The House of Mirth: Book One – Chapter 12,13

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Lily realizes more than anyone that she has been ‘treading a devious way’ but does not perceive the ‘right road’ until it is too late to take it. She had been thinking she owed her troubles to Bertha; however, lately they have been of use to each other. Bertha is now engaged in ‘a new sentimental experiment’, which is Ned Silverton. Lily distracts Dorset and in return she has ‘social sanction’. She is not frightened of gossip as this happens in her set, but she is frightened of Trenor. Their walk in the park had not been a success and she feels she is gradually losing control of the situation.


Soon after the New Year, Lily goes to a large party at the Trenors and she senses a ‘faint coldness’ from the other ladies, although Judy appears to be unchanged. There are occasional ‘caustic allusions’ made by the women about knowing the Wellington Brys and ‘the little Jew’ and a year ago Lily would have smiled and trusted the charm of her personality. She is less confident now, however, in disarming criticism and leaves the Trenors feeling that she had failed.


In town, the Wellington Brys are putting on a ‘general entertainment’ and have decided to have tableaux vivants and music to attract ‘society’. Carry Fisher is entrusted with the organization and a dozen fashionable women (including Lily) are induced to exhibit themselves in a series of ‘pictures’.


Under the artist’s guidance, Lily’s ‘vivid plastic sense’ finds expression and her dramatic instinct is ‘roused’. She is also looking forward to displaying her beauty. Gerty and Selden are among the guests and Gerty tells him that Lily has donated $300 for her charity and has induced friends to donate too (this includes Rosedale who gave $1,000). She also says that Lily has visited the club twice and the girls like her.


Lily’s tableaux is well received, but Selden questions the standards by which she is judged: ‘Does one go to Caliban for a judgement on Miranda?’ Afterwards, she holds herself aloof for a while to show herself to advantage again. Selden approaches as the other men move away and for a moment it appears that she only cares to be beautiful to him. He gives her his arm without speaking and they go outside. When they sit down, she asks why she never sees him and asks again why they cannot be friends. She reminds him he once promised to help and he says the only way he can is by loving her. Their lips touch and she draws back and rises to her feet. He stands too and she tells him to love her, but not to tell her so. She leaves and he re-enters a little later and knows not to follow her. The chapter ends with Trenor leaving and says Lily’s tableaux was in bad taste.


Lily wakes to find two notes at her bedside in Chapter Thirteen. One is from Judy and says she hopes to dine with her later. The other is from Selden and he is letting her know he has to go to Albany and wants to see her the following day.


She is at first annoyed with Selden and thinks he will give in to an irrational impulse and ask her to marry him. She decides to write to evade his request, but then remembers the pleasure of the power of attracting him. She writes ‘tomorrow at four’ and murmurs to herself that she can easily put him off.


Judy’s summons is very welcome, though, as it is the first direct communication from her since she last went to Bellomont. The note appears to promise that relations are re-established and presumes she wants to know about last night’s entertainment. She has already arranged to dine out with Carry Fisher and others and asks her maid to despatch a telegram saying she will see Judy at 10 pm.


Lily is reluctant to leave the dinner later that night, but cannot break her engagement. She arrives at the Trenors’ townhouse and instead of the expected footman, Trenor answers. He takes her inside and leads her to believe that Judy is upstairs. He asks her to give him five minutes and when she refuses he says he will take them and ‘as many more as I want’.  Lily becomes angry and he then reveals Judy is not home and not in town. She telephoned him in the afternoon to let Lily know, but he did not pass the message on.


He blocks Lily’s path and says he wants to know where they stand with each other and ‘the man who pays for the dinner is generally allowed to have a seat at table’. She flames with embarrassment and anger, but he argues that she goes to men’s houses ‘fast enough in broad daylight’. She feels dizzy and presumes Rosedale has told him he saw her outside The Benedick. He then tells her she is not playing fair and is dodging the rules of the game; he says she has to pay for making him think she was after his beautiful eyes. He accuses her of doing the same with other men and that he is the only one left out in the cold.


She asks him what else he has to say and he finally returns to his usual restrained self and tells her to go home. As she leaves, she thinks she half recognizes a man’s figure, but is not sure. In the cab, she feels like a stranger to herself, ‘or rather there were two selves in her’: the one she has always known and an abhorrent one chained to it. The streets look the same yet changed and she dreads going home to her dreary room. She craves compassion and goes to Gerty’s instead.


Analysis – Chapters Twelve and Thirteen

Lily’s unfortunate encounter with Trenor reveals that he expects re-payment in kind for the investment he has made in her. It is his money that he has given her as he has paid for ‘the dinner’ and now expects to be allowed a seat at the table. He feels that he has bought her complicity and if she does not agree he says he will take it. Behind the innuendo, it is clear that he means he expects to have sex with her whether she wants to or not, but finally returns to his usual self when she tries to hide her fear. Her vulnerability as a single (and naive) woman is made explicit.


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