Tuesday, October 30, 2018

DAY 84: Those American Buccaneers

The American novelist and expatriate Edith Wharton was born in Manhattan eight years after Jennie Jerome, Consuelo Yznaga, Alva Erskine-Smith and Minnie Stevens, and she was from a very different slice of New York Society. Jennie, Connie, Alva and Minnie were strivers--regarded as too "new money" for the taste of Caroline Astor, who ruled the admission of debutantes to the New York elite. It is no accident that all four girls were whisked off to the Continent around the age of thirteen by their concerned mammas, and finished at the same French convent school; being denied admission to the highest circles, they were unlikely to marry well in Manhattan.

Edith "Pussy" Jones was another matter. Her geneaology was ancient, her money old, her cachet impeccable. The only problem, as far as New York Society was concerned, was that Edith was more bookish and introverted than glamorous and decorative. When she fell in love with Minnie Stevens' handsome, polo-playing brother Harry one summer in Bar Harbor, neither family approved the engagement. The
Edith Jones (Wharton) as a debutante, c. 1880
Stevens' money came from hotels, and was so new it crackled; moreover, Harry's mother, Marietta Stevens, would lose control of his inheritance if he married before the age of 25, and he was 23 when he met Edith. Mrs. Stevens vigorously fought the engagement, then tipped off the gossip rag Town Topics that "a prepoderance of learning on the bride's part" had doomed the match. In fact, as Mrs. Stevens knew, Harry was dying of tuberculosis, and she far preferred to inherit his fortune than watch Pussy Jones run away with it.

Edith poured some of this tangle of class, pain, and thwarted ambition into her final, unfinished novel, THE BUCCANEERS. It's a loosely disguised tale of American girls of the 1870s, snubbed by New York Society, who go husband-hunting in England. The four main characters bear striking resemblances to Jennie and her friends. Dark-haired, beautiful Lizzy Elmsworth--who marries a rising political star and lives boldly at the forefront of London life--is probably Jennie; Conchita Closson, who is deserted by her husband soon after marriage and beguiles British nobles with her cigar-smoking indolence, is Consuelo Yznaga; Jinny St. George, snobbish and willing to do anything to advance her husband's standing in the Marlborough House Set, is clearly Minnie Stevens Paget; and the most naive and unhappy of all, Nan St. George, who marries a duke and lives to regret it, is modeled on Alva Smith Vanderbilt's daughter, Consuelo. Alva named her only daughter for her close friend, Connie Yznaga, who along with Minnie Stevens helped marry the girl off to Jennie's nephew, Sunny, Duke of Marborough. It proved a miserable marriage that ended in divorce, as Edith Wharton well knew.

Jennie and her childhood friends had long since died by the time THE BUCCANEERS was published, as had Wharton. I imagine, however, that Jennie would have embraced Pussy Jones's vision of her life. Lizzie Elmsworth is the freest of all those piratical women, and the only one a present-day reader is certain will emerge from her battles unscathed.

For more images from THAT CHURCHILL WOMAN, visit the  Pinterest board behind the novel.

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