the guardian Fri 22 May 2009
No one, not even Henry James, describes the preoccupations and protocols of old New York society circa 1900 as meticulously or as ironically as Edith Wharton. She won the Pulitzer prize in 1921, the first woman to do so, for The Age of Innocence, about a young man's struggles with love and marriage. In this earlier novel, published in 1905, it is the beautiful Lily Bart's difficulties with love and especially marriage that Wharton describes with the doomed inevitability of a coroner's report. Lily is beautiful, clever, well-connected. The trouble is, she's poor (she has expensive tastes and gambling debts) and desperate to find a rich husband. For all her manipulative skills, the Italian princes, English lords and New York millionaires always somehow slip through Lily's fingers and, at 29, time is running out. If only her lifelong admirer Lawrence Selden had more money, but he's a lawyer and not in the same financial league as the Van Osburghs, the Dorsets, the Trenors, at whose sumptuous mansions she is a professional house guest. Eleanor Bron's exquisitely sensitive reading elevates Lily, as tragic husband-hunters go, to the same level as Dido.