My last quotation from Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth offered one minor character’s thoughts on several fancy row houses of Fifth Avenue, including one or two owned by families friendly to Mr. Van Alstyne and his partner in conversation, Lawrence Seldon. After a period of not seeing her, the latter would soon meet the book’s heroine, Lily Bart, a 29-year-old beauty on the verge of old maidenhood (as such matters were calculated in those days), in the garden of a party held at one of the houses under discussion.
Both in its subject and in the elegant prose by which Wharton conveys the scene to the reader, their romantic chat was far more charming than the psychiatry of architecture described in my quotation from the “Wharton’s house of mirth” post on Dec. 2. And in a weak moment I promised readers to reprint the lovelier discussion that was to take place later in the book between Lawrence and Lily. It exemplifies Wharton’s more elegant style of discourse. So, here goes. They approach, shake hands and:
At length Lily withdrew her hand, and moved away a step, so that her white-robed slimness was outlined against the dusk of the branches. Selden followed her, and still without speaking they seated themselves on a bench beside the fountain.
Suddenly she raised her eyes with the beseeching earnestness of a child. “You never speak to me – you think hard things of me,” she murmured. I think of you at any rate, God knows!” he said.
“Then why do we never see each other? Why can’t we be friends? You promised once to help me,” she continued in the same tone, as though the words were drawn from her unwillingly.
“The only way I can help you is by loving you” Selden said in a low voice.
She made no reply, but her face turned to him with the soft motion of a flower. His own met it slowly, and their lips touched.
She drew back and rose from her seat. Selden rose too, and they stood facing each other. Suddenly she caught his hand and pressed it for a moment against her cheek.
“Ah, love me, love me – but don’t tell me so!” she sighed with her eyes in his; and before he could speak she had turned and slipped through the arch of boughs, disappearing in the brightness of the room beyond. Selden stood where she had left him. He knew too well the transiency of exquisite moments to attempt to follow her.
Taken out of context the passage might seem a little bit purplish, something maybe from a cheap romance novel, but the grace of Wharton’s prose is in the authority and concision with which she describes the most delicate and nuanced feelings flitting through her character’s minds. The plot of this novel puts Lily into social circumstances that even we reading today would consider coarse: a scene, for example, in which a wealthy suitor who has lent her money seeks repayment in a baser coin. But the prose never stoops to the level of the action, and from this literary standoffishness arises the lofty sense of architecture – classical architecture, let me be clear – in Wharton’s writing.
I wanted the book to culminate in bliss for Lily and Selden. Spoiler alert: it did not. I was sorely disappointed. I was also surprised. I wonder whether that hints at why so many great novelists tend to avoid happy endings. Well, happy or sad, one can still enjoy the architecture of the English language as one advances through the twists of Wharton’s plot.