Friday, May 04, 2012

Lady Baltimore

Lady Baltimore. Owen Wister. 1906. 272 pages.

Like Adam, our first conspicuous ancestor, I must begin, and lay the blame upon a woman; I am glad to recognize that I differ from the father of my sex in no important particular, being as manlike as most of his sons. Therefore it is the woman, my Aunt Carola, who must bear the whole reproach of the folly which I shall forthwith confess to you, since she it was who put it into my head; and, as it was only to make Eve happy that her husband ever consented to eat the disastrous apple, so I, save to please my relative, had never aspired to become a Selected Salic Scion. I rejoice now that I did so, that I yielded to her temptation. Ours is a wide country, and most of us know but our own corner of it, while, thanks to my Aunt, I have been able to add another corner. This, among many other enlightenments of navel and education, do I owe her; she stands on the threshold of all that is to come; therefore I were lacking in deference did I pass her and her Scions by without due mention,—employing no English but such as fits a theme so stately. Although she never left the threshold, nor went to Kings Port with me, nor saw the boy, or the girl, or any part of what befell them, she knew quite well who the boy was. When I wrote her about him, she remembered one of his grandmothers whom she had visited during her own girlhood, long before the war, both in Kings Port and at the family plantation; and this old memory led her to express a kindly interest in him. How odd and far away that interest seems, now that it has been turned to cold displeasure! 

Last year I read Owen Wister's The Virginian and just loved it. Surprisingly loved it since I am NOT by any stretch of the imagination a fan of westerns. I knew I wanted to read a second book by Owen Wister this year, and I chose Lady Baltimore. Trying to compare Lady Baltimore and The Virginian would be a mistake because they are two entirely different books. Different styles, different genres.

Lady Baltimore is one part social commentary, one part romance, one part comedy. Set in South Carolina at the turn of the century, it dramatically and comically shows the tension of a town and ultimately a nation. What kind of tension? Well, tensions between generations, regions, races, and social classes.

(We see domineering aunts, for example, from both North and South, who want to "rule" over their nephews and nieces.) There is a generation (probably those fifty and up) who CANNOT for one minute put the Civil War behind them, and there is a generation (especially those in their twenties and late teens) who don't quite understand why it still has to be such a big deal, who'd like to see some change or progress at least. There's definitely still tension between North and South as well. Our narrator is a "Yankee" visiting a Southern town. His "Yankee" aunt warns him throughout not to be too influenced by the Southerners. She doesn't want him to like or love his travels too much. And the people of the town, especially the Somebodies of the town, find it hard to open up with any Yankee no matter how seemingly charming. From the narrator's viewpoint, readers see the tension between these two sides is still very much alive. Race. This is a BIG, BIG, BIG issue in the novel. For better or worse. On one hand, it could always allow for discussion and critical thinking on the part of the reader. But on the other hand, it might make some very uncomfortable in the process. Because whether the "racism" is just racism by condescension or racism by pure ugliness and hatred, it is still very present in this novel. (Let's just say that the narrator and almost every single person in the novel does NOT believe in equality of the races, and most certainly does not believe that they should have the right to vote or hold any sort of political office.) Social class also plays a role in this one. We've got the tension between people who once had money but now only have class, manners, and pride. And the newly rich who many view as having NO class, and low morals.

Augustus is our young narrator. He is visiting King's Port, South Carolina, at the request of his Aunt Carola. (She is, in fact, paying for his trip. He's supposed to be diligently researching genealogies and records to see if he can find the "proof" he needs to join her oh-so-exclusive club. Those men and women supposedly descended from royalty. Does he stay on task? What do you think?!) While there, he becomes entangled in a love affair. I'll clarify. He joins a gossip-y group of women who are focusing their attention on John Mayrant. Augustus first impression of John Mayrant is quite interesting. (It is readers' first impression as well.) He is ordering his own wedding cake, a Lady Baltimore cake. He is a bit anxious, a bit shy, a bit nervous. He even forgets to tell the woman at the counter, the baker, the date of his wedding, the date he needs the cake. He has to run back to tell her. Just as she is running to catch him to tell him he's forgotten. As you might guess, as you might imagine, readers see some potential here! The woman is Eliza La Heu. His fiance, Hortense Rieppe, is seen as less than desirable. She's not from the right kind of people, and if she has any money of her own, it's the wrong sort of money. She mixes with the wrong crowds, vacations the wrong places, and smokes! Is this young couple in love? Well, that's the big question, I suppose. And it seems to be everybody's business. Even with this newcomer Augustus getting in the middle of it. Should the engagement be broken? How should it be broken? When should it be broken? Would everyone be better off if it was broken?

