Lady Baltimore, by Owen Wister, is an extraordinary novel. It wasn’t written as a historical novel, but it certainly is one now: a 1905 depiction of the American South at the turn of the twentieth century, on how life would have been so much better if the South hadn’t lost the Civil War.
I had to do some research on Owen Wister, though I’ve been rereading this novel, and his most famous one, The Virginian, for over twenty years. I knew he was a close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, because my 1928 edition of Lady Baltimore reproduces a couple of long letters between them on the subject of race, on which I have something to say in a minute. I had already realised that Wister was keen on the idea of the natural aristocrat, the idea that some people are simply innately better than others, by their ‘breeding’ and their natural gifts. This is how he makes the eponymous protagonist of The Virginian such a hero, persuading the reader to accept his superiority by his actions, and by giving him outrageously attractive virtues. But the idea of natural aristocracy never sounded very democratic to me, so I was confused about how Wister felt about the American ideal that all men and women are created equal.
In Lady Baltimore we see substantial evidence that Wister, or his narrative persona, did not think that all men and women were created equal, since he is firmly (though always with gentlemanly regret) against any suggestion that men and women with black skins might be equal to those with white. The easy urbanity and simple persuasiveness with which the narrator of Lady Baltimore sets out just how impossible it is that black slaves and their descendants can be anything but dependent and lower than the whites, are horribly alluring. It’s the tone that does it. The novel is written as if Mark Twain and Edith Wharton were acting out a script by Jane Austen. It uses a dangerously familiar set of literary echoes, and so we assume we know what we are going to be reading. Jane Austen may have tacitly condoned slavery in Mansfield Park, but she doesn’t say anything about it directly. Edith Wharton was not known for her pro-slavery views, as was not Mark Twain: these are authors on the righteous side of history. We simply don’t expect to fall into the trap of going along with openly racist views in a novel that follows such great literary voices so faithfully.
Lady Baltimore is about the attempts of New York society girl Hortense Rieppe to persuade impoverished Southern gentleman John Mayrant to stay in love with her. He met her in romantic circumstances, there was an idyll and an engagement, he returned home to prepare for their marriage. She followed to make sure that he did not come to his senses, because he is quite unlike her usual beaux, although, regrettably, poor. And her usual beaux are incredulous that she allowed things to progress this far. Hortense’s pursuit is set in Charleston at the end of the nineteenth century when the New Rich of Newport were becoming a horrifying byword for vulgarity and philistinism for traditional Southerners. I can’t find much online about this novel, which makes me think that its subject matter has persuaded scholars to avoid it. I can’t find any reprints except in a Southern Classics series from 1992, and the admirable Librivox have done an audio book version. Tellingly, the blurb for 1992 edition describes Lady Baltimore as a ‘classic novel of post-Civil War Charleston life’. It talks about the theme of North and South becoming reconciled, but says nothing at all about the other major theme, of how the black American should never attain equality with the white. This is a novel that needs investigation, because of its manipulation of the reader. There is something very strange about the process of reading, and loving, I mean absolutely loving, a novel in all its aspects, and then being stopped in one’s tracks by the narrator’s assumption that something we know is utterly wrong is desirable, and that all the readers will agree with this. An analogy might be as if one were reading a great German novel of the 1930s, being totally wowed by it, and then finding out, too late, that it and its author were seriously pro-Nazi. It’s a kick to the intellect.
So that is today’s conundrum: how can you deeply admire a novel for narrative technique, emotional satisfaction, artistry, pacing, etc, even though it is appallingly wrong in so many ways? Have any great modern classics been in the same category? We know Virginia Woolf was a vile anti-Semitic snob and an unkind person from her private diaries and letters, so why does that not affect our appreciation of her novels? D H Lawrence had some seriously odd ideas about women’s relationship to men – apparently he tried to beat up his wife because she was not ‘suitably reverential to his maleness’ – yet he has been an unassailable modern classic in English literature teaching for decades. (Though I did hear a colleague remark some years ago that she could not believe Lawrence was seriously taught these days, so perhaps fashions are changing.) Among the lesser politically right-wing writers, personal views no longer thought of as socially acceptable are more likely to make us disapprove of their work. I can’t read ‘Sapper’ because his views poison his prose. I get enough stick about John Buchan to know that people feel the same away about him. Ditto Dornford Yates. Maybe not so much about Angela Thirkell, but the more I worked on her writing, the less I would have liked to have met her. The emotional satisfaction we get from their novels is tightly bound up with our approval of the ethics or moral values implicit in the narratives.
