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Thursday, July 29, 2010

THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton

Whew, it's been a while. I've been on hols in Corsica for two weeks and this is the first of the books I read there.

How appropriate that I should have finished it after an afternoon shamelessly goggling the enormous yachts and gin palaces moored at the nearby resort of Bonifacio. Or rather, the people on them.

We are talking vessels of P Diddy bling. Four-storey gleaming white crates with phalanxes of tanned and orthodontically perfect crew wearing crisp white polo shirts and khaki shorts.

One of the biggest boats had two launches, a speed boat, various jet skis and a racing yacht attached to its side. And a helipad, of course.

Far more chic to my eye, were the two-masted schooners, especially the one with bleached teak decks, scattered artlessly with greige linen cushions. Even its wheel was a thing of perfect beauty. I stood looking at that boat for some time, imagining the life it was part of. My, she was yar.

What made the scene particularly interesting to me though, is that Bonifacio isn’t an obvious spot for this kind of display. I’m sure Diddy has never moored there. Nor Abramovich.

An ancient citadel perched perilously on a cliff top at the very southern tip of the island, just 14 k of azure Mediterranean water from Sardinia, it has some charming bars, souvenirs shops and ice cream cafes along the harbourside, but no branches of Prada or Graaft.

It would thus be the destination of the more discerning billionaire who understands the code of discreet and degagé chic. More likely to shop at Loro Piana than Louis Vuitton.

I have no idea who any of these blingy boat people were, but my husband was very excited to spot one of his sporting heroes Fabrizio Ravinelli, formerly of Juventas, Middlesborough and the Italian national football team, strolling along the quay. I was more interested in a young woman of ridiculous beauty wearing a sportif ensemble I happen to know was by Versace.

It was all I could do not to follow her like a dog trailing after a string of sausages, just so I could gaze longer on the smooth brown skin of her ridiculously long slim legs. She was like a creature from another species. I wanted to study her.

But the most interesting group of all were the boat owners. I spotted three of them and to a man, they were short, fat, old, red and very very cross.

On the rear decks of their respective boats they were each remonstrating with a young, beautiful, tall, brown, smiling member of their staff, clearly used to dealing with the old man’s dyspeptic rages. Yessir, right away, sir.

In short, they were exactly like the super rich men in Edith Wharton’s so precisely observed New York society of 1905.

And that young woman I saw, bowling along the quay in her tree frog green silk jersey mini skirt and perfectly flat sandals, could have been Miss Lily Bart, the book’s beauteous heroine.

Like the characters of the book these are people who understand the very specific nuances of clothing, status symbols and deportment. Haute semiotics. And just like Wharton’s rich people, while having it all, the ones at Bonifacio didn’t look particularly happy, although Miss Legs did a fine line in laughing over her shoulder with advanced hair tossing.

I’m reluctant to say too much more about The House of Mirth, for fear of giving away the story – as the back cover of the Penguin Classic edition I read so infuriatingly did so if you get the same edition, don’t look at it. (It also has the most cringe-making and sometimes inaccurate footnotes: ‘Marrons Glacés – chestnut sherbert.’ Er, not.)

Yet despite these and other irritants, I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, felt enriched by it, drove my family nuts by constantly disappearing to read it.

The heroine is maddening at times, to a Thomas Hardy level – no! don’t do that, you stupid woman! noooo! – but Wharton’s forensic dissection of the myriad forms of human moral weakness is as satisfying as the outcomes of them are tragic.

But there are some deeper flaws. Part of the storyline hinges on the most vile anti-Semitism, voiced equally by the characters and the author, to the point where for a moment I wondered if I could read on.

Again and again Wharton ascribes unappealing tendencies to a particular character – the Jew - as ‘typical of his race’. It was so offensive it was like having a bucket of cold water thrown over your head.

I mightn’t have minded so much if it were the characters that said these things, but over and over again it was Wharton herself.

I kept telling myself it was ‘the times’ she lived in, but knowing that the book was published just 34 years before the outbreak of WW2, didn’t make that much of a comfort, but I needed to know how it ended so I read on.

The annoying jacket describes it as a ‘black comedy’, but I think I must have missed the funny bits. I found it terribly sad.

And what you are left with is such an incredibly vivid insight into the constraints women lived within when they were still economically reliant on men, I think all girls should be forced to read it before their eighteenth birthdays. Freedom from all that is still so recent.

It’s also a perfectly preserved-in-amber portrait of an apparently lost world of privilege and pecking order - which my time on the quay in Bonifacio confirmed actually still exists 100 years later, just with a different set of codes to manipulate, exploit and breach.

And much shorter skirts.

Reading satisfaction: 7
Un-put-downable-ness: 8.5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 9
Recommend to mother: 9
Recommend to niece: 10
Recommend to gay best friend: 8
Recommend to man pal: 7
Recommend to Helen Razer: 9
Read on public transport: 10
Unpleasantness: 6

1 comment:

  1. I read House of Mirth for my HSC in 1990, I remember liking it better than I did the 3 Austen's we also studied but that wouldn't have been hard. We are having 3 weeks in Europe soon (I'm in Melbourne) and I planned to take some orange Penguins with me, so I might add this to my list.

    And did you find some books for your daughter that she liked?