Love, Fiercely – Manhattan Romance in the Gilded Age

Edith Minturn’s face was immortalized as the “New American Girl” in a portrait by a John Singer Sargent, and she was the model for the famous 65 foot high statue of Daniel Chester French’s Republic displayed at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition. Using the painting as her inspiration, Jean Zimmerman reveals the lives of  Edith Minturn, heir to a shipping magnate, (nicknamed Fiercely by her brother) and her husband, Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, in a story that reads like a fictional romance in Love, Fiercely.

At the turn of century that Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” fashion and propriety  ruled wealthy families.

“… Edith Wharton could have quite naturally placed the behaviors of the Minturn girls into one of {her} novels.”

Both Edith and Newton enjoyed the perks of the rich – European travel, posh surroundings, servants, tailor-made clothes.  Newton chose architecture over the family banking business, and  Edith rebelliously fought for women’s rights – she turned down his first proposal of marriage.  The famous portrait came to represent a new freedom for women, with Edith’s pose “with attitude,” the position of the well-placed hat and Newton’s fading into the background.

Using a conversational style, Zimmerman looks back at Manhattan’s history and the famous families who created the foundation for what it is today. Part of the Stokes family mansion still stands as the Morgan Library on 34th street (where I visited the Jane Austen collection not long ago) and their famous portrait hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The couple who look out from the painting changed  Manhattan with a legacy that endures today – through buildings he designed,  reformation of low-income housing, Edith’s introduction of the new concept of kindergarten, and Newton’s Iconography of Manhattan Island – a six-volume visual history of New York that exhausted “its creator’s fortune, health, and grip on sanity.”

Whenever I can wander the halls of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. or the Metropolitan Museum in New York City,  the portraits always tease me with lingering questions – I wonder who were these patricians and did they do anything besides “sit” for the artist. Jean Zimmerman delivers a well-researched answer on one that reveals the personalities behind the paint. Edith Minturn Stokes and Newton Phelps Stokes are worth knowing.

The Stranger’s Child

Robert Frost once noted – “…my poems – I should suppose everybody’s poems – are all set to trip the reader…”  The meaning of poetry may depend more on the reader than the writer.  Allan Hollinghurst uses that construct to create a family saga about a poet in The Stranger’s Child.

Hollinghurst’s long detailed story starts in Britain before  the first World War and continues to present day.  The language and thematic undercurrents reminded me of studying the British novel of manners as an undergraduate – appreciating the references to Evelyn Waugh but also cringing at the slow-paced unraveling.  Hollinghurst beautifully sets the scene with an aristocratic young man, Cecil, visiting his schoolmate’s family home at Two Acres – a comfortable but not wealthy estate.  Cecil and George are secret lovers – quietly revealed through a dinner and subsequent scene in a hammock, but, it seems, no one in the family knows or suspects – including George’s younger sister Daphne.  Cecil nurtures the young girl’s crush and leaves a poem in her journal.

Later, when Cecil dies in the war, his poem becomes famous – much like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.”  Only after the narrative jumps to modern times with a biographer investigating Cecil’s life, is the truth of the poem – written to George, not Daphne –  revealed.   The reader will find clues throughout, but Hollinghurst neatly wraps up the drama in the last chapter – revisiting Daphne’s marriages and dalliances, and, finally, Cecil’s bisexuality.

The book is a slow read – overdone with allusions, literary references, and pithy characters with a proper veneer.  It’s easy to get lost in the language and lose track of the real story; if you are looking for a strong plot with a satisfying resolution – you will not find it here.   The theme is reminiscent of a McEwan novel – though much longer – nothing is as it seems, and in the end, people will believe what they will – no matter what the evidence.

Hollinghurst has been compared to Henry James, with a “stylistic antiquarian style,” or maybe a poet writing in prose.  James Wood offers a thorough analysis and his thoughts on both the author and his books in The New Yorker.

Read Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” - here