The New York Times–bestselling author “picks up where Wharton and James left off, with [a] stylish, tasteful novel of manners” (Publishers Weekly).
Natica Chauncey, the daughter of a financier ruined by the Great Depression, is determined to regain the social status she has lost. She relies on a kindly matron for her glancing acquaintance with the aristocracy of Long Island—but she is haunted by a yearning for more.
Coming of age at a time when anything more than a modest show of ambition does not become a lady, she must seek her own fortune in the fortunes of others. And so, with little more than her wits and determination, she makes her way through the social shoals of New England prep schools, Hudson Valley estates, and New York drawing rooms. Natica has a gift for finding opportunity in improbable situations, even at the risk of scandal—and almost in spite of herself, she will emerge as an unlikely, and unforgettable, femme fatale.
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Natica's nostalgia, as she approached the end of her high school years, was more for the gatehouse of Amberley, which her family had had to give up in favor of the plainer little cottage in the Village of Smithport, than for the stately residence the gatehouse had guarded. She remembered, of course, her family's proud occupation of the latter and the still earlier time when even this mansion had been merely the summer alternative to the wide brownstone in Manhattan. But the little red gatehouse, square and flat-roofed, the first stage of her family's social descent, and actually attached to one of the stone pillars which supported the grilled portals of the entrance to the long blue driveway, had yet a squat, uncompromising and memorable dignity of its own. If it belonged to a lower order than the big house up the hill, whose handsome façade could be glimpsed through the stripped trees in winter, it was still an integral part of the special world whose visitors it announced and whose trespassers it barred. And it obviously fitted in better with the Victorian fiction in which Natica reveled than did the village with its Elks Club and Masonic Lodge and the corner drugstore where her classmates were prone to gather.
She made no apologies to herself for her preoccupation with the world of Thackeray and Trollope. She privately (for she had learned not to air such opinions) considered herself the only cultivated member of a family who never read at all, unless one counted, as she decidedly did not, her father's fishing periodicals or her mother's mysteries. Her two younger brothers, Leroy and Fred, stolid and unimaginative, though not unattractive in a briefly youthful, muscular way, were concerned with sports and mechanics and rarely looked beyond the athletic fields and laboratory of Smithport High. But as Aunt Ruth said of them, on one of the Saturdays that she spent with her in the city, they were happily classless, essentially American, and might even look forward to recovering some part of the Chauncey fortune as engineers.
Natica was too much of a realist to identify with the aristocrats of the fiction in which she immersed herself. She chose instead the humble but dauntless governesses of the Bronte sisters whose patient merit was always rewarded in the end. No one, not even Aunt Ruth, could understand the value of her fantasies, for no one could dare to hope, as she did, that they might prove the raw material for the creative genius of a Natica Chauncey who would one day make use of both Amberley and Smithport in a great novel, which would exist long after the mansion, gatehouse and village cottage had crumbled into deserved dust. Had not Flaubert exclaimed: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi"? Might not Natica Chauncey make a similar claim?
Aunt Ruth tried to interest her in the fiction of living writers: Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow. "There ought to be more relation between the world you live in and the one you read about," she warned her.
"Oh, but I find all kinds of relations. Even family ones. Take The Mill on the Floss, for example, that I'm reading now."
"You see yourself, no doubt, in Maggie Tulliver."
"Somewhat, perhaps. But I see more Mummie in Mrs. Tulliver. 'Healthy, fair, plump and dull-witted.' Don't you love it? With her milk of human kindness turning the least bit sour?"
Aunt Ruth frowned. "Your mother has had her trials, my child. And she has never lacked courage to face them. You should always remember how much she loves you."
"Should I be grateful for that? Then she should be grateful to me. For I love her."
"I hope you do, Natica."
"That's all we care about today, isn't it? People seem terrified of not loving or being loved. Even Saint Paul isn't allowed to speak of charity anymore. It has to be love. If they'd only change the fifth commandment the same way, I might be able to obey it."
"You mean you don't honor your parents?"
"How can I, Aunt Ruth? You know they're perfect fools."
"Natica! I can't let you talk to me that way."
"Then what's the use of our talking? The moment we touch on a serious topic you get cold feet."
It was only another proof, if proof were needed, that there was no true communication. But should an artist, a true artist, need it? Natica could enjoy casual, gossiping, even giggling friendships with girls in her class at school because of their very unimportance to her. If every now and then one of them resented her failure to convert such an attachment into intimacy, whose was the loss? Her parents and brothers usually accepted her undemonstrative conformity to their plans and habits as an appropriate family response, but this was not always the case. There were some sharp fallings out. If Natica felt her "secret garden" intruded on, if her mother interfered with her constant reading in favor of outdoor exercise, if one of her brothers tried to peek at what she was so furiously scribbling, if her father sought an hour of her valuable time to teach her his stock market theories, her passive resistance could erupt in bursts of appalling temper.
