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Five Reasons to Read Edith Wharton

GUEST BLOG BY CLAIRE MIYE STANFORD 


  

I discovered Edith Wharton somewhat late (this year, at the ripe old age of 27), but once I did, I became an avowed Wharton fangirl, and, let me tell you, when I commit to fangirling something or someone, my fangirldom runs deep (see: Clueless, Parks and Recreation, Zadie Smith, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer*).

Which is why I was extra surprised/piqued to notice that this year—the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton’s birth—our lady Edith is getting some intensely weird birthday treatment: first, a certain famous novelist’s essay in The New Yorker about her homeliness and lack of sexual experience; next, a fashion spread and essay in the famed September issue of Vogue that featured pretty dresses, lots of flowers, and more thoughts about her sex life, but little about her actual work; and finally—back to her sex life again—a novel that takes a real-life affair of Wharton’s and reimagines it, bringing Edith into our current Fifty Shades of Grey-obsessed age.

Now, I know that judging a female author on her literary merit rather than her physical appearance, sex life, or decorating prowess seems like a wacky idea, but I think that Edith deserves better. And so, as my birthday present to one of my now-favorite writers, I present to you four reasons to read Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth that have nothing to do with beauty, sex, or interior decorating and everything to do with her masterful writing.

 

1. The House of Mirth is, shockingly, a bona fide page-turner.

When I finally picked up The House of Mirth, it was out of a sense of duty. I had never read Edith Wharton! That was a wrong that had to be righted. But, thinking it would be dreadfully dense and boring, I dragged my feet and dragged my feet until finally, late one night, I cracked it in the hopes that it would at least help me fall asleep. Reader, I was up until three that night (that morning?), and the night after that, and quite possibly the night after that, flipping the pages as fast as I could take in the gilded sentences, dying to find out what would happen next to our poor heroine, Lily Bart.

 

2. Let’s look at one of those gilded sentences, shall we?

From Book Two, Chapter Thirteen:

It was a meagre enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird’s nest built on the edge of a cliff—a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.

This sentence describes the lives of almost every twenty and thirty-something I know. I’m joking, but only kind of. And yet, while the sentence points out the fragility of a life teetering in the balance (and is laced with Lily Bart’s derision of such a life), Wharton also invests that life with dignity and bravery. A “frail audacious permanence”? Let’s just take a moment to marvel at those three words so perfectly strung together.

 

3. Lily Bart is the original Girl. 

You know, from that little-old HBO show Girls? I could write a whole separate list about why, but for now let’s just say that all the big themes are here: a young woman painfully adrift and seemingly unable to get herself back on course, female friendship and rivalry in a world dominated by men, an examination of New York’s leisured class. Even the terminology is right on—Lily Bart is 29 years old and yet, because she is unmarried, she is always referred to as a “girl.”

 

4. This is not a feel-good book.

Lest you be confused that a book written by a woman with a female main character—a beautiful, moneyed one, at that—might be treading into Candace Bushnell territory, let me assure you: it doesn’t. The House of Mirth is many things—a coming-of-age story and social commentary, primarily—and yes, it does feature somewhat lengthy descriptions of parties and apparel and interiors, but it is anything other than fluffy. Spoiler alert: It does not have a happily-ever-after. In fact, it has an ending that left me sobbing in my bed at three o’clock in the morning. And maybe I am a literary masochist, but that, to me, is a very good thing.

 

5. Just do it.

You won't regret it. I swear.

 

*The television series, not the movie.

 

 


It's okay. I haven't even started gift shopping.

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