I said this September I wanted "to read a lot. I'd like to read a lot, and I would like to read a lot of my 2012 Challenges", and yes, this week I've been tootling my way through some, reading about a quarter of Robinson Crusoe, and finishing Pamela, Katherine Mansfield's Selected Short Stories, Moll Flanders, and The House of Mirth.
The House of Mirth: easily my favourite so far this month, and certainly in my top ten (if not top five) books of 2012. I had been looking forward to it, and I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. My intention was to read it over a few days, however I read it in a single day, the majority of it in the evening (and it kept me up until 3am). At one point, I was walking around the house with it, reading it as I cooked. I could not put it down; it held me, gripped me, all the way through, and although it was not a comfortable read, it was an essential one.
And I don't mean an "ought to" or a "duty read", either. I had to know what happened to Lily Bart, the heroine of the story. The story, or the subject matter rather, is ugly and frustrating. Money, or lack of, most specifically, the effect of the lack of money on a person, a woman in her late twenties in early 20th Century America. And I loved it, though, because Lily Bart wanted nice things. And, yes, we can easily say, "but she couldn't afford them" rather smugly, and congratulate ourselves on, say, not having a credit card or an overdraft, or at least small monthly bills perfectly reflecting our income. If one doesn't have money, one cannot afford nice things and that is that. But let me ask you something, seriously: do we not deserve to have nice things? All of us? Sometimes, why can't we say, "To hell with it!" and buy that special something? It may leave us with wildly disproportionate problems (to the object of our desire, I mean) at the end of it, but God - everybody, everybody wants nice things and our income or lack of does not and cannot take away those desires. It may control them, and perhaps some of us can look smugly on, but denial, especially when controlled by finances, is an ugly, sad business. Lack of money does not remove the desire to have a nice life.
But Lily, by God, she wanted nice things. Luxuries. A nice life. And she did it, as far as she could, and yes, she was ultimately left in an untenable situation (I won't say how it ends, of course, as ever I don't want to spoil your book). But I admired her anyway. It wasn't sensible at all, of course it wasn't. She should not have lived the way she did, it was ridiculous. I shouldn't admire her at all: an admirable character would have accepted her lot, and her lot (I can tell you, because it is at the beginning) was this: she was poor, and she was single, but because of her parents' former wealth (ultimately lost) she had a high social status. And she kept it up, or tried to at least, even though she had no business doing so. She should not have gone on the way she did, but she did. Why admire that? Someone who buries their head in the sand, living a life they can't afford, running up debts and ruining themselves (with a little help from others). She really, really messed it all up. But -
That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seeds; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.
But she tried, and I (and God) love a trier. She wanted those nice things, those luxuries, and she kept on going in spite of her finances, in spite of the "ought", in spite of reality, in spite of the fact that it just could not be done. I love a woman who says "No" to what she ought to do, however it ends up. And the pressures of it, living that lifestyle and knowing full well it could not go on forever: Wharton handled it perfectly. The psychology of that very specific decline is, in my mind (and I do have a little insight), flawless. Really, it doesn't matter what you think of her (and please do be assured that if you hate Lily, I don't think that necessarily makes you smug and unsympathetic - I get a little carried away sometimes), it cannot be denied that this book is a masterpiece. Hate her, go on, but the subtle, intelligent sensitivity Wharton shows in this is deeply touching. For this alone, forget Lily Bart, I say read it. Read it, and get angry with Lily or get angry with the situation. Be uncomfortable the whole way through, be gripped, fall in love with some of the stunning descriptions of autumn in America while you're at it, worry about her as I did or condemn her; admire her refusal to give up those nice things, or shake your head at another fool with no grip on reality. Pity her or don't, but just see how wonderfully Wharton writes about a woman's breakdown. Again, yet again, here is another book I would love everyone to read.