"Cat!" a brother would mutter, while her father gladly quit the room and her mother broke into a useless crying fit.
There was only one serious threat: boys. These were less easily disposed of. Natica found herself all too readily and strongly attracted to male classmates of the athletic type, and as early as sixteen she was known as a "hot neck." But as she never went further, scratching and biting if need be to ward off aggressors, and as such tactics soon tired her boy friends, she never became seriously involved. Also, her basic boredom with the kind of male who most aroused her helped her soon enough to regain her detachment. But what most contributed to her oft threatened but fiercely cherished emotional independence was her sense of the general expectation, encompassing not only her classmates but her family, that sooner or later Natica Chauncey, for all her intellectual airs and "fancy pants" notions of her proper niche in the universe, would yield to the basic female need of a brawny male to knock the silly ideas out of her snooty head and turn her into a clucking wife and mother. It sometimes seemed to her that the gray slatey sky over what seemed to her the eternal autumn of Smithport contracted in a vulgar damp wink at the inevitability of sexual intercourse and the futility of a girl's settling for anything else.
Her parents seemed to sink, with a slow, an almost contented acceptance, into what she deemed the turbid ooze of their village life, seeing some of their older friends, when the latter chose to remember them, but gradually coming to social terms with the more prominent of the tradesmen whom they had once called "locals" or "natives." Harry Chauncey had aroused his daughter's futile resentment by keeping his less expensive individual, as opposed to family, membership in the Smithport Beach and Sailing Club, so that he could use its fishing camp in the Catskills, with the result that his children had no privileges. It was this, more than anything else, that convinced Natica that anything done for her socially would have to be done by herself, that her parents, well meaning but ignorant, had simply no conception of the things they had deprived her of.
She made a point now of being at home whenever one of the old "summer" friends called, in the hope that she might be asked to a party for one of their children, and this sometimes happened, although she usually found herself sitting silently and awkwardly by her hostess while the latter's daughter and a clique of friends, excluding her with the ruthlessness of youth, chattered on about their own affairs. At home in the evenings, when she had finished her school work, and her brothers were at friends' houses or bowling, and her mother was listening to one of her idiotic radio programs, she would draw her father out about his past and the careers of long-dead distinguished Chaunceys. Harry, an utterly unsnobbish man, hardly even aware of the hierarchical classifications so definite to his daughter, had little interest in family history as such, but he liked to tell what to him were affectionate and funny stories about dear old aunts and uncles and grandparents, and as these were of a deadly dullness to his wife and sons, he much appreciated Natica's flattering interest. She would carefully note the rare detail that slipped into an anecdote, unbeknownst to its teller, to betray the social status of the characters: the casual reference to a coachman, or even once to a footman; the use of a proper name ("As old Mrs. Astor used to put it"); the changing of the mise en scene to Bar Harbor or Newport.
In the summer before her senior year at high school, however, an opportunity came to Natica for a more extended visit behind the barrier guarded by the gatehouse at Amberley. Mr. DeVoe was to be kept in town all summer by a business crisis, and his loyal wife, refusing to go without him to their seaside villa in Maine, chose, to the disgust of her daughter Edith, to pass the "dead season" of July and August in Smithport, to which her husband could comfortably commute. And Aunt Ruth, Edith's English teacher at Miss Clinton's Classes in the city, had a project for her pupil's use of this slack time which she imparted sarcastically to Natica.
"The future is always full of surprises. Who would have thought that a girl like Edith DeVoe would ever want to soil the golden glory of her approaching debutante year with anything as sordid as college? Yet such is the case. Vassar and Smith have become the 'thing.' Or perhaps some 'radical' beau of Edith's has accused her of being a kind of a social dinosaur. At any rate the poor girl has seen the light and has asked me about her qualifications. I've told her she'd better start filling in her educational gaps if she wants to get into a decent college, even a year from now. She says she'll have nothing to do all summer, and I hinted that I had a clever niece in Smithport who might fill the bill as an English tutor. How about it, Natica? It should pay well for very little work. She asked if you were the girl who used to live in the gatehouse, and I told her you were also the girl who used to live in the big house."
Natica knew better than to allow her eyes to express the spurt of her sudden joy. Even Aunt Ruth, she had learned, could be dishearteningly puritanical where "joys" were concerned.
"Well, I suppose I can try. Though remembering Edith, I doubt we'll get through Adam Bede before Labor Day."
Natica was very nervous on the day she bicycled up the blue drive to Amberley, but she found Mrs. DeVoe friendly and Edith tolerant, and she soon settled into an easy routine of morning lessons and family lunch. Edith had matured into a tall, dark, handsome girl with a sometimes attractive indolence of manner and a never attractive conceit. She had read almost nothing and had no use for any of the arts except as necessary preliminaries to the now fashionable world of college. But she was pleasantly pleased with her new tutor's way of abbreviating her tasks. Natica neatly summarized the plots of the novels that Edith was supposed to read and never suggested that there was anything of real importance to be gained by a study of literature. In her desire to make a friend of her pupil she even went so far as to imply that Edith needed only to add to her natural embellishments by absorbing a few capsules of classics, which might be expected, by some process of painless digestion, to make a minor contribution to the sprightliness of her social conversation.
