This will end up being a review of The House of Mirth, sort of.“Wasn’t she too beautiful, Lawrence? Don’t you like her best in that simple dress? It makes her look like the real Lily – the Lily I know.”
Let’s begin with rich, beautiful people. I am neither, and I come from a long line of neithers. I come from hardy, working-class stock – Scots-English, mostly. Lots of ‘em orphaned or abandoned and left to fend for themselves as a result of various kinds of neglect, addictions or just plain bad luck. The women were tough mama bears who put their heads down and did what they had to do to put food on the table. On my dad’s side, his mother - Grandma Flora - left Dundee, Scotland sometime in the late teens/early 20s when she was the same age; roughly the time Wharton was writing.
From what I can piece together, Grandma Flora had been working as a domestic, with few prospects for anything but a life of slavery and grinding poverty. “Dingy” is the word Lily would use – but probably for a lifestyle about six rungs up the ladder that Grandma Flora was barely clinging to.It was the strangest part of Lily’s strange experience, the hearing of these names, the seeing the fragmentary and distorted image of the world she had lived in reflected in the mirror of the working-girls’ minds. She had never before suspected the mixture of insatiable curiosity and contemptuous freedom with which she and her kind were discussed in this underworld of toilers who lived on their vanity and self-indulgence.
Young Flora’s choices were to stay and toil for the rest of her life or take her chances on a new life in Canada. I think she may have had some distant relatives here, but really, she was on her own. She somehow ended up in Timmins, in the deep woods of northern Ontario near the Quebec border, and married a man from Leeds – a Bernardo orphan
, we believe - who subsequently drank the money they were making from the fledgling bakery they had established together. When it went under, he moved her to Toronto on the likely assumption that he could find work there, then in 1932 in the depths of the Depression, he left her (never to be seen or heard from again) with children aged five, two and six months with no income and no prospects for a life other than one of, again, ongoing grinding poverty.
There are stories about how Grandma Flora, my two uncles and my father (the middle child) survived in a time when there was no welfare, no social programs to speak of, that would rip your heart out.
She worked for many years capping bottles on an assembly line at Crown Cork & Seal. The children somehow must have fended for themselves. At the age of two, the youngest came down with tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitorium in the west end of the city
. He was there for more than a year – longer than his recovery likely took, but the hospital (founded as The Toronto Free Hospital for the Consumptive Poor
, but known as the Weston Sanitorium) served as a quasi-orphanage for children whose parents were so impoverished they simply couldn’t look after them.
Grandma Flora. I now picture her gripping the hands of her other two, barely past toddlers themselves, and tugging them along Queen Street. They walked (on rare days, they could probably afford the streetcar for part of the trip) a round-trip of 40 km each Saturday to visit him. He was her baby, her bonnie lad. They all were. She held on tight.
Uncle Stan, the oldest–who never married while she was alive and lived with her until she died–left school at grade 6. The family needed the income. My father did a little better, making it to grade 10 and finding a spot in a coveted mechanical apprenticeship program and later into a permanent job on the railway.
On my mother’s side, it’s a similar story. Her father lasted with them a while longer, until one day he came home from work, lay down on the sofa, and his heart exploded. Mom was 12; her younger brother 10. This was a little later – 1948 – so times were not so desperate, and there was some kind of insurance that kept them going, at least for a little while. Still, mom had to leave school at age 16 with a high school equivalency diploma, and get herself an office job downtown.“Why, what on earth are you doing?”
“Learning to be a milliner—at least,
trying to learn,” she hastily qualified the statement.
Rosedale suppressed a low whistle of surprise. “Come off; you ain’t serious, are you?”
“Perfectly serious. I’m obliged to work for my living.”
You worked. As soon as you could and at whatever you could. You didn’t choose a 'career.' You didn’t 'marry up.' It was, literally, unthinkable. “Out of work-out of work! What a way for you to talk! The idea of your having to work; it’s preposterous.”
… “I don’t know why I should regard myself as an exception—” she began.
are; that’s why; and your being in a place like this is a damnable outrage. I can’t talk of it calmly.”
I remember visiting Grandma Flora in her one-bedroom apartment in Scarborough, in a – yes – dingy
white brick building, surrounded by others just like it. It had horrible smelling hallways and a terrifying elevator, which you took – even though you only needed to get to the second floor – because the stairwell was not an option.
Even then at the age of about 10 (and thanks to what I now recognize was my parents’ incredible luck, hard work, steadfast determination to rise out of the poverty they were raised in), I was condescending toward and frightened of the poverty Grandma Flora still lived in. Although, in her mind, she was in the Taj Mahal compared to where she had been.
But once inside, Grandma Flora would serve tea (always in pretty china cups – that was the ‘proper’ thing to do and probably the single luxury she had or had ever had) and empire biscuits
that she had baked herself; the aroma enveloped you and provided relief and dramatic contrast to what was outside. I would often bring her drawings that I had done and she would exclaim and marvel over them in a most uncharacteristic way (she was a taciturn Scot, after all). The next visit, they would be in cheap, black plastic frames from Woolworth’s, hung prominently in the one room that was kitchen-living room-bedroom. It was warm in the kitchen, which, when Nettie Struther’s match had made a flame leap from the gas-jet above the table, revealed itself to Lily as extraordinarily small and almost miraculously clean.
