If you’re a Jane Austen fan but haven’t read anything by Edith Wharton, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of The House of Mirth. Although Austen and Wharton lived nearly a century apart, Wharton’s The House of Mirth touches on many of the same themes as Austen’s work, exchanging English high society for American. Just one caveat: Wharton’s stories tend to be much more tragic than Austen’s.
Lily Bart, a 29-year-old beauty born into high society in New York City, has fallen on hard times since the dissolution of her father’s business and the subsequent deaths of both her parents. She now lives off the good graces of her pitiless aunt. As Lily struggles to maintain social standing, she must bury her feelings for the handsome Lawrence Selden, because his status wouldn’t elevate Lily high enough to recover what she has lost since her parents’ deaths.
My coworker describes Wharton as the Anti-Austen, because their stories have very different outcomes even though their writing styles and subjects are similar. Writing around the time of the publication of Darwin’s famous theory of evolution, Wharton was possessed with the idea of “social determinism,” meaning that people who are born into a social circle are unable to function outside it. So much for the American Dream, huh? Regardless of how you feel about that, Wharton’s ingenious writing is food for thought and still relevant 100 years later.
As a work in the United States public domain, The House of Mirth is available as a free ebook download from Project Gutenberg.
The library also has physical copies available. Check the PPLC Catalog for The House of Mirth.