The House of Mirth Study Guide (Choose to Continue)


The House of Mirth: Book One – Chapter 9,10,11

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Summary – Chapter Nine

The narrative switches to Mrs Peniston and her return to town in the fall. When Lily comes home from the wedding, the house is being cleaned from top to bottom. The stairs are covered in soap suds and as Lily gathers her skirts she remember descending the stairs at Selden’s home. She looks down and sees the same cleaner she met there and the cleaner is as reluctant as before in letting her past. Lily tells her sharply to move her pail as she is on her own ground this time. The woman does so, but continues to stare at her.


Lily is back in town earlier than she has been on other years and is not used to having gaps in her social calendar; she feels that people are tired of her. She has the alternative of visiting Bellomont, but prefers to stay home instead despite the dullness. Sitting in the dark, Lily can only see a future of servitude and waiting on her aunt.


The bell rings and the maid tells Lily that Mrs Haffen has called for her. Lily goes to the door and sees the charwoman waiting for her. She takes her into the dining room and Mrs Haffen produces a small parcel wrapped in newspaper. She tells Lily she has something that she might like to see and explains slowly that her husband was the janitor at The Benedick but is now out of work. She has been poorly and it is hard for her and her family. After Lily becomes impatient, Mrs Haffen tells her that she used to clean the gentlemen’s rooms and their waste paper baskets would often be brimming over with paper. Mr Selden used to destroy his letters, but sometimes he would have so many he would just tear them in half (which is what she has in the package). As she speaks, she opens it and shows her one of the letters and Lily recognizes it as one from Bertha to Selden and knows that the owner of these ‘could overthrow with a touch the whole structure of her existence’. Mrs Haffen explains further that she has brought them to sell to Lily and after some bargaining Lily buys them.


Her aunt appears after Mrs Haffen leaves and talks about the wedding. She also informs Lily that Mrs Dorset has managed the engagement between Evie and Gryce as she had them both to stay with her. Lily goes up to her room and decides to burn the letters, but her aunt’s words revive the vision of Bertha ‘smiling, flattered, victorious, holding her up to ridicule by insinuations intelligible to every member of their little group’. She then ties the letters up and leaves them in a box in her wardrobe. She is struck with a flash of irony that she is indebted to Trenor as he gave her the means to buy them.


Analysis – Chapter Nine

Although Lily recognizes the effect these letters will have if made public, she is at first undecided as to whether to burn them or not. They are, after all, written evidence that demonstrate that Bertha has had an adulterous affair with Selden. The fact that Lily hides them away, rather than destroying them, comes when she recalls the rivalry between her and Bertha and how Bertha has influenced the engagement between Gryce and Evie. Bertha’s position is stronger than Lily’s in terms of marriage and wealth and she has used this to take revenge for when she and Selden spent time together at Bellomont.


Summary – Chapters Ten and Eleven

The fall drags on monotonously for Lily in Chapter Ten. She receives one or two invitations to Bellomont, but is evasive and says she needs to be with her aunt. Her only excitement comes with the spending of the newly acquired money.


On leaving a shop, she meets Gerty who has just come from a committee of a struggling charity for working women. Its object is to provide lodgings and a reading room for female office workers and Gerty is discouraged about the lack of interest in it. Lily is usually bored by Gerty’s philanthropic work, but today she is captured by the contrast between her life and that of the girls. She gives Gerty a fraction of the amount she was going to spend on a dressing-case and feels this justifies all her previous extravagances.


Lily is further cheered when she receives an invitation from Mrs Wellington Bry. She is currently being guided by Carry Fisher and a year ago Lily would have been reluctant to accept as Mrs Bry is of obscure origin. Now, though, Lily has less invitations and ‘Mrs Bry’s admiration was a mirror in which Lily’s self-complacency recovered its lost outline.’


A few days after her return, she has the ‘unpleasant surprise’ of a visit from Rosedale. She has the vague sense that he is connected to her ‘lucky speculations’ and so tries to give him the welcome he expects; however, his geniality chills her own. He has come to ask her to the opera and when he sees her hesitate he says that Mrs Fisher and Gus Trenor are coming too. She agrees and he realizes she is nervous when he discusses her financial dealings through Trenor. He is described as ‘not above taking advantage’ of this if he sees no other means of advancing his acquaintance with her.


She underestimates him on this subject, but knows it is expedient to go to the opera as promised and puts her fears of Trenor out of her mind. Between the two acts it is a ‘disagreeable surprise’, though, when she finds herself alone with him (Trenor) in the box. He remonstrates with her for forgetting his existence unless she wants a tip out of him and turns down her suggestion of visiting her at her aunt’s. He sounds angry and she sweetens him by saying they should walk in the park sometime. He agrees and asks her to meet him the next day at 3 pm. George Dorset comes back then and this stops their conversation. Lily smiles at him and he informs her that Bertha wants her to come to their place next Sunday. She feels a thrill of pleasure at this and thinks the thirst for retaliation has now died in her.


In Chapter Eleven, the season is beginning and Mrs Peniston follows the ‘rise and culmination’ of events as a ‘looker-on’. She tells Grace Stepney her prophecies of what will happen to the ‘new people’.


The narrative switches to how it has been a bad fall on Wall Street and while many have fared badly, Welly Bry and Rosedale have managed the miracle of thriving. Rosedale is said to have doubled his fortune, but knows that he has to go slowly in his bid to rise in society. He sees more and more clearly that Lily possesses ‘precisely the complementary qualities needed to round off his social personality’.


The narrative returns to Mrs Peniston and how she tends to look over the minutiae of what is happening. Grace, whose mind is ‘like a kind of moral fly-paper’, supplements her ‘deficiencies’. Lily would have been surprised to know how well informed Grace is as she presumes she admires her blindly like Gerty. However, Grace dislikes Lily because she thinks she dislikes her and also blames her for not being invited to a rare dinner party held by Mrs Peniston. A day or two after this party, Grace hints to Mrs Peniston about a connection between Lily and Trenor and how they have been seen together in the park after the lamps were lit. Mrs Peniston is scandalized further when she is told that there are material advantages in this flirtation: it is rumored that Lily is paying bills (which include gambling debts) and Grace refers to her accepting attention from Trenor and Dorset. Afterwards, Mrs Peniston does not broach the subject with Lily, ‘but there remained in her thoughts a settled deposit of resentment against her niece’.


Analysis – Chapters Ten and Eleven

As Grace informs Mrs Peniston of the rumors circulating about Lily, she feeds the need for revenge after being overlooked in the invitations for the dinner party. At this time, Lily is unaware of this rivalry between her and Grace and this demonstrates an element of naivety on Lily’s part. This is also seen in her pleasure at the thought of Bertha inviting her to her home and believes it is a sign that hostilities are now over between them.


This naivety is also in evidence in her dealings with Trenor as she arranges to meet him at the park in a bid to deter him but not insult him. She has been evasive with the Trenors since he has been speculating for her, but feels the need to continue using him for her own particular purposes (to support the lifestyle to which she is accustomed.)



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