Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Portrait of a Mirthful House

I cannot tell you just how relieved I was Friday to discover that I am neither the only one in book club who finished the book nor the only one who liked it.  Ladies, I must confess I was worried.  I mean, after my lame suggestion of The Portrait of a Lady (which, to my defense, I had not read previously), I could barely believe you agreed to read The House of Mirth (which is one of my favorites).  Same time period and similar story lines, but the way in which the stories are told are staggeringly different.  While both female protagonists make poor decisions, I cannot help but love Wharton's Lily Bart.  James's Isabel, on the other hand, made me throw his book of never-ending run-on sentences across the room where it remains as a reminder that just because some people love Henry James, I am not inclined to do the same.  Let the British keep him; I'll take Edith Wharton any day.
But why, when her name is synonymous with depression?  Maybe I have a very cynical view of life, but her novel contains hearty amounts of realism on many levels.  Superficially, I sometimes appreciate stories about star-crossed lovers.  On a slightly deeper level, the glimpses into what life was really like among the Gilded Age Progressives are fascinating.  In a way, I wonder if Wharton was a satirist.  Where others among her set might use their wealth as an excuse for their actions, she reveals the hidden motives and intrigues that made them all no more superior than their vast numbers of hired hands.  She was writing from the inside, and the very idea that she could develop such stories is highly indicative of the life surrounding her.  Because of this insight, The House of Mirth is much more about the society in general than it is about the decisions of a beautiful woman down on her luck.  Lily Bart was the manifestation of all the women among this class who were only expected to snag a rich man.  Independent thinking, personal careers, single life, and even true love (where there was no money) were all abominable misfortunes for these poor women.  In the end, the class with the greatest wealth became the most oppressive for women while the Gerty Farishes of the world were really the most lucky because they had few restrictions.  And the main reason they had so few restrictions was that they were not expected to marry (rich men); they had no pretenses to get in their way.  For me, it is a fascinating anthropological sketch.
It is also one of the most opulent eras in American architectural history.  We have the Trenors, Dorsets, and Brys to thank for the magnificence that is Newport, Rhode Island.  Without the ridiculous amount of money, architects like Richard Morris Hunt would never have been given the opportunity to create those summer cottages like those portrayed in this story.  In conclusion, I leave you with some images of these houses of mirth.
Marble House.  RM Hunt, Architect. 1888-92.  Newport, RI.  For Wm K and Alva Vanderbilt. (It was her 37th bday present...she divorced him 2-3 years later "because she could." She kept the house as a storehouse.)
Ochre Court.  RM Hunt, Architect.  1888-1893.  Newport, RI
Ochre Court Dining Room.
The Breakers.  RM Hunt.  1892-95.  Newport, RI.  For Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt.
Land's End.  John H. Sturgis.  1864-65.  Ogden Codman, Jr. 1893.  Summer cottage of Edith Wharton.


  1. I'm going to assume that "cottage" is loosely defined.

  2. Wow - thanks for sharing those images, Amanda. Very impressive.