After one reads all of Jane Austen’s novels, one begins fumbling through the literary desert seeking the Next Jane. Eventually, the search alights on Edith Wharton. Wharton, like Austen, uses feather-light prose to describe juicy conflicts: marriages of convenience vs. love matches, rich people jockeying for status with the slightly less rich. It’s all extremely satisfying, except for the glaring difference: unlike Austen, who bestows happy endings on her heroines, Wharton is a pessimist: a curmudgeonly, anti-Semitic pessimist. In a Wharton novel, Society will inevitably beat the crap out of the Individual, and the author will imply that the Individual was asking for it by flaunting Society…but not really…but kind of, yeah.
As a zealous Janeite and a considered Whartonite, I was psyched to attend a recent Jane Austen Society of New York meeting whose order of business–besides the usual bonnet-optional Jane-worship and finger-sandwich nibbling–was a talk called “The Heroine’s Journey: Elizabeth Bennet vs. Lily Bart.” Get out your popcorn! The heroines of Pride and Prejudice and the House of Mirth were due to have an epic smackdown, except…talk about an unfair matchup, thought I. Elizabeth ends up mistress of a giant mansion and Lily ends up a corpse in a sad-sack boardinghouse. Upon further consideration, though, I did acknowledge that they both begin as members of the depressed gentry relegated to the marriage market–and both novel’s problems arise because the two protagonists have these weird yearnings to be full human beings and not saleable objects. This is what academics would call “a lot of rich material to unpack,” amirite?
With my Janeite sister-in-law beside me, I broke the ice with my fellow meeting attendees by joking, “Sooo…is anyone in here Team Lily Bart? Anyone?” Nary a peep was uttered. Poor Lily, thought I. She is as out of favor here as she is on Bertha Dorset’s yacht, if you dig my meaning.
But maybe not, it turned out. According to the excessively diverting talk by Professor Elaine M. Toia, the way I was regarding these two stories was static. Initially, you see, both Lily and Elizabeth are resistant to what Simone de Beauvoir dubs the patriarchal “women’s education” (now you’re jealous: Wharton, Austen, and de Beauvoir plus finger sandwiches), whose aim is to train her into being “the ornament in a man’s collection.” Both heroines sabotage themselves in the game, either by being dirty-petticoated and preferring the flattery of Wickham to Darcy’s disses (Elizabeth) or daring to walk around Grand Central with dudes (Lily, that slut). Also, in Lily’s case: skipping church, gambling, accepting sketchy financial assistance from married men, being used as a patsy in your friend’s adulterous schemes, and falling in with characters of ill-repute. (c.f. Toast editrix Nicole’s comparison of Lily’s plot to a poorly-played Choose Your Own Adventure)
But then, Toia pointed out to us Janeites, things get surprising in terms of who resists the “woman’s education” and who succumbs. Elizabeth gets The Letter from Darcy and decides that Darcy is right: to this day, she never knew herself. Eventually she starts shutting her mouth more and picturing herself as he might see her, modifying her behavior to fit his standards. Even though she’s on her way to a jackpot marriage, stability, partnership, status and happiness blah blah blah, she has subsumed her interpretation of the world to his. Ergo: feminist fail! Meanwhile, 100 years later and a continent away, Lily Bart, who has shared her tormentors’ shallow beliefs throughout her story, redeems herself by attempting to actually work for a living, accepting friendship from a Jew of all people (jeez, Lily!), and burning the letters she could use to blackmail Bertha and get her own foot back on the social ladder. Even though she overdoses on chloral after she accomplishes all this, she avoids selling herself to the man, or to a Man. Props.
Aside from the fact that the talk made me want to quit everything I’ve worked for, go back and get an English Ph.D and then spend the rest of my life unable to get a job, it also got my gears whirring about “happy endings” in Marriage Plot novels and how they don’t really exist from a feminist standpoint. To be well-ensconced and comfy in a patriarchy is to give up your resistance, but to resist is to end up dead in a boardinghouse.
I’d still take moving to Pemberley over death any day, but I raised my hand at the end of the lecture anyway and asked if there was a sense in which Lily’s ending was more triumphant than Elizabeth’s. Let’s just say this comment caused a lot of ahems and titters, from all sides. Fortunately my impertinent remark was overshadowed by a lady in a bonnet who was really, really incensed by Lily Bart’s imbecile moves. “I mean, going to a man’s apartment alone, where she could be seen! WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?” the woman asked us all. What, indeed, readers? What indeed?
Sarah Marian Seltzer is a writer in New York City. Find her being an obstinate, headstrong girl on Twitter at @sarahmseltzer.