Going back to Lady Baltimore, I have to repeat: it is an eminently satisfying novel. The first-person narrator, a Northerner called Augustus, is sent to Charleston by his Aunt Carola, who wants him to find archival evidence that he is connected by blood to the crowned heads of Europe. This is a delightfully satirical sub-plot we needn’t think about much, but it brings Augustus to Charleston, and gives him letters of introduction to the old families of the town who approve, in a superior way, of his task. He himself has no great interest in being royally related, but he is a dutiful nephew, and can see that this task gives him the entrée into a society that he is soon longing to penetrate. He meets Miss Eliza La Heu, the daughter of a plantation family working, in a ladylike way, at the Woman’s Exchange, selling cake and light lunches to the upper classes. He also meets John Mayrant, first introduced as an out of breath young gentleman, who arrives at the Woman’s Exchange while Augustus is taking his first lunch there, to order a wedding cake for the following Wednesday: the ‘Lady Baltimore’ of the title.
Augustus finds out from elliptical, ladylike gossip-mongers that John Mayrant’s fiancée is a beautiful young woman, but she has no background, her father ran away from his post at the Battle of Chattanooga, and her Newport friends give her no respectability in the eyes of Mr Mayrant’s elderly aunts. Worse, Mr Mayrant is definitely going off the boil, and Hortense is playing fast and loose with a very wealthy banker from nowhere called Charley. But which one will she marry, and which one does she love? And if John Mayrant is realising that he no longer loves her, and in fact would run a mile rather than have anything to do with her so-called friends, how is he, as a very correct Southern gentleman, going to get out of the engagement?
We need to recollect that Southern manners at the turn of the century were definitely pre-Civil War in origin. It is the pride of the Southern ladies whom Augustus formally visits that they control all gossip and discussion by these antediluvian standards. So Augustus’s progress, and ours, in understanding all the ins and outs is severely constrained by what he can winkle out without being guilty of a lapse in manners.
I found all this completely delightful. When the Displacers – as Hortenses’s set is named by Augustus – arrive in Charleston in their vulgar automobile, and inadvertently run over Miss Eliza’s dog, and offer her money as a compensation because they think from her modest dress that she is a servant or peasant, we can see this is going to be a deeply felt enactment of the manners of the New Rich versus those of the Old Poor.
But I have not forgotten the racism. It begins casually, with a loyal ex-slave called Daddy Ben offering formal sympathy to John Mayrant over his appalling predicament of having a black man appointed as a superior official over him in his job in the Custom House. That’s a bit of a shock. Then Augustus goes looking for a carpenter to make him up a box for posting some fragile items, in the area of Charleston where the black population lives. This is described indelicately, and the black men who do not subscribe to Daddy Ben’s point of view are all categorised as filthy, violent and drunkards. The long discussions between very endearing and admirable characters over the utter impossibility of a black man ever being equal to a white are simply astounding. They should be read against modern fiction by Alice Walker or Maya Angelou, because Wister is so genuine and unconscious, so utterly of his time, and yet so appalling to read now. The complete lack of nuance in these sections is breath-taking, so much so that it seems a different novel. But perhaps, after all, Lady Baltimore is like Mansfield Park, and Jane Eyre, both excellent novels admired for their literary perfection, but with silent elements we do not consider or even notice until we come across them in a post-colonial literature class.
Lady Baltimore is deeply rewarding for the marvellous storytelling, the fun of the extraordinary social entanglements, the clever wit, and for the enjoyment of seeing the New Rich routed, as is traditional for this kind of American novel in the Edith Wharton style. Read it also for a very sobering piece of evidence that 12 Years A Slave was not made up in hindsight.