Edith's regular companions being largely abroad or in New England, Natica had little difficulty in making herself indispensable. She knew better than to talk about herself or her own affairs and demonstrated an insatiable appetite for details of Edith's boy friends, Edith's dresses and Edith's anticipated social triumphs. In one respect she was lucky enough to be particularly helpful, for it turned out that Edith's special beau, Roy Somers, though a son of the richest resident of Smithport, was something of a rebel.
"Roy doesn't think like other people," Edith complained. "Everyone knows that Roosevelt's a horror and a traitor to his class, but he refuses to see it. He makes Daddy furious by touting the New Deal."
Natica was able to educate Edith in a few of the fundamentals of what the Roosevelt administration was trying to accomplish, so that her pupil could impress the radical Roy.
Her success with Edith's brother was even greater. Grant DeVoe was two years older than his sister, but her equal academically, as he had been dropped a form at Averhill School in Massachusetts and was, like her, now facing his senior year (or, as it was known at Averhill, his sixth form). He too felt the ennui of a Smithport summer, and his conversation was full of the visits he would make, if invited, to more socially active summer communities on the New England coast. He was pleasant looking rather than handsome, with a round, cheerful, rather thoughtless face and large brown eyes that seemed to promise a better temper and a more affectionate disposition than he had, and his dark curly hair and small tight figure, usually wrapped in bright blazers, completed this impression of amiability. Natica saw that, as with Edith, his interest in her sprang entirely from the summer vacuum. But it was also an interest that could be worked.
She met Grant at first only at the family luncheons where she was careful to make a not too pointed note of smiling at his jokes. His immediate appreciation of this revealed the man who was quite accustomed to taking a second, even a third, place among his peers. Soon he was directing his smarter remarks in her direction, and at last he invited her to go sailing with him. It was a hot and almost windless afternoon and the small boat required a minimum of handling. Grant was free to talk uninterruptedly about himself: how difficult it was to be the only boy in a family of four girls; how much his father preferred his older sister, Mary, to him; how constantly and articulately disappointed both his parents were at everything he did and didn't do.
"They think I should be more like Daddy," he complained. "Daddy was senior monitor at Averhill and I'm not even a house prefect. Daddy was Phi Beta Kappa and Bones at Yale. Daddy's the great banker ... Well, you see, there's no end of it."
They were in the middle of the little bay now, and Natica, looking back, could make out one of the gables of Amberley, high on the hill. For a moment her yearning for such a home and such a father was so acute as to be actually painful.
"Your old man's a tycoon, of course. He can't help that. And everyone respects and admires him. But perhaps being a tycoon isn't the only thing in the world. Your father has to pay for his success with the awe that surrounds him. He can't expect to be popular and easy the way you are."
"Oh, do you really find me that?"
"Well, aren't you?"
She let him kiss her, but then drew firmly back.
"What's wrong? Do I offend?"
"Not at all," she replied in a definite tone. "But I don't think I want to get involved with you."
"Even a wee bit? Even for a summer afternoon?"
"Not even that. Because, if you must know, you're just a wee bit too attractive."
And she proceeded to show that she meant it by sitting farther away and continuing the conversation pleasantly but on more neutral grounds. It was thus that she intended to show him that, however much attracted she might be by his charm, she had no idea of constituting any sort of a social threat. It was not difficult; he did not attract her.
He was evidently pleased, for in the ensuing days he did not renew his amatory gesture. He continued to devote his attention to her at family meals, and he took her sailing once again, but it seemed enough now to be able to tell her of his troubles, to joke with her, and sometimes, at the family board, to wink across the table in recognition of their special link. Perhaps he was relieved not to have to do more. Perhaps it was less challenging to be a god on a pedestal.
"You seem to have made a convert of my brother," Edith drawled one morning at their lesson. "I've never seen him take such trouble to be agreeable. If he keeps this up, he may become almost endurable."
But then came a lunch when Edith's mother nearly rang down the curtain on the little drama of Natica's fantasy of living with the rich. She did not mean to. She had a generous nature, but Natica was always aware that it was limited by the lazy impatience of a woman habituated over a lifetime to the devotion of family and the servility of staff.
Edith, as was her wont, had been talking of the approaching revelry of her debutante year, now only ten months away (she would "come out" in June), and her mother made no effort to conceal her impatience.
"I thought one of the advantages we might hope to derive from your going to college was that it would put a stop to all this silly talk. You won't have time for more than a handful of dances, will you?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lady Of Situations"
Copyright © 1990 Louis Auchincloss.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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