At 17 Clara Carter is looking forward to her last year of freedom. But when the wealthy and eligible heir to the de Vries fortune returns from Europe, Aunt and Father decide to push up her debut to this season. Though the learning curve for this society novice is steep, there is never any question about the coveted goal: marriage to Franklin de Vries. Things get complicated when best friend and fellow debutante Lizzie Barnes gets the same assignment. In She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell we watch Clara change from an innocent, naïve, and idealistic newcomer to a jaded socialite who sees through the ballroom games of New York’s 1890s social scene.
Clara gives us a first-person account of what it’s like to be compressed by the bones and lacing of a 19th century corset, to learn the language of the fan and eat one’s way through a multi-course meal using just the right utensil. As a main character I found her sympathetic, though there were times I wanted to shake her for her wishy-washiness. Clara’s pretty and loyal friend Lizzie was hard to dislike despite how superficial she was. Aunt was a typical authoritarian dragoness. And Clara’s father, Dr. Willard Carter, remained a mystery until the end.
Mitchell obviously immersed herself in the minutiae of the Victorian period. The story is rich and authentic in its detail about clothes, house furnishings, the operas, and parties New York’s moneyed elite attended, the dances they danced, and the foods they ate – down to the oysters in ice served at Delmonicos.
Mitchell’s writing style is vivid, efficient, and filled with dialogue. It consists of lots of short sentences. And fragments. Here, for example, is the scene that greeted the guests at Clara’s coming-out tea:
Pillows in profusion dotted the furniture. Lamps, not content with their own lampshades, had been draped with lace and trailing fringe. A collection of family miniatures and fans decorated the shelves. Rugs upon rugs covered the floor. Mirrors reflected back myriad statues and figurines. And bows adorned the chairs. All but one. All but our revolutionary relic. (p. 68)
Though in some ways this story seems a frothy society tale, the book is set against a background of serious issues. Through the book How The Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, Clara becomes aware of a whole class of people – immigrants, tenement dwellers, tramps, prostitutes, drug addicts – that exist in dismal conditions. Father and Aunt deflect all her questions about the Mulberry Street section of town, however, and it is only when she begins to uncover family secrets that she fully appreciates the charade she finds herself in.
The role and place of women in society is another of the story’s themes. That includes an exploration of marriage – viewed by Victorian women as the only way to gain security and position, so you’d better marry for money, not love. As Aunt explains it: “True love is an illusion spun for young girls to seduce them into marriage. It is nothing but a myth.” (p. 334)
The spiritual message of God accepting us as we are is subtle yet captures our attention in its contrast to society’s obsession with molding, especially women into something they are not. It is delivered mostly via Clara’s memories of her mother and the hymns she sang – especially her favorite “Just As I Am.”
She Walks in Beauty is sure to interest lovers of Americana and the Victorian era. For any who have ever wished they could experience what it was like to be a debutante, the book is a great substitute. One can live the whole business vicariously without ever having to twirl a fan, dance a schottische, or exist 24/7 cinched into a corset.