like tugging at a piece of furniture which has been screwed to the floor.’

‘It was the “simple country wedding” to which guests are conveyed in special trains, and from which the hordes of the uninvited have to be fended off by the intervention of the police.’

‘Lily presently saw Mrs. Bry cleaving her determined way through the doors, and, in the broad wake she left, the light figure of Mrs. Fisher bobbing after her like a row-boat at the stern of a tug.’

And I have to mention the elegance of the writing that can convey so much in just a few sentences. For example, as Lily observes those she has regarded as friends: ‘That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way.  Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement.’

Throughout the book, my sympathy was always with Lily and the situation she finds herself in.  Yes, she has a role which is largely confined to being an ‘adornment’ to the social scene.  However, I admired her determination to use the gifts she has been given, even if that does involve a degree of manipulation.  Unfortunately, an entirely innocent action and a chance meeting set in motion a chain of events that put Lily in the power of others, risking her future happiness.  Lily believes her beauty allows her to manipulate men but, sadly, she finds it is she who is being manipulated because of a mistake and the need to maintain her social status because of her (relative) poverty.

It transpires that navigating the social scene is akin to a game of snakes and ladders. Working your way up takes time, requires skill in order to cultivate contacts and involves being seen in the right places with the right people.  ‘She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose-leaf and paint the humming-bird’s breast?  And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature?’  However, one misstep, one troublesome rumour or item of mischievous gossip and you can slide down very quickly.   ‘Lily had the doomed sense of the castaway who has signalled in vain to fleeing sails.’

Very few of the characters in the book come out well.  So-called friends (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Fisher) prove to be anything but in Lily’s hour of need – because they are too timid, too afraid of what others will say or possess ulterior motives.

I’ll confess, I was unprepared for the impact the ending had on me.  Part of me could understand why Lily did what she did and part of me wished she had found the strength to take another course.  The romantic in me wanted another outcome altogether which, I’ll admit, would not have been true to the spirit of what the author was trying to communicate in the book.   Call me an old softy.

This will definitely not be the last book by Edith Wharton I read.  What an amazing author to have discovered; even more amazing when you realise The House of Mirth was Wharton’s first published novel.

The House of Mirth is a book from my Classics Club List and also forms part of my list for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge hosted by RoofBeamReader.

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In three words: Tragic, elegant, moving

Try something similar…The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Edith WhartonAbout the Author

Edith Newbold Jones was born into such wealth and privilege that her family inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” The youngest of three children, Edith spent her early years touring Europe with her parents and, upon the family’s return to the United States, enjoyed a privileged childhood in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. Edith’s creativity and talent soon became obvious: By the age of eighteen she had written a novella, (as well as witty reviews of it) and published poetry in the Atlantic Monthly.

After a failed engagement, Edith married a wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton. Despite similar backgrounds and a shared taste for travel, the marriage was not a success. Many of Wharton’s novels chronicle unhappy marriages, in which the demands of love and vocation often conflict with the expectations of society. Wharton’s first major novel, The House of Mirth, published in 1905, enjoyed considerable literary success. Ethan Frome appeared six years later, solidifying Wharton’s reputation as an important novelist. Often in the company of her close friend, Henry James, Wharton mingled with some of the most famous writers and artists of the day, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, André Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London.

In 1913 Edith divorced Edward. She lived mostly in France for the remainder of her life. When World War I broke out, she organized hostels for refugees, worked as a fund-raiser, and wrote for American publications from battlefield frontlines. She was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her courage and distinguished work.

The Age of Innocence, a novel about New York in the 1870s, earned Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921 – the first time the award had been bestowed upon a woman. Wharton travelled throughout Europe to encourage young authors. She also continued to write, lying in her bed every morning, as she had always done, dropping each newly penned page on the floor to be collected and arranged when she was finished. Wharton suffered a stroke and died on August 11, 1937. She is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, France.


Book Review: The Bell by Iris Murdoch

The BellAbout the Book

A lay community of thoroughly mixed-up people is encamped outside Imber Abbey, home of an order of sequestered nuns. A new bell is being installed when suddenly the old bell, a legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered. And then things begin to change. Meanwhile the wise old Abbess watches and prays and exercises discreet authority. And everyone, or almost everyone, hopes to be saved, whatever that may mean. Originally published in 1958, this funny, sad, and moving novel is about religion, sex, and the fight between good and evil.

Format: Paperback (352 pp.)             Publisher: Vintage
Published: 2nd August 1999 [1958]   Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

“Our actions are like ships which we may watch set out to sea, and not know when or with what cargo they will return to port.” In many ways, The Bell is a book about actions and unintended consequences.