So Lady Baltimore is just as much about the break up of a relationship (though readers may have a hard time believing it was love) as it is the start of a new relationship (Eliza and John).

There were many things I found enjoyable in Lady Baltimore. The writing was delightful-and-pleasant. For the most part. When the narrator is discussing race, well, it would be difficult to find charm in that...at all...but when the focus is on society, on social issues, on manners and traditions, courtship, etc., then it is a great way to spend a week. (When it comes to observation and characterization, think Austen or Trollope.)

I was always happy to pick this one back up, yet, there are not any scenes in particular that I can say I loved or loved, loved, loved. (I can still think of some from The Virginian.)


Read The Lady Baltimore
  • If you're looking for fiction set in the South at the turn of the century
  • If you're looking for a little social commentary with your romance
  • If you enjoy slower paced novels with some charm; this one is NOT full of action; it's mostly dialogue. So it might not be for everyone.
  • If you loved The Virginian, yet, are willing to give the author a chance to write a completely different kind of book.

© 2012 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

0 comments:

Post a Comment

I'm always happy to hear from you! To help fight spam, comment moderation has been set up for posts older than two days. Feel free to ask me questions or ask for recommendations!

Review Policy

I am interested in reviewing books and audio books. This blog focuses on books written for middle grade on up (essentially 10 to a 110). I review middle grade fiction and young adult fiction (aka tween and teen).

I also review adult books.

I read in a variety of genres including realistic fiction, historical fiction, mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, and chick lit. (I've read one western to date.)

I read a few poetry books, a few short story collections, a few graphic novels, a few nonfiction books.

I am especially fond of:

  • Regency romances (including Austen prequels/sequels)
  • Historical fiction set in the Tudor dynasty
  • Historical fiction and nonfiction set during World War II
  • Jewish fiction/nonfiction
  • dystopias
  • apocalyptic fiction
  • science fiction (especially if it involves time travel and alternate realities)
  • fantasy
  • multicultural books and international books

I am not a fan of:

  • sports books
  • horse books
  • dog books if the dog dies (same goes with most pets actually except maybe fish)
  • westerns (if it's a pioneer story with women and children, then maybe)
  • extremely violent books with blood, blood, and more blood

I am more interested in strong characters, well-written, fleshed-out, human characters. Plot is secondary to me in a way. I have to care about the characters in order to care about the plot. That being said, compelling storytelling is something that I love. I love to become absorbed in what I'm reading.

If you're interested in sending me a review copy of your book, I'm happy to hear from you. Email me at laney_po AT yahoo DOT com.

You should know several things before you contact me:

1) I do not guarantee a review of your book. I am just agreeing to consider it for review.
2) I give all books at least fifty pages.
3) I am not promising anyone (author or publisher) a positive review in exchange for a review copy. That's not how I work.
4) In all of my reviews I strive for honesty. My reviews are my opinions--so yes, they are subjective--you should know my blog will feature both negative and positive reviews.
5) I do not guarantee that I will get to your book immediately. I've got so many books I'm trying to read and review, I can't promise to get to any one book in a given time frame.
6) Emailing me every other week to see if I've read your book won't help me get to it any faster. Though if you want to email me to check and see if it arrived safely, then that's fine!

Authors, publishers. I am interested in interviewing authors and participating in blog tours. (All I ask is that I receive a review copy of the author's latest book beforehand so the interview will be productive. If the book is part of a series, I'd like to review the whole series.) Contact me if you're interested.

Unique Visitors and Google PR Rank

Free PageRank Checker

Pageloads Counter

Search Book Blogs Search Engine

The background is based on a background I found here...with some small adjustments on my part so it would work with the template.
Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

  © Blogger template Newspaper III by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP