The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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July 2, 2011

The American Heiress and The House at Riverton

'A great deal of that kind of thing goes on in New York,' said Tristram. 'Girls are bullied or coaxed or bribed, or all three, together, into marrying nasty fellows. There is no end of that always going on in the Fifth Avenue, and other bad things besides. The Mysteries of the Fifth Avenue! Some one ought to show them up.'
from The American, by Henry James

In the Blue Room, Cora Cash was trying to concentrate on her book. Cora found most novels hard to sympathize with -- all these plain governesses -- but this one had much to recommend it. The heroine was 'handsome, clever and rich', rather like Cora herself. Cora knew she was handsome -- wasn't she always referred to in the papers as 'the divine Miss Cash'? She was clever -- she could speak three languages and could handle calculus. And as to rich, well, she was undoubtedly that.  Emma Woodhouse was not rich in the way that she, Cora Cash, was rich. Emma Woodhouse did not lie on a lit a la polonaise once owned by Madame du Barry in a room which was, but for the lingering smell of paint, an exact replica of Marie Antoinette's bedchamber at le petit Trianon. Emma Woodhouse went to dances at the Assembly Rooms, not fancy dress spectaculars in specialty built ballrooms. But Emma Woodhouse was motherless which meant, thought Cora, that she was handsome, clever, rich and free.
A few weeks ago, someone in my Twitter feed said (something to this effect) that she could really do without yet another novel set in an English country house where something terrible happens in 1910.  I haven't gotten to that point yet, not at all, but it's just a coincidence (and the happy randomness of my library reserve list) that I've been reading one and listening to another at the same time.  I finished Daisy Goodwin's The American Heiress (published first in the U.K. as The Last Duchess ... interesting marketing, that) on Thursday night, and I almost wish that I had saved it. It would be a perfect book for this long summer weekend.

There was a moment as the Van Der Leyden family stood at the top of Sans Souci's famous double staircase, waiting to be announced, when Teddy Van Der Leyden thought his mother might regretted her choice of costume. To be wearing plain dimity and fustian in a room full of satin, velvet and diamonds took an effort of will. But Mrs. Van Der Leyden has wished to make a point and it was a point worthy of sacrifice. The family's sober dress was a silent reminder to the assembled guests and particularly their hosts that the Van Der Leydens could trace their lineage all the way back to the Mayflower. Their lineage did not peter out in a floury dead end.  The sombre black and white was a sign that even here in Newport, some things could not be bought.
It's 1893, and the Van Der Leydens are attending a ball at the summer cottage of Mr. and Mrs. Cash, the second generation of a family that has made its fortune in flour, the night before they plan to leave on their private yacht for England. 

Mrs. Cash had done nothing so vulgar as to suggest that they were going there to find Cora a title; she did not, like some other ladies in Newport, subscribe to Titled Americans, a quarterly periodical which gave details of blue-blooded but impecunious young men from Europe who were looking for a rich American bride, but Cora knew that her mother's ambitions were limitless.
Cora wants to elope with Teddy, but he is going to Paris to become a painter.

Mrs. Cash hires Mrs. Wyndham, a well-born and well-connected but impoverished lady, to introduce Cora  into the best London society, and she arranges a country house weekend at the home of Lord Bridport, the master of the Myddleton Hunt.  When Cora rides her stallion (brought over on the yacht, and walked every day on deck) into the woods and suffers a fall, she is rescued by a playful, troubling young man with dark hair and clear brown eyes who turns out (of course) to be the Ninth Duke of Wareham.

All of this sounds like a regency romance, but it is 100 years later and Cora's marriage to Ivo is fraught with her unsuitable American sensibilities, her secretive (and slightly creepy) husband, and the social mores she doesn't want to follow. As the story moves forward, there could really only be two endings, and one of them would have been too pat. But Daisy Goodwin makes what does happen a little more complicated and a little less romantic. Along the way, there are enough recognizable, historical details -- dresses, dinners, excesses, bicycles -- to add credibility, without weighing down the story.  I dipped into this book all week, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour, and liked it very much.

I'm also almost (not quite) finished listening to The House at Riverton, by Kate Morton, which takes place later (in the 1910s and 1920s) and turns the story around.  Hannah, Emmeline and David Hartford are the daughters and son of Lord and Lady Ashbury, and Hannah marries (another) Teddy, the (again, creepy) son of an American financier invited to Riverton in the hope that he will finance the struggling family business.The story shifts in chronological time; at the beginning of the book, there is a party, and a suicide, and word of a fatal accident, and a secret, and the rest of the book leads up to them.  The added layer is that the story is told by Grace Reeves, who is a young maid, then Hannah's loyal and protective lady's maid, and then a very old woman who is visited by a director seeking background for a period film she is making about the Hartfords. I'm enjoying it enough to want to read (or listen to) Kate Morton's two later books, The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours. {I thought it was a trilogy, but apparently not.}

I looked for both of these books after reading about them on blogs, so thank you for that!

{Wedding dress, from 1896, with leg-of-mutton sleeves (?),
from The House of Worth, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art}

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Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I read The House at Riverton and loved it, and now I'm listening to the audio of The Distant Hours and I truly think that I will only listen to the audios for her books from now on. The haunting lilt of the narrator for The Distant Hours makes the story that much more compelling to listen to!

Can't wait to read your thoughts on The House at Riverton when you're done!

Danielle said...

Personally I think I can't get enough of country house novels! :) I have Daisy Goodwin's book and think I am partially holding off reading it just to savor the anticipation--knowing it is there for me! I really liked House at Riverton, too!

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