The House of Mirth
by Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth Book 1, Chapter 4 Summary
- When she wakes the next morning, Lily finds a note from Mrs. Trenor asking her to help out with some "tiresome things" (like writing letters) since Mrs. Trenor's secretary is away. Lily drags herself out of bed and downstairs.
- We get a brief description of Mrs. Trenor as the ultimate hostess, with her husband's massive bank account to back up her social ambitions. Because she has so much money, no one is a threat to her, which means she can be nice to everyone.
- At the moment, she's worried about her upcoming party. Carry Fisher is going to be there; high society doesn't like her because she's had two divorces, yet all the husbands seem to enjoy her company.
- Mrs. Trenor knows that Carry borrows money from her husband Gus Trenor all the time, but she doesn't say anything because Carry is one of few people who can keep Gus in good spirits. She'd pay her anyway just to keep him company.
- Mrs. Trenor dishes more about the various people who are invited to her party, and those who are not. She mentions Lady Cressida Raith, a British woman whose sister is the Duchess of Beltshire.
- Essentially, there's a territorial social war between Mrs. Trenor and Maria Van Osburgh over who gets to "have [the] right people" by her side and attend her parties.
- Lily reassures her by stroking her social ego.
- Then, Mrs. Trenor reveals that Mrs. Dorset is angry with her, because she told Bertha that Selden would be attending and now he isn't going to come after all.
- Lily says she heard it was "all over" between Bertha and Selden, which implies that they had an affair in the past.
- It is over, says Mrs. Trenor, but only according to Selden. Bertha isn't over him yet.
- The women wonder who will entertain Mrs. Dorset if Selden isn't around. She can't have Lucius because Alice Wetherall has dibs, and, of course, Ned Silverton is all over Carry Fisher. Mrs. Trenor's own husband Gus doesn't even like Bertha, and Jack Stepney isn't going to do the trick either.
- Mrs. Trenor admits that Bertha is a dangerous, manipulative woman who takes pleasure in making other people miserable, particularly her husband George.
- Conversation finally moves around to Percy Gryce, and Lily admits that she's busy ensnaring him herself. Judy Trenor reveals that he makes about $800,000 a year (which is a ton of money now, and a massive amount of money back then). She encourages Lily to "go slow," to not be too forward in her pursuit, and to basically act like a goody two-shoes (no smoking, no sexy clothes, etc.).
- Before she leaves, Lily asks Judy explicitly not to convince Selden to drop by.
- The next few days go splendidly for Lily, who spends as much time congratulating herself on her abilities as she does charming Mr. Gryce.
- One lovely September afternoon, Lily observes Gryce and Carry Fisher chatting it up. Mrs. Fisher is "small, fiery, and dramatic," and, at the moment, consumed with a zeal for municipal reform, whatever that is (hint: it doesn't matter). It's obvious that Percy doesn't care either (he's really bored by Mrs. Fisher), and Lily is amused at his predicament. Lily purposefully doesn't save him so that he'll spend more time longing for her.
- Then, another couple catches her eye: her cousin Jack Stepney and Miss Gwen Van Osburgh. She resents that Jack gets to sit back while Gwen pursues him until he decides he's ready for marriage. Once again, men have it all, and Lily resents her gender.
- Lily decides that she and Jack are similar, and that Gwen and Percy are similar. This sort of makes the two couples a foil for each other, in her mind. She and Jack have "all sorts of intuitions, sensations, and perceptions" that Percy and Gwen "don't even guess the existence of."
- She stays on the terrace and refuses to join the crowd at the tea table below, since they represent her boring future fate of being someone's wife. Life still sucks.
- Lily comforts herself with the thought of all the money she'll soon have when she marries Percy. She decides she wants to replace his Americana as "the one possession" in which he takes pride in and spends his money on.
- Lily hears someone approaching and assumes it is Percy, having escaped Mrs. Fisher at last.
- Nope – it's Lawrence Selden. Before he can greet Lily, Mrs. Dorset steps in and takes ownership of her former lover.
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