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Edith Wharton on high society

``The House of Mirth'' (1905), from which we excerpt here, was Edith Wharton's first popular novel. Lily Bart is a young woman who is crushed in her effort to stay in the high society she was born to but cannot afford. Here, after a fall from favor, she lunches with her faithful friend Gerty, still hoping to get back into the good graces of the rich Trenors. Wharton herself came from a socially prominent family. Her work has been compared to that of Henry James, a friend she admired. ``My dear Gerty, you wouldn't have me let the head-waiter see that I've nothing to live on but Aunt Julia's legacy? Think of Grace Stepney's satisfaction if she came in and found us lunching on cold mutton and tea! What sweet shall we have today, dear -- Coupe Jacques or P'eches `a la Melba?''

She dropped the menu abruptly, with a quick heightening of colour, and Gerty, following her glance, was aware of the advance, from an inner room, of a party headed by Mrs. Trenor and Carry Fisher. It was impossible for these ladies and their companions -- among whom Lily had at once distinguished both Trenor and Rosedale -- not to pass, in going out, the table at which the two girls were seated; and Gerty's sense of the fact betrayed itself in the helpless trepidation of her manner. Miss Bart, on the contrary, borne forward on the wave of her buoyant grace, and neither shrinking from her friends nor appearing to lie in wait for them, gave to the encounter the touch of naturalness which she could impart to the most strained situations. Such embarrassment as was shown was on Mrs. Trenor's side, and manifested itself in the mingling of exaggerated warmth with imperceptible reservations. Her loudly affirmed pleasure at seeing Miss Bart took the form of a nebulous generalization, which included neither enquiries as to her future nor the expression of a definite wish to see her again. Lily, well-versed in the language of these omissions, knew that they were equally intelligible to the other members of the party: even Rosedale, flushed as he was with the importance of keeping such company, at once took the temperature of Mrs. Trenor's cordiality, and reflected it in his off-hand greeting of Miss Bart. Trenor, red and uncomfortable, had cut short his salutations on the pretext of a word to say to the head-waiter; and the rest of the group soon melted away in Mrs. Trenor's wake.

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It was over in a moment -- the waiter, menu in hand, still hung on the result of the choice between Coupe Jacques and P'eches `a la Melba -- but Miss Bart, in the interval, had taken the measure of her fate. Where Judy Trenor led, all the world would follow; and Lily had the doomed sense of the castaway who has signalled in vain to fleeing sails.

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