Edith Wharton 1905
Old money and the high society of New York controlled Lily Bart's life for a long time. After the death of her parents, at twenty one, she was forced to live with her wealthy aunt and continued to enjoy the good life of expensive fashionable clothes, lavish parties and grand vacations. Blessed with stunning beauty and proper breeding, she was desired and coveted. However, she was also envied, gossiped and eventually maligned. After a series of naive mistakes, she lost the prospect of marrying two wealthy prospects, was disinherited by her aunt, and quickly spiraled into a life of poverty. What is remarkable about Lily is that underneath this seemingly shallow character is a woman with a conscience, deep conviction and high morality.
'Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.'(opening line)
'"If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it."(10)
'Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice?'(13)
'Training and experience had taught her to be hospitable to newcomers, since the most unpromising might be useful later one, and there were plenty of available oubliettes to swallow them if they were not.'(14)
'Lily understood that beauty is only the raw material of conquest, and that to convert it into success other arts are required. She knew that to betray any sense of superiority was a subtler form of the stupidity her mother denounced, and it did not take her long to learn that a beauty needs more tact than the possessor of an average set of features.'(32)
'Misfortune had made Lily supple instead of hardening her, and a pliable substance is less easy to break than a stiff one.'(34)
"My idea of success," he said, "is personal freedom."
"Freedom? Freedom from worries?"
"From everything-- from money, from poverty, from ease and anxiety, from all the material accidents. To keep a kind of republic of the spirit-- that's what I call success."(65)
"The people who take society as an escape from work are putting it to its proper use; but when it becomes the thing worked for it distorts all the relations of life."(67)
'Ah, lucky girls who grow up in the shelter of a mother's love-- a mother who knows how to contrive opportunities without concealing favours, how to take advantage of propinquity without allowing appetite to be dulled by habit! The cleverest girl may miscalculate where her own interests are concerned, may yield too much at one moment and withdraw too far at the next: it takes a mother's unerring vigilance and foresight to land her daughters safely in the arms of wealth and suitability.'(88)
'And into what hands Bertha Dorset's secret had been delivered! For a moment the irony of the coincidence tinged Lily's disgust with a confused sense of triumph. But the disgust prevailed-- all her instinctive resistances of taste, of training, of blind inherited scruples, rose against the other feeling. Her strongest sense was one of personal contamination.'(102)
'No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity...'(110)
'It is less mortifying to believe one's self unpopular than insignificant, and vanity prefers to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness.'(119)
... half the trouble in life is caused by pretending there isn't any.'225)
'One of the surprises of her unoccupied state was the discovery that time, when it is left to itself and no definite demands are made on it, cannot be trusted to move at any unrecognized pace. Usually, it loiters; but just when one has come to count upon its slowness, it may suddenly break into a wild irrational gallop.'(297)
'The poor little working-girl who had found strength to gather up the fragments of her life, and build herself a shelter with them, seemed to Lily to have reached the central truth of existence. it was a meagre enough life, on the grim edge of poverty, with scant margin for possibilities of sickness or mischance, but it had the frail audacious permanence of a bird's nest built on the edge of a cliff-- a mere wisp of leaves and straw, yet so put together that the lives entrusted to it may hang safely over the abyss.'(314)
Quotes above are from this Riverside edition 1963
Thanks to Allie at Literary Odyssey for the idea to read the book.