“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
This rather forbidding exegesis from Ecclesiastes found on the title page of “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton should be enough of a warning that this novel — her second most celebrated after “The Age of Innocence” — is very unlike her other, most renowned novel. Opening as a film this week almost exactly 100 years after its publication as a novel in Boston, it is an interesting illustration of the difference in mores that a century has wrought. (Martin Scorsese brought “Age of Innocence” to the screen most successfully a few years back.)
Alike in that both portray a world very different from our own, “Mirth” is a tale of disappointment and frustration. Set in the New York of the last century — in which class distinctions are sometimes startling — all the characters, no matter how well they may know one another, address each other as Mr., Mrs. and Miss. (Edith Wharton signed all her letters “E. Wharton.”) A very strict code of behavior was in place, one which people violated at considerable risk. A woman — a lady, that is — never visited a gentleman in his apartment, for instance. Such a visit, if found out, would mean her reputation would be irreparably ruined.
From today’s point of view, it is an odd world Miss Wharton describes. Class distinctions are rigid and unappealing. Women — of good family — live in a world of servants, money, holidays and fashionable clothing (custom made, of course). “This class of writers,” wrote a contemporary critic, “finds their ethics by what may be called the dredging process. Now it is fashionable to get these out of the cesspools of vice. The author who can portray the most sins in the best style is now the most popular literary preacher.”
Lily Bart, the heroine of our story, although of “good” family, has gambled away all her money at bridge. She is consequently reduced to the position of most of the young ladies of her social class: the pursuit of an affluent husband. She also is 29 — an age when a woman’s chances for matrimony are considerably decreased. However, of all the strokes of good luck, she does find such a suitor — but, alas, he is Jewish (a detail elaborated upon in the novel almost to the point of anti-Semitism, but completely passed over in the film). This might not make much difference today, but a hundred years ago he would be totally excluded from “polite” society. Poor Mr. Rosedale!
And so Lily goes on with her pursuit of a (gentile) husband of means. After some time, this quest comes to a bitter end. Her finances being even further reduced, she finds herself meeting once again with Mr. Rosedale, telling him that she will, after all, marry him. But this time she gets the shock of her life. For Mr. Rosedale, it seems, has made a fortune on Wall Street and finds that he can acquire a wife of even loftier status than Lily Bart, which he tells her straight out.
Lily gamely finds herself employment as social secretary to an aspiring lady of fashion, who promptly drops her once she has attained her social goal. When this happens, Lily is forced to seek other employment, far, far down on the social scale — manual work as a milliner, decorating ladies’ hats. When she is dismissed from this job because of her ineptitude, she is pretty much at the end of her tether. She is destitute. In the last scene, she is lying in bed, suffering from an involuntary overdose of what she has taken as a soporific — but which, in fact, kills her.
Through the film, as through the novel, Lily is shown as far more sinned against than sinning. She has, however, selected a situation in that circle of society where — as a contemporary remarked, “conditions make for destruction rather than the development of honor and virtue.” Lily, whom we see to be a capable, poised woman, is enmeshed in all of this. And it brings her down.
The film is beautifully acted under the direction of Trevor Davies with its star, Gillian Anderson, bringing off a tour de force — she is very familiar to American television viewers as one of the two stars of Fox’s “X Files.”
Another time trick played by the movie is about its period. Did New York of a hundred years ago ever look like Glasgow today? For this quintessential New York film was shot on location in Glasgow.