The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, writer

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Idling with Edith

6:14 PM PDT, March 25, 2008

Now that ABNA's laid to rest I've been clearing my palate via Project Gutenberg, reading whatever strikes my airy fancy. In the past few days I've read Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla, a vampire tale contemporary with Bram Stoker's Dracula; the unsparingly frank memoirs of the Countess Palatine Elizabeth, who was sister-in-law to Louis XIV; some of Robert E. Howard's endearingly overwrought Conan yarns; French accounts (all approving) of life in harems; and Lady Betty Across the Water, a formulaic but delightfully fizzy romance involving a young English aristocrat coping with us Yankee barbarians at the turn of the 20th century.

The last story led me to Eliot Gregory's Worldly Ways and Byways, a collection of American essays written for the Idler, a magazine similar to our own Vanity Fair, during the year 1897. Gregory's observations combine upper-crust anecdotery with Puritanical carpings in an oddly charming way, and I was much diverted by descriptions of life in the last throes of the Gilded Age; but what struck me most was a passage from the essay "Living on Your Friends," describing the idle young men of good family who spend their lives cadging free dinners, yacht cruises, opera tickets and other necessities of life:

"So far, I have spoken of this class in the masculine, which is an error, as the art is successfully practised by the weaker sex, with this shade of difference. As an unmarried woman is in less general demand, she is apt to attach herself to one dear friend, always sure to be a lady in possession of fine country and city houses and other appurtenances of wealth, often of inferior social standing; so that there is give and take, the guest rendering real service to an ambitious hostess. The feminine aspirant need not be handsome. On the contrary, an agreeable plainness is much more acceptable, serving as a foil. But she must be excellent in all games, from golf to piquet, and willing to play as often and as long as required. She must also cheerfully go in to dinner with the blue ribbon bore of the evening, only asked on account of his pretty wife (by the bye, why is it that Beauty is so often flanked by the Beast?), and sit between him and the “second prize” bore. These two worthies would have been the portion of the hostess fifteen years ago; she would have considered it her duty to absorb them and prevent her other guests suffering. Mais nous avons changĂ© tout cela. The lady of the house now thinks first of amusing herself, and arranges to sit between two favorites."

This paragraph so perfectly describes Lily Bart from Edith Wharton's House of Mirth that I can't help but think it inspired the novel, which came out in 1905. All the smart set read the Idler back then, and Wharton was so much a part of that heirarchy that its social complexities finally drove her to a nervous breakdown.

Lily's problem was, of course, being far too handsome.