The House of Mirth

It’s as close to a law of literary reception as we’re ever likely to get. An innovative new novel will provoke mixed and often hostile reactions from very good readers. Think Melville from the long ago, or Joyce, or Proust, or even P. Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint), D. Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), or D. Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), from the recent past. In The Critical Reception of Edith Wharton, Helen Killoran surveys the splash Wharton makes with The House of Mirth. According to Killoran, a reviewer for the Independent blasts The House of Mirth for its indulgence in immoral fashions. Charles Eliot Norton, a future president of Harvard, rejects the premise of the novel outright, because “no woman not spotlessly virtuous can be the heroine of a truly serious novel.” A reviewer for the Outlook praises the novel for its “integrity of insight and workmanship,” and “is an achievement of high importance in American life.” In Harper’s Weekly, James McArthur observes, “Never was a society summoned to a sterner tribunal than in this book.” Paul Bourget, a friend and confidant of Wharton’s, sees in her novel of manners a “masterpiece of the genre.” According to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who discovered no less a literary star than Emily Dickinson, The House of Mirth stands “at the head of all American fiction, save Hawthorne alone.” Interestingly, Henry James, to whom Wharton is often compared, found the two books of the novel “too confused” and “better written than composed.”

7 Responses to The House of Mirth

  1. Love, love, love this book. Remind me not to take any notice of what Charles Eliot Norton thinks is a good book. As for James he was just jealous! Seriously, though, thanks for these summations. It is fascinating to see what the contemporary reactions are to books that have become classics isn’t it.

  2. Kerry says:

    This gives me something to anticipate. I have been planning to read Age of Innocence within the next few months, but maybe I will quickly follow it up with The House of Mirth. Of Wharton’s work, I previously have only read (and loved) Ethan Frome. I had the reaction I have seen others relate: Ethan Frome was so good, I was almost afraid to read other works by Wharton; surely, her other works could only lead to disappointment by comparing unfavorably. I have decided to brave it.

    You made me laugh out loud with the Norton quote. What Whispering said…

  3. […] Edith has been, quite rightly, popular around the literature-loving blogosphere this year. The Classics Circuit featured the works of Wharton in January. While not technically part of the Wharton Classics Circuit, Kevin from Canada re-read Custom of the County that same month and loved it all over again. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that it made his “10 Best” for 2010. In May, The Mookse and the Gripes reviewed Wharton’s Ethan Frome which turned out to be one of his Ten Twelve Best. A Rat in the Book Pile also read Ethan Frome and drew out in her post interesting observations and quotes regarding the narrator. Where KfC opened the year with Wharton, Kevin from Interpolations (KfI? K2D2?) closed it out (November, close enough) with that same Wharton, Custom of the County. He has also read in 2010: Ethan Frome and House of Mirth. […]

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