The Social Web: Lily Bart knows how to climb the rankings.
I didn’t expect a book published 111 years ago would have much to say about social media in the 21st century. I was wrong.
Edith Jones Wharton (1862-1937), known to her close friends as Pussy Jones, knew a thing or three about social climbing. The phrase keeping up with the Joneses is believed to refer to her father’s family.
The fight to climb the ranks of social media may have replaced the race for best seats at the opera but the rules of the game are much the same. Wharton can teach you how to play.
When first publish, in 1905, The House of Mirth had the most rapid sales of any book ever published by Scribner. Housewives and businessmen alike were enthralled by the declining fortunes of Miss Lily Bart.
Lily, charming, well-bred and exceedingly beautiful, has been tutored in the appreciation of beautiful things and believes her vocation is to adorn a well-appointed salon. Sadly, Lily's parents have left her with an income insufficient to her lifestyle, therefore, the only path to financial security is marriage.
We meet Lily when she is already twenty-nine years old, quite elderly for a 'jeune fille a marier'. She has missed out on several top-notch opportunities for marriage including, if we are to believe the rumours, a real prince. Lily’s society friends can’t understand why she repeatedly leads ideal suitors up the garden path and then slams the door on their faces.
Our cast of A-list New Yorkers take the stage at a country house party where Lily, once again, brings an eligible bachelor to the point of seduction. He has bored her all afternoon but she knows that she must keep up the charm offensive to take advantage of, ‘the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.’
Lily is rescued from this particular life of boredom by her friend, Laurence Selden.
Selden, a lawyer with no fortune to speak of, sweeps her away from the trappings of the ornate drawing-room to a forest, to nature, and challenges her motivation. His idea of success, he tells her, is personal freedom.
‘[Freedom] 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.’
Selden invites Lily to join his republic, in fact he would prefer a coup d’état and to seat her on the throne. Lily, for her part, is reluctant to believe that the ‘sense of buoyancy’ she feels is truly love and declines to forego her aspirations of wealth. Nevertheless, Selden has touched a nerve and set her on the path to self-discovery.
The relationship between Laurence Selden and Lily Bart is the most subtle and heart-rending of love stories. The woman he sees and respects is the best possible version of Lily. It is Laurence Selden’s vision of Lily Bart which becomes her beacon through the social storm.
Lily Bart is a heroine whose flaws receive universal acclaim and whose strengths are her downfall. She lurches from one dilemma to the next, each time searching her heart and making a choice which seems morally correct but turns out to be socially disastrous.
‘What she craved and really felt herself entitled to was a situation in which the noblest attitude should also be the easiest.’
As each catastrophe unfolds, Lily topples further down the rungs, but gains insight into the mechanics of society. As she is shunned by her friends she sloughs off the strictures of their world and makes her way, in pain-staking steps, towards Selden’s ideal of Lily Bart.
Wharton’s effusive style combined with the privileged characters and lofty settings of her novels may give the impression of being old-fashioned. You might think her wisdom on social manners won’t extend beyond a warning to keep your elbows off the table. In fact, with her insight into human behaviour and keen eye for mannerisms, Wharton provides a thoroughly modern handbook for the twenty-first century social climber.
Sure, society has changed but, fundamentally, humans are social beings just as much as the crows in the trees. Someone claims the top branch and those below gather up the scraps and try to avoid being hit by the falling effluvium. Like it or not, that’s who we are.
We leave our calling cards on the hall tables of Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram and we tweet, tweet, tweet in hope that some established hostess will notice us and introduce us to the big players.
We take note of the fashionable fonts, and pay a premium for custom filters over our photographs. What are any of these but the ostrich feathers and lace trims of our era?
We strut our stuff on the fashion parades of Stumbleupon and Reddit, nodding to our betters, complimenting their latest ensemble and never, no NEVER, committing the dread faux-pas of self-promotion.
We might garner a moment in the heady spotlight when the whole wide world seems to look our way and say, ‘you look lovely today’ or, ’LOL, how droll you are.’ And we think, ‘hah, I’ve made it,’ but, with the gentle tap of a finger, society's glance shifts to the next frilled and feathered no-body clambering up the ladder.
Edith Wharton could certainly suggest a successful regime for your climb; make fashionable friends, never be boring and never owe a favour are just some proven manoeuvres. There is, however, considerably more depth to Wharton’s advice.
‘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.’
Lily Bart discovers that popularity is never a guarantee or measure of happiness. Social aspirations tend to lead one to choosing, repeatedly and frequently, between integrity and selling one's soul. Lily opts out of the race completely rather than allow it to consume her.
Her story is that of a butterfly, a pretty social butterfly, but in reverse. She loses all her colour and retreats to a safe cocoon where she can be her most authentic and best self. She is defeated by society, utterly wiped out, and yet she lays claim to her own spirit. She won her own heart, Selden’s heart, and mine.
Lily Bart is the most courageous heroine you will ever find. Read her, get to know her.
Lily Bart, charming, well-bred and exceedingly beautiful, might just introduce you to yourself.