Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Every now and then I come across a book that has been collecting dust on my shelves. I’ll buy a book, add it to the pile and then for some reason never get around to reading it. Right now that book is Edith Wharton’s masterpiece The House of Mirth, published in 1905. This one has been squirreled away on my bookshelf for so long I think it has come with me on two apartment moves. I don’t know what made me finally crack open the cover last week, but I’m so glad I did.

Wharton (the first woman to receive a Pultizer Prize for literature) paints a portrait of New York high society in the time when the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts reigned, and she does it with satire and humor. So much humor, in fact, I’ve regularly laughed out loud while reading on the subway.

But this “old New York” she writes about so eloquently wasn’t all glitz and glamour for the women on the inside of these closed ranks. Marrying “well” was of the utmost importance, something the character Miss Lily Bart must do, because really there isn’t another viable option for her. After her father is financially ruined and dies, Lily and her mother cling desperately to the only way of life they’ve known. Their last ditch effort to secure Lily’s future relies solely on her appearance. (I’m realizing that my description here doesn’t sound hilarious, but trust me that this book has light moments too.)

Only one thought consoled her [Lily’s mother], and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt. She watched it jealously, as though it were her own property and Lily its mere custodian…

She [Lily] liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste.

This last tongue-in-cheek line got me thinking about using beauty “as a power for good.” Is that even possible? There’s no doubt that Miss Lily Bart’s beauty opens doors, which benefits the holder, not the beholder. This is just as true today as it was in Wharton’s time. Attractiveness certainly has its advantages, but I’m not sure that Sofia Vergara’s gorgeous hair or Jennifer Lawrence’s perky nose is helping anyone else. My neighbor is stunning, but other than occasionally thinking, “Wow, she’s gorgeous,” I’m not realizing any benefit from her beauty.

Then I saw this short clip from the Black Women in Hollywood event wherein Lupita Nyong’o, who would go on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress a few days later, was honored. How can beauty be used as a power for good? This is how…

I remember a time when I, too, felt unbeautiful… And my one prayer to God was that I would wake up lighter skinned… My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome… I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPCkfARH2eE?rel=0]
March is Women’s History Month, and I’ll be exploring some inspiring women in my posts this month.

What does beauty mean to you? Do you think beauty can be used for good?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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