Imber Court is described as ‘a buffer state between the Abbey and the world’ and it does seem that many of its occupants are in transition.   The most obvious is Catherine, who is spending her last few weeks before entering the Abbey as a nun.  However, as the Abbess sagely observes, “Those who hope, by retiring from the world, to earn a holiday from human frailty, in themselves and others, are usually disappointed.”

Dora is dissatisfied with and feels trapped in her marriage to Paul, but can see no alternative.  ‘That was marriage, thought Dora, to be enclosed in the aims of another.’  Having broken free once, she now feels compelled to return to Paul and Imber Court is the scene of their reunion.  I have to confess I found Dora irritatingly passive about her situation for a lot of the book.  I tended to sympathise with her friend’s advice that ‘You must either knuckle under completely or else fight him.’ My view did change once she and one of the young visitors to Imber Court, Toby, embark on an enterprise together.  ‘It was as if, for her, this was to be magical act of shattering significance, a sort of rite of power and liberation.’

Dora’s husband, Paul, remains a rather peripheral figure.  He comes across as moralistic, cold and possessive and I rather struggled to understand what could have been attractive about him to Dora.   However, he’s clearly deeply hurt by Dora’s desertion but unable to forgive her, to articulate his feelings or to show any warmth towards her that might provide hope of a full reconciliation.

And there’s Michael, always struggling to do the right thing but not always succeeding.  I found him the most empathetic character.  Betrayed in the past, he still feels guilty about his part in the circumstances that led to it and struggles with what he sees as a conflict between his sexuality and his faith.  An instinctive and momentary expression of his feelings threatens to bring to light his past actions and sets in motion a chain of events that will culminate in tragedy.

During one of the regular community meetings, one character says: “A bell is made to speak out.  What would be the value of a bell which was never rung?  It rings out clearly, it bears witness. It cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons.” In fact, as events unfold, it becomes clear that confession can sometimes be dangerous self-indulgence or disguised retribution against another.  ‘There are moments when one wants to tell the truth, when one wants to shout it around, however much damage it does.’

Murdoch’s skill is to really let you see inside the minds of the characters so that the reader witnesses their (sometimes illogical) thought processes, their moral conflicts and their attempts at self-justification.  It doesn’t make them necessarily likeable but it makes them feel credible.

The Bell forms part of my Classics Club list.  To see the other books on my list, click here.

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In three words: Elegant, insightful, intimate

Try something similar…Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Iris MurdochAbout the Author

Iris Murdoch was born in Ireland in 1919.  A university lecturer and prolific and highly professional novelist, Iris Murdoch dealt with everyday ethical or moral issues, sometimes in the light of myths. As a writer, she was a perfectionist who did not allow editors to change her text. In 1956 Murdoch married John Bayley, a literary critic, novelist, and Professor of English at Oxford University.

Murdoch produced 26 novels in 40 years, the last written while she was suffering from Alzheimer disease. Her novel The Sea, The Sea won the Booker Prize in 1978. In 1987 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She died in 1999.  Murdoch was portrayed by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench in Richard Eyre’s film Iris (2001), based on Bayley’s memories of his wife.

Throwback Thursday: Memento Mori by Muriel Spark


Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by Renee at It’s Book Talk.  It’s designed as an opportunity to share old favourites as well as books that we’ve finally got around to reading that were published over a year ago.  If you decide to take part, please link back to It’s Book Talk.

Today I’m reviewing Memento Mori by Muriel Spark, a book from my Classics Club list, first published in 1959. The lovely Ali at Heavenali is running a year long reading event to mark the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth.  You can find out more information here.

Memento MoriAbout the Book

“Remember you must die,” said the voice on the telephone.

Dame Lettie Colson is the first of her circle to receive these anonymous calls, and she does not wish to be reminded.  Nor do her friends and family – though they are constantly looking out for signs of decline in others, and change their wills on a weekly basis.

As the caller’s activities become more widespread, soon a witch-hunt is in full cry, exposing past and present duplicities, self-deception and blackmail.  Nobody is above suspicion.  Only a few, blessed with a sense of humour and the gift of faith, can guess at the caller’s identity.

Format: Paperback (226 pp.)                         Publisher: Virago
Published: 4th February 2010 [1959]           Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

My only previous experience of Muriel Spark’s writing is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  So I was expecting elegant writing, wit and acute observation but what I wasn’t expecting was the dark satire of Memento Mori and its unflinching portrait of old age, petty foibles and self-deception.  And the author isn’t afraid to deliver some quite breathtakingly sudden reverses for some of the characters. As I was reading the book, I wasn’t sure I liked it that much but, having now finished and reflected on it, I feel rather differently and have come to admire it.

