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 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

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