An immensely popular bestseller upon its publication in 1905, The House of Mirth was Edith Wharton’s first great novel. Set among the elegant brownstones of New York City and opulent country houses like gracious Bellomont on the Hudson, the novel creates a satiric portrayal of what Wharton herself called “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers” with a precision comparable to that of Proust. And her brilliant and complex characterization of the doomed Lily Bart, whose stunning beauty and dependence on marriage for economic survival reduce her to a decorative object, becomes an incisive commentary on the nature and status of women in that society. From her tragic attraction to bachelor lawyer Lawrence Selden to her desperate relationship with social-climbing Rosedale, Lily is all too much a product of the world indicated by the title, a phrase taken from Ecclesiastes: “The heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” For it is Lily’s very specialness that threatens the elegance and fulfillment she seeks in life. Along with the author’s other masterpiece, The Age of Innocence, this novel claims a place among the finest American novels of manners.
The upper stratum of New York society into which Edith Wharton was born in 1862 provided her with an abundance of material as a novelist but did not encourage her growth as an artist. Educated by tutors and governesses, she was raised for only one career: marriage. But her marriage, in 1885, to Edward Wharton was an emotional disappointment, if not a disaster. She suffered the first of a series of nervous breakdowns in 1894. In spite of the strain of her marriage, or perhaps because of it, she began to write fiction and published her first story in 1889.
Her first published book was a guide to interior decorating, but this was followed by several novels and story collections. They were written while the Whartons lived in Newport and New York, traveled in Europe, and built their grand home, The Mount, in Lenox, Massachusetts. In Europe, she met Henry James, who became her good friend, traveling companion, and the sternest but most careful critic of her fiction. The House of Mirth (1905) was both a resounding critical success and a bestseller, as was Ethan Frome (1911). In 1913 the Whartons were divorced, and Edith took up permanent residence in France. Her subject, however, remained America, especially the moneyed New York of her youth. Her great satiric novel, The Custom of the Country was published in 1913 and The Age of Innocence won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921.
In her later years, she enjoyed the admiration of a new generation of writers, including Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In all, she wrote some thirty books, including an autobiography. A Backwards Glance (1934). She died at her villa near Paris in 1937.
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