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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; read by Joanna Cassidy (Listen for Pleasure: 2 cassettes, 3 hours; $14.95)

March 15, 1987|Ursula Hegi | Hegi, the author of "Intrusions" (Viking), directs the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Eastern Washington University

First published in 1905, "The House of Mirth" was Edith Wharton's 10th novel and brought her immediate success. More than 140,000 copies were printed within the first few months. The novel reflects the artificial social world in which Wharton lived.

It's quite a challenge to abridge a 350-page novel into three hours of listening time. The choices of what to leave out are not easy, but Sue Dawson has abridged well.

"The House of Mirth" is read by actress Joanna Cassidy, whose voice is irritatingly perky. As a result, the beginning of the first cassette feels strained. Gradually Cassidy's voice settles down during the narrative parts of the novel, but it retains its grating quality whenever Cassidy reads dialogue.

Still, it's a pleasure to listen to Wharton's vivid prose. She has the ability of describing even minor characters with significant details that bring them to life. The strongest of those minor characters is the charwoman who eventually sells Bertha Dorset's letters to Lily Bart, Wharton's protagonist. The first time Lily sees her, the woman is cleaning stairs, "resting her clenched red fists on the wet cloth she had just drawn from her pail. She had a broad sallow face, slightly pitted with smallpox, and thin straw-colored hair through which her scalp shone unpleasantly."

Set in New York at the turn of the century, "The House of Mirth" takes a sarcastic look at the manipulation of high society and at the destructive conventions that cripple women by glamorizing their dependence. It shows a world where women are punished for wanting to be independent and where a wealthy marriage is seen as the only choice for young women. Mr. Rosedale, a Jewish financier, is interested in moving up into Lily's social circle by marrying her.

Though Lily Bart is drawn to Lawrence Selden, she doesn't consider marriage to him because he isn't wealthy. He loves her as she could be, not as she is--manipulative and shallow. While to her success means wealth, it means personal freedom to him. When he makes her take a closer look at herself, she asks him, "Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me, if you have nothing to give me instead?" Selden is startled. "Isn't it natural that I should try to belittle all the things that I can't offer you?" When she asks him if he wants to marry her, he laughs. "No, I don't want to--but perhaps I should if you did!"

As Lily's social position erodes, she focuses even more on it; yet, what makes her interesting is that she does not deceive herself about her motives and ultimately develops the courage to take responsibility for herself.

Throughout the novel the possibility of love for Lily and Selden remains; yet, when it almost happens, it is too late for both of them. By then Lily's reputation is ruined and she works in a military factory.

Wharton not only explores high society, but also the class differences and the treatment of laborers. Lily becomes a victim of circumstances and a corrupt society. Both Lily and Selden are unable to communicate with each other--when one reaches out, the other misunderstands or withdraws.

Sue Dawson has left out a few significant parts of Wharton's novel in her abridgement. One of them is the first conversation between Lily Bart and Percy Gryce, the shy young man who practices the "art of accumulation" and becomes interested in adding Lily to his list of possessions. Another excised major scene is the conflict that arises between Lily and Bertha Dorset during the cruise. Since this conflict involves Selden and affects Rosedale's attitude toward Lily, it leaves a gap in the narrative that might be confusing to listeners who have not read the novel.

Despite these flaws, the cassette version of "The House of Mirth" is worth listening to. Wharton's wonderful sense of sarcasm comes through whenever she takes a close look at the high society with its manners, conventions, and particularly its courtship rituals. To win Gryce, Lily knows she "must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life."

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