This is a tough book. It begins in 1905 New York, in the fashionable world, and as with Wharton’s The Glimpses of the Moon–which follows Americans in Europe–it is a story of the gap between wanting to live a particular style of life and having the financial wherewithal to do it.
The novel has a great description of how society looked at men and women different, a notion that I try to address in some of my own books. What freedom does Elizabeth Geherty get when she turns her back on being in society, a role that would require her to surrender the one thing–the one person–about whom she is passionate?
Wharton (with the observation that she was part of that world and that there are those who say that the expression “keeping up with the Joneses” derives from her family, she being born Edith Jones):
“Don’t you ever mind,” she asked suddenly, “not being rich enough to buy all the books you want?”
He followed her glance about the room, with its worn furniture and shabby walls.
“Don’t I just? Do you take me for a saint on a pillar?”
“And having to work—do you mind that?”
“Oh, the work itself is not so bad—I’m rather fond of the law.”
“No; but the being tied down: the routine—don’t you ever want to get away, to see new places and people?”
“Horribly—especially when I see all my friends rushing to the steamer.”
She drew a sympathetic breath. “But do you mind enough—to marry to get out of it?”
Selden broke into a laugh. “God forbid!” he declared.
She rose with a sigh, tossing her cigarette into the grate.
“Ah, there’s the difference—a girl must, a man may if he chooses.” She surveyed him critically. “Your coat’s a little shabby—but who cares? It doesn’t keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don’t make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop—and if we can’t keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.”
Selden glanced at her with amusement: it was impossible, even with her lovely eyes imploring him, to take a sentimental view of her case.
“Ah, well, there must be plenty of capital on the look-out for such an investment. Perhaps you’ll meet your fate tonight at the Trenors’.”
The cover. This is another one from the Met. Simply entitled A Rose, it is from 1907, by Thomas Anshutz. The museum gives it the following description (there’s an audio description there too):
One of the most gifted American art teachers, Anshutz links the realism of his mentor Thomas Eakins with that of the Ashcan School, some of whom were his students. Perhaps because Anshutz spent so much time teaching, he painted only about 130 oils. Some of the most impressive belong to a series of images of Rebecca H. Whelen, daughter of a trustee of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Anshutz taught. The woman at leisure and the likening of a beautiful woman to a flower are common themes in late-nineteenth-century American painting. They reflect the contemporary definition of a woman’s proper sphere: the realm of leisure, beauty, and the aesthetic, harmonious domestic environment. “A Rose” reflects Anshutz’s simultaneous appreciation of Eakins’s academic rigor and psychological probing and John Singer Sargent’s painterly freedom. “A Rose” also suggests the influence of Diego Velázquez and James McNeill Whistler on late-nineteenth-century painters, including Eakins and Sargent as well as Anshutz. In portraying the young woman as contemplative and yet intellectually and emotionally alert, Anshutz also anticipates the earthier women painted by members of the Ashcan School and other twentieth-century realists.
Could this be Lily Bart? I think it can.