What the Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age Reviewed By Tom Pope of Bookpleasures.com
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Author: Renée Rosen
Fifty Shades of Morality and Community
Marshall Field’s Chicago in the 1880s flocked to his department store to drool over the chic designs from Paris, and they gawked at the rise of his building that zoomed up several stories into the sky. The city’s faces also frowned on Delia, his lover, failed to know about his wife who turned vengeful birds onto her enemies. And his Chicago knew nothing of his friend, Arthur, who lived a gay lifestyle while being married to Delia.
Renée Rosen’s historical novel, What the Lady Wants, gives us a complex sense of 50 shades of a personal code of morality as seen through Delia’s eyes. In the process, Rosen takes us on a historical look at 50 shades of what a community means.
Rosen’s work is more than a historical or a romance work. While those driving forces propel the novel, Rosen forces us to view our world today at the types of moralities and communities that surround us.
Rosen pulls the reader into a world where Delia struggles with living up to the standards of a wealthy class during the Gilded Age. Yet Delia wants more than society outings where she glided over staircases to crystal glass holders below. Her attraction to Marshall Field went beyond the lure of his marketing skills. She thrived on his energy.
From the surface of the love-history story, Rosen makes us look at social issues. Delia developed into her thirties in a lonely marriage as her husband yet best friend continued a gay relation with another man. She grew ever closer to Field and defied the gossip about her, with the ostracizing that would have made Anna Karenina cringe.
How does Delia survive? Which moral core does she exude or accept? How does she find a community of like souls? Those are the deeper questions Rosen brings to the readers.
Rosen’s work shows us the America of today, even though the cast and scenery resemble the late 1800s. Field’s morality comes from a core of personal struggles to excel and show others his skills. Any item that stood in the way could be seen as a threat. But his morality also showed a tender concern for people he knew like Delia and her husband.
Those moral complexities led to Field’s version of what community meant. Field’s idea of community was the women who bought his merchandise. His community was the wealthy elite of the city who made policies for others.
When Chicago faced the famous fire of 1871, the city found Field turning his fortune to replacing gowns for a wealthy audience. His acts helped to rebuild the city’s stores and make the wealthy smile for their balls. What happened to the workers who lost homes in the fire, or the clothing they lost, which would have cost less to replace than the gowns? The average person and worker was not part of his community.
Delia’s sense of morality took her, after the fire, to help in a church where people needed clothing and food. Rosen develops Delia’s sense of morality. Her core center cared about people and how they dealt with problems of life beyond their abilities. She saw the pain in her husband at being alone in a world that failed to understand his gayness. She knew he was more complex and could be a trusting friend. Her decision about whether to keep his secret reveals a vast different moral code than that displayed by many women of her peer group, another community, who thought a husband and wife was the only image of a moral marriage. Does Delia keep the secret? What conflicts erupted to threaten that secret?
Rosen