Spark is good at identifying the way in which the elderly are regarded and the indignities that often come with old age.  There is a lot of truth in the depiction of the ‘Grannies’ and their loss of identity.  They are not in fact all grandmothers but referred to in that way by the nurses who care for them.  She’s equally good at pointing out traits which we’ve probably noticed in older relatives ourselves.  For example, frequently telling each other (and possibly reminding themselves) of their age and dwelling on their infirmities.  I’m not sure however that people spend quite as much time changing their wills as they do in Memento Mori.

While I didn’t find the humour in the book to be of the laugh out loud variety, I enjoyed some of the acerbic comments on domestic life.  ‘There was altogether too much candour in married life; it was an indelicate modern idea, and frequently led to upsets in a household, if not divorce…’. 

My favourite character was Charmian, a successful novelist in the past, whose books are now being rediscovered by a new generation (and who does that remind you of?).  At the beginning of the book, she appears increasingly absent-minded, if not in the early stages of dementia, but she turns out to be much sharper than people give her credit for. Some of the other characters are downright unlikeable, such as the dreadful and manipulative Mrs Pettigrew, adept at finding out secrets and using that knowledge to her advantage.  However, likeable or not, all the characters come alive on the page.  There’s Alec Warner with his compulsion for collecting facts about ageing and comparing the infirmities he observes in others with his own situation.  Or Charmian’s husband, Godfrey, with his odd peccadilloes and obsession with people’s loss (or otherwise) of their faculties.

Each of the characters who receive the cryptic message from the anonymous caller reacts differently – with outrage, with determination to find out the caller’s identity, with fear, with an academic interest about their own reaction to it, and in some cases, with acceptance.  The latter is the case with retired Chief Inspector Henry Mortimer, who made me think of the Inspector in J.B. Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls, as he tries to encourage the other recipients of the message to engage with its meaning, its inevitable truth, rather than focus on a search for the identity of the caller.   He greets the message with equanimity himself: “Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise.  It should be part of the full expectancy of life.  Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid.”  I guess that is the real message of the book.

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In three words: Dark, macabre, satirical

Muriel SparkAbout the Author

Dame Muriel Spark, DBE was a prolific Scottish novelist, short story writer, and poet whose darkly comedic voice made her one of the most distinctive writers of the twentieth century. In 2008 The Times newspaper named Spark in its list of “the 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.  Spark grew up in Edinburgh and worked as a department store secretary, writer for trade magazines, and literary editor before publishing her first novel, The Comforters, in 1957. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961, and considered her masterpiece, was made into a stage play, a TV series, and a film.

Spark received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1965 for The Mandelbaum Gate, the Ingersoll Foundation TS Eliot Award in 1992 and the David Cohen Prize in 1997. She became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993, in recognition of her services to literature. She has been twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, in 1969 for The Public Image and in 1981 for Loitering with Intent. In 1998, she was awarded the Golden PEN Award by English PEN for “a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature”. In 2010, Spark was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize of 1970 for The Driver’s Seat.

Muriel Spark died in 2006.


The Classics Club Spin #17

The Classics Club

How time flies because it’s time for another Classics Club spin!   It has to be said that my progress with my Classics Club List has been modest so far because I keep getting tempted by new releases and blog tours.  So this is a great opportunity to focus on it and at least get one book from the list read in the near future.

The rules are simple:

  • Go to your blog
  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog before Friday, 9th March
  • That morning (9th March) The Classics Club will announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number announced
  • The challenge is to read that book by 30th April even if it’s an icky one you dread reading! (Not fair not listing any scary ones!)

Here’s my spin list.  My Classics Club list focused on women writers – with a few books by John Buchan thrown in – so my spin list reflects that.  I’ve chosen mainly books I already own so there’s no excuse not to read whatever is selected!

1. The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood
2. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Armin
3. The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
4. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
5. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
6. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
7. Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann
8. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
10. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
11. Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
12. The Town House by Norah Lofts
13. A Garden of Earthly Delights by Joyce Carol Oates
14. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
15. Greenmantle by John Buchan
16. Katherine by Anya Seton
17. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
18. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
19. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
20. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

What would you be hoping for if you had my list?  (Both I and the lovely Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books are hoping for the spin gods to select no.10.)
What you be dreading?
Have you read any of the books on my list?


