The Gilded Age and Gilded Cages
“You believe you’re a black-hearted criminal and she’s an uptown angel. You’ve placed the two of you in those ledger columns of yours and come to the conclusion they don’t add up.”Joanne Shupe, The Prince of Broadway, page 178
The Prince of Broadway (Uptown Girls #2)
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I’ve been fascinated with Gilded Age literature ever since I read my first Edith Wharton novel—for fun, in high school. I started with Ethan Frome (1911), one of the darker novels that’s so imbued with the cold spareness of winter that I think it’s titled Winter. Yikes. Wharton’s novels haunt me with their visions of love denied, and seemingly inevitable—and untimely—death lurking behind the glittering façade of the denizens of Old New York. Her ability to skewer the very society that she’s privileged to inhabit has always intrigued me, and even inspired me to write a scholarly analysis of The House of Mirth and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (details below).
Imagine my delight in discovering Joanne Shupe’s historical novels set during the Gilded Age. All the glitter—and struggle—of Wharton and Dreiser with happy endings and love triumphant rather than meaningless, avoidable deaths. Hooray! I recently read The Prince of Broadway (2020), and loved the lush details of turn-of-the century New York, shown through the excess of the Bronze House, hero Clayton Madden’s gambling hall; heroine Florence Green’s fashionable gowns; tricked out carriages; swoon-worthy bathrooms, and more.
What I most love about Shupe’s novel is Florence’s spirit, will, and drive to live on her terms. She won’t settle for a “safe” loveless marriage, despite her parents’ wishes. She wants to openly live her dreams—and desires— without shame. Even better, her dream to create a gaming hall for women helps other women live more boldly in the public sphere rather than gambling at house parties, tucked away from the public eye, and missing out of the lavish community that such establishments provide. She’s not afraid to marry a man considered nouveau riche, despite her own status in one of the grand, established families. And, most satisfying, her family, from her wise, eccentric grandmother to her stern yet devoted father, eventually support her professional and romantic desires.
The sexual tension and attraction between Florence and Clay smolder and burn throughout the novel. The novel features one of the hotter voyeur scenes I’ve ever read, that serves to both heighten the desire between Florence and Clay and highlight their mutual self-sufficiency. Despite their different backgrounds, they are incredibly well-matched equals in and out of the bedroom. In a pivotal scene, Clay tells her, “If you are hoping to discover that I’m the hero in this melodrama, you’ll be sorely disappointed,” to which she replies “I never asked for a hero. What I wanted was a partner” (296).
I was also pleased with the ending of the novel, and Florence’s revelation that motherhood is not for her. It’s the rare historical romance that doesn’t automatically assume motherhood, and depict motherhood in the epilogue. It’s even rarer to have a heroine openly declare her desire to remain childfree. As an intentionally childfree person myself, I appreciate this aspect of Florence’s character and the reminder that there have always been women who opted not to have children.
I can’t help but compare Florence to Lily Bart, Wharton’s protagonist in The House of Mirth (1905). Lily, like Florence, cannot face marrying for stability and respectability. Unlike Florence, Lily also can’t convince herself to marry someone on the fringes of society until it’s too late. Lily is trapped in the gilded cage that society has crafted, and none of her attempts to escape it or more comfortably inhabit it work. On the other hand, Florence sees the cage for what it is and refuses to be confined. After she tells her father her plan to opening a gambling hall for women, he forbids her from following this path, and says “You will do what I say” (303). She retorts: “ In other words, marry a childish, selfish man like Chauncey. Settle down and have kids, and oversee his household while I wither and die from living inside a gilded cage” (303). His disapproval only heightens her conviction to live her dream, even if it means doing it on her own. That Florence flourishes, challenging patriarchy even as she is bound by its confines in many ways, provides a more hopefully and empowering path than the tragedy that befalls Lily Bart. Both novels critique the same social structures, but romance allows its heroines to live their dreams, while literary fiction often sacrifices them in supposedly instructive—and most often dissatisfying or traumatic—ways. This is one reason I most love reading historical romance alongside the classics that shaped my identity as a literary scholar. Romance novels suggest that there is always another way to live ones dreams and achieve emotional and personal fulfillment. As I tweeted recently, Florence Green is 2020 goals.
Related links and notes:
Van Slooten, Jessica Lyn. “Fashion, Money, and Romance in Sister Carrie and The House of Mirth.” Styling Texts: Dress and Fashion in Literature. Edited by Cynthia Kuhn and Cindy Carlson. Cambria, November 2007. https://www.cambriapress.com/cambriapress.cfm?template=4&bid=129
Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/292854/ethan-frome-by-edith-wharton/
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/189430/the-house-of-mirth-by-edith-wharton/