Fiction — audiobook. Read by Anna Fields. Blackstone Audio, 2004. Originally published 1905. 13 hours, 42 minutes. Library copy.
Set against the backdrop of the 1890s New York upper class society, Wharton’s fourth novel tells the story of Lily Bart, an unmarried woman, beginning with her visit to Lawrence Selden’s apartment. Lily has feelings for Lawrence but must marry a wealthier man in order to keep her social standing.
An unexpected visit by Lawrence causes her to change her mind and a series of events — innocently accepting money from her friend’s husband, alarming Lawrence by changing her mind about him, incorrectly being accused of adultery — leaves Lily in social ruin. Attempting to fight her way back to high society, Lily is advised by her two remaining friends to marry — quickly. Lily refuses their advice working as a personal secretary and, later, in a milliner’s until her inheritance arrives and she can save herself.
Married to her principles but trapped by a society with rigid expectations for her life, Lily Bart quickly wormed her way into my heart much in the same manner that Emma Woodhouse did. There are aspects of her character that would be easy to dismiss or derive — her constant sabotage of her own prospects due to snobbery, her refusal to associate with people who offend her sensibilities, her inability to reconcile herself with the reality of her situations — but each of these characteristics can be viewed through a favorable lens. She is deeply committed to her principles; she is a victim of a society where women are, tragically, confined to rigid gender roles and left unequipped to deal with scandal or reduced circumstances.
And, once again, Wharton explores the hypocrisy of the elite society in Manhattan presented a woman whose reputation is left in tatters by rumors and gossipers who hold unmarried women to different standards. Lily is viewed as a whore because she accepted financial support from a jealous woman’s husband yet society is willing to accept her with open arms if she inherits a substantial fortune or marries a man. Lily longs for independence and to marry for love yet society’s expectations for her constrain her access to money and her ability to function independent of society.
Interspersed amongst this larger critique are smaller yet still pointed criticisms of a society confined by an old code of morality but fixed on money and conspicuous consumption. The parties Wharton describes in great detail are lavish affairs, but there is always an air of superiority and suspicion surrounding the attendees as the old families and “blue blood” must decide to reject or accept the flood of “new money” during the Gilded Age.
While most people seem to consider this novel to be Wharton’s lesser work due to it being her first, I actually enjoyed this novel more than The Age of Innocence due to both to the brilliant of her critique and the character she created in Lily Bart.
The Classics Club:
I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.