Book Review: Carol by Patricia Highsmith

Carol BloomsburyAbout the Book

Therese is just an ordinary sales assistant working in a New York department store when a beautiful, alluring woman in her thirties walks up to her counter.  Standing there, Therese is wholly unprepared for the first shock of love.  Therese is an awkward nineteen-year-old with a job she hates and a boyfriend she doesn’t love; Carol is a sophisticated, bored suburban housewife in the throes of a divorce and a custody battle for her only daughter.  As Therese becomes irresistibly drawn into Carol’s world, she soon realises how much they both stand to lose…

Format: Paperback (312 pp.)           Publisher: Bloomsbury
Published: 2015 [1952]                     Genre: Literary Fiction, Romance

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My Review

Carol was first published under the pseudonym Clare Morgan in 1952 with the title The Price of Salt. In the book’s afterword, Patricia Highsmith, writing in 1989, explains the story’s real life inspiration: a woman wearing a fur coat she glimpsed whilst working in the toy section of a New York department store shortly before Christmas in 1948.  She writes: ‘Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone, or because a mink coat was a rarity, and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light.’   Highsmith recounts how she was left feeling ‘odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.’

From the germ of this idea was born The Price of Salt, published under a pseudonym because by that time Strangers on a Train had been published to great success and Highsmith was now considered a ‘suspense’ writer.  Her publishers wanted more of the same and The Price of Salt was anything but.  As it happens, The Price of Salt did turn out to be a commercial success, selling nearly one million copies when it was published in paperback in 1953.  And so the story of Carol

Raised in a children’s home following a difficult upbringing, Therese has ambitions to be a stage designer.  Finding it hard to obtain openings in that profession, she reluctantly takes a job in a department store for the Christmas period.  It makes her feel trapped and she fears a future like some of the worn out, drab women she sees around her:   ‘…She knew it was the hopelessness that terrified her…the hopelessness of herself, of ever being the person she wanted to be and doing the things that person would do.’  Therese’s disillusion with her job is equalled by her dissatisfaction with her relationship with her boyfriend, Richard.    She finds she cannot return Richard’s love or relish the future together for which he hopes so fervently.  ‘She was cold, and felt rather miserable in general.  It was the half dangling, half cemented relationship with Richard, she knew.  They saw more and more of each other without growing closer.’

Therese’s first glimpse of Carol in the department store is life-changing; it awakens an overwhelming but quite unexpected attraction to this cool, stylish, beautiful woman.  When Therese initiates contact, it becomes apparent that the attraction is mutual and the two embark on a relationship that will become all-consuming and have consequences for them both.  For Therese, the relationship with Carol brings a sense of freedom and adventure.  As time goes on, it also seems to bring about a new maturity in Therese.  For Carol, a woman going through a divorce and custody battle, the relationship means agonising choices.  For them both, it means the opprobrium of society.  ‘In the eyes of the world it’s an abomination.’

It is difficult now for most of us to imagine the prejudice two women in such a relationship faced.   However, as Highsmith reminds us in the afterword, those were the days  when ‘gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they be suspected of being homosexual.’

The story is told from the point of view of Therese so Carol always remains something of an enigma, slightly distant and often unreadable.  So, like Therese, the reader, is left to try to interpret the extent of Carol’s feelings for Therese from her actions and her often opaque comments and unexplained moods.  Therese wonders, ‘Was life, were human relationships always like this… Never solid ground underfoot’. At times, it feels as if Carol is afraid of the intensity of Therese’s feelings for her, of what loving her might mean for Therese.  Unspoken thoughts, not being able to say the right words are something of a theme of the book.  ‘She [Therese] did not want to talk.  Yet she felt there were thousands of words choking her throat.’

In her foreword to my edition, the Val McDermid writes: ‘Some books change lives.  This is one of them.’  She describes how Carol, the story of a lesbian relationship, didn’t so much fill a niche as ‘a gaping void’.  It may well have been groundbreaking at the time but, in the end, Carol is simply the tender, emotional, passionate story of two people exploring the attraction they feel for each other.   I found it a wonderful book and the ending simply beautiful.

Carol is part of my TBR Pile Challenge and one of the books on my Classics Club list.  It also forms part of my From Page to Screen reading project.  I will be posting my thoughts on the comparison between the book and the film (starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) in due course.

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In three words: Passionate, stylish, intimate

Patricia HighsmithAbout the Author

Patricia Highsmith was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1921.  Her parents moved to New York when she was six, and she attended Julia Richmond high School and Barnard College.  In her senior year she edited the college magazine, having decided at the age of sixteen to become a writer.  Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951.   The Talented Mr Ripley, published in 1955, was awarded the Edgar Allen Poe Scroll by the Mystery Writers of America and introduced the fascinating anti-hero Tom Ripley, who was to appear in many of her later crime novels.

Patricia Highsmith died in Locarno, Switzerland, on 4 February 1995. Her last novel, Small g: A Summer Idyll, was published posthumously a month later.

Website ǀ  Goodreads

The Classics Club TBR Challenge 2018From Page to Screen