“We’ve got a parlour too,” she explained with pardonable pride …”
Grandma Flora taught me how to cook Scotch eggs and, on crossed broomsticks there in that kitchen nook, the rudiments of highland dance. Don’t mistake me: she was not the apron-wearing, rosy-cheeked Grandma, all smiles, hugs, love and gingerbread. She was a tough, practical, judgmental, tee-totalling survivor of god knows what for god knows how long.Such a vision of the solidarity of life had never before come to Lily. She had had a premonition of it in the blind motions of her mating instinct, but they had been checked by the disintegrating influences of the life about her. All the men and women she knew were like atoms whirling away from each other in some wild centrifugal dance; her first glimpse of the continuity of life had come to her that evening in Nettie Struther’s kitchen.
I became the family’s historian at about age 12, the result of a school assignment. Grandma Flora helped me sketch out the family tree, as much as we could anyway. It ended up looking like a maple after a particularly gusty October day, denuded by bad memory and so much unknown history. So many bare branches, disappearing into the foggy newsprint of my sketchbook. I was more interested in names and places – quantity, clarity – as I thought that was where the marks were. And still a little young to be asking what I wish I had asked her: what were you thinking, what were you feeling, from where did you draw your courage? Did you, when you trudged along Queen Street or over the Bloor Street bridge, ever think of throwing yourself over?
By the time those questions became of interest to me, it was too late to ask them. Grandma Flora hardened into a silent, angry knot and I was insolent and arrogant, clutching my B.A. (the first in my family to get one; the diploma professionally matted and framed, and hung proudly in my parents’ den next to my graduation picture). I had been raised to aspire to more. My parents had already climbed all the way up to what I suppose would be called lower middle-class; and my brother and I were to put as many more rungs as possible between ourselves and our family’s impoverished past.
In my parents’ eyes, those rungs were made of education and hard work. Work, as long as you can work, you can survive.
Talent was good – but secondary. It gave you something to build on, but mine were seen more as options for recreation and, at best, avocation; not tangible enough to provide a living. I could write and draw and play a little piano (my inherent lack of grace and athleticism made highland or any other kind of dance pretty much a dead-end), but none of these looked promising as a route to providing social and financial security – which, to them, meant having a nice house and a car and some savings in the bank, maybe a good pension plan. That was about as far ‘up’ as Mom and Dad could see – and in fact as far as they would get.Since she had been brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but the discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal efficiency.
I know they spent many a sleepless night as I weighed my choices for university: was it to be art school or the more traditional route studying English lit? In the end, art school didn’t offer me a scholarship, so I went with the money (it would have been profligate not to), and English lit it was. They would have supported me either way, but their pride was couched in obvious relief knowing that the route I chose could lead to teaching (it didn’t, but it could have). Nursing, typing and teaching: these were the skills that, in my parents’ still-constrained minds (the feminist revolution hadn’t reached them), and for a young woman in my position, paid. They were worthwhile, acceptable and attainable goals. Dreams like Lily’s were not only out-of-reach, they weren’t even dreams. That kind of money – real money; the one percent in today's handy vernacular – you were born or married into. And it dirtied you. It called into question your moral fibre (the consoling rationalization of the poor).She had learned by experience that she had neither the aptitude nor the moral constancy to remake her life on new lines, to become a worker among workers and let the world of luxury and pleasure sweep by her unregarded. … Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was: an organism as helpless out of its narrow range as the sea-anemone torn from the rock. She had been fashioned to adorn and delight; to what other end does nature round the rose leaf and paint the humming-bird’s breast? And was it her fault that the purely decorative mission is less easily and harmoniously fulfilled among social beings than in the world of nature? That it is apt to be hampered by material necessities or complicated by moral scruples?
So, we are more alike than we seem, you and me, Lily Bart. Across time and place and class, we are more alike than we might seem. And there, my sympathy and empathy were engaged. There, Wharton spoke to me through Lily and touched my heart with her tragedy, which is Grandma Flora’s and mine and ours.“What can one do when one finds that one only fits into one hole? One must get back to it or be thrown out into the rubbish heap—and you don’t know what it’s like in the rubbish heap!”
p.327Yes, it was happiness she still wanted, and the glimpse she had caught of it made everything else of no account. One by one she had detached herself from the baser possibilities, and she saw that nothing now remained to her but the emptiness of renunciation. …
She felt an intense longing to prolong, to perpetuate, the momentary exaltation of her spirit. If only life could end now—end on this tragic yet sweet vision of lost possibilities, which gave her a sense of kinship with all the loving and foregoing in the world.
Maybe, just maybe, the best book I've read all year. Who are you Edith Wharton, and where have you been all my life? Why has it taken me so long to find you?
Can't remember the last time I've been so engaged with characters and the world they inhabit.
Or been provoked, moved, stirred to pity, disgust, anger, sadness to the point where my only recourse was to scrawl margin notes in capital letters followed by much punctuation:
what a BITCH!!!!!
FINALLY - she realizes that????!!
OMG - what a simpering fop!!!
IT'S A TRAP, IT'S A TRAP!
noooooo LILY - too late, too late!!! :-(
and finally, :-( :-( :-( :-(
more of a review later, once I compose it - and myself.