I recently read House of Mirth by Edith Wharton for the first time and I was gutted. Unlike, most USians, who’ve at least some inkling of what to expect from a Wharton book I had zero expectations or, rather, zero correct expectations. Wharton is not nearly so well known here as she is in her native country. Those Aussies who do know Wharton tend to know her from the Hollywood adaptations of her novels. I have managed to see none of them. So, I went in to the House of Mirth blind, like a lamb to the slaughter. Let me tell you: There was NO mirth.
I also went in kind of expecting her to be the USA’s Jane Austen. I have no idea why. It was a wrong expectation. For starters there was no happy ending. It was the bleakest most horrible ending imaginable. And the awfulness started about half way through the book, which is when I first started weeping. But it kept getting worse. And worse and even worse. Until it had the worst ending of all time and I was crying so hard snot was pouring out of my nose.
Thanks a bunch, Edith Wharton! If you weren’t already dead . . .
Have I mentioned that it’s a wonderful book? That Wharton is a brilliant writer? That Lily Bart’s dilemma is what ties her to Jane Austen? For there is a connection even across an ocean and nearly a century: their books are about the same matter: what are the options for women of a certain class? Women who are expected to marry “well”?
Marriage, or dependence on relatives, or ruin, or attempting to work at crappy jobs despite never being trained to be anything but ornamental. It’s grim. And Wharton shows just how grim.
I will definitely be reading more Wharton but I’m not exactly looking forward to it. Miserable endings are difficult. And I say that as someone whose has many favourite books that do not end at all well1 I have to steel myself to read them or I have to be in the mood for a good cry.
There’s something very vulnerable about reading. When I am immersed in a good book I feel so utterly consumed by it that an unhappy ending, the death of a favourite character can totally wreck me. My defenses are down. I cannot cope with the enormity of loss and grief and sorrow. Even though it’s not real. Movies, theatre and television never affect me so badly.2 But there’s something about the intimacy and privacy of reading that increases the emotional impact of a story.
Which is why I understand those readers who won’t read books with unhappy endings. I am in total sympathy with the need for reading that doesn’t take you to a scary, uncomfortable, or painful place. I was not quite in the right place for House of Mirth. I imagine it will be some time before I am brave enough to read it again.
How about youse lot? How many of you need a happy ending? Do any of you read the end first to see if it’s safe?