Coming on the heels of The Emperor’s Children, The House of Mirth was another big novel, in both senses. Both aim to capture the New York of a certain class. Both are pretty scathing in their expose of those people and their conventions, and the toll they take on innocents trying to make their way in the world. House of Mirth is from an earlier era, so the effect on the innocent is not an emotional breakdown, but ultimately her destitution and probable suicide. In that way, House of Mirth is very similar to Vanity Fair, which I read a few months earlier. Gorgeously written, but a parade of horribles awaits our heroine at every turn. Ultimately, I decided to stop reading halfway through, perhaps the second or third time Lily fails to connect with the one man who really loves her and whom she could really love. I skipped to the end to confirm my suspicion of her failure to ever achieve real connection or even the security of a conventional marriage. She instead has a picturesque end in a threadbare boarding house with a post-mortem visit by the true love.
I did enjoy the scene in which Lily strolls through the wedding gifts laid out for a more successful young woman. I had not realized that was ever a custom in the Northeast as it seems to continue only in the South. We think of that era as so cultured, but the naked display of wealth and status was a big part of women’s lives – how else to identify whom to marry?