The House of Mirth, By Edith Wharton

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The Independent Culture

With Sex and the City 2 still in cinemas, let us pause a moment to reflect on the journey women have taken over the past 100 years. The very things that Carrie Bradshaw and clan are admired for – careless love and careless spending – were enough to ruin a woman at the turn of the previous century, as shown in Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth, one of a selection of Penguin Classics recently reprinted in partnership with the charitable (Product)RED brand.

Lily Bart is a 29-year-old high-society debutante in 1890s New York. Wharton details, in crackling and complex prose, the societal technicalities of the world she was born into. Bart hesitates to accept marriage and, in revenge, her social circle conspires to trap her in rumours of debt and an affair with a married man. She is propelled down the social scale and forced to take work in a milliner's. In disgrace, she takes an overdose. From our 21st-century point of view, the irony is that – work being a path to liberation for many a woman – Bart was taking the first steps to freedom.