Study Guide

The House of Mirth Book 1, Chapter 9

By Edith Wharton

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Book 1, Chapter 9

  • Lily is now back living with her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, who is redecorating with zeal.
  • When Lily returns from the wedding, she passes a charwoman cleaning the stairs who doesn't move to let her by.
  • Lily firmly asks the woman to move, and realizes that it is the same charwoman from the Benedick, who gave her such a sullen look when she was leaving Selden's place (way back in Chapter One, remember?).
  • Mrs. Peniston considers the upcoming fall season. She would rather her other companion, Grace Stepney, help out with re-decorating, although generally she finds Lily to be a more interesting person.
  • Cut to Lily, who, alone, hears the doorbell ring and is told that a "Mrs. Haffen" is waiting, whoever that is.
  • Lily agrees to see her, and it turns out to be the same charwoman we've now met twice. She has something to show Lily, a package wrapped in dirty newspapers.
  • This can't be good.
  • It turns out to be a packet of letters. Mrs. Haffen starts talking about her own financial problems. And we all smell blackmail…
  • The package turns out to be a collection of letters which Selden threw out, but failed to burn. He only ripped them up into big pieces, which the charwoman put back together.
  • Lily feels physically ill from being a part of this "vileness." But she does happen to recognize the handwriting in the letters: Mrs. Dorset's. She also realizes that these letters from Mrs. Dorset to Selden are actually quite recent.
  • Lily suddenly concludes that she has major, major power over Mrs. Dorset (who, as we know, burned Lily bad back there with the whole Percy thing).
  • But, the fact is, she's just too disgusted by the dinginess of the situation to want to take part in it. She tries to turn the charwoman away.
  • But Mrs. Haffen presses her. She needs money for them; otherwise, Lily's reputation will be ruined.
  • Now Lily understands: this charwoman thinks the letters came from her (Lily).
  • Lily considers the fact that Selden, too – not just Mrs. Dorset – is on the line here.
  • So she negotiates the price and purchases the letters. Mrs. Haffen leaves.
  • (Note: it's important to realize that Lily doesn't have any machinations in mind here. She's not planning on screwing over Mrs. Dorset, or using the letters to curry favor with the woman – she simply wants the matter put to rest. She's also a bit disgusted that she had to be involved in the sordid affair at all.)
  • Just about then, Mrs. Peniston shows up, wanting to hear all the juicy details about the wedding: who was wearing what, who gave what as gifts, what were the decorations like, etc.
  • Lily doesn't feel like playing this game, considering everything that's just gone down.
  • Mrs. Peniston, who apparently doesn't know about Lily's past with Gryce, talks excitedly of his engagement to Evie. She says that Mrs. Dorset played Cupid in the matchmaking…
  • Lily excuses herself and heads up to bed.
  • Now, she had planned on burning the letters – until Mrs. Peniston reminded her of Mrs. Dorset's vindictiveness. Lily tucks the letters away in her closet….
  • She also realizes ("with a flash of irony") that she is indebted to Gus Trenor for the money she used to buy them.

The House of Mirth Book 1, Chapter 9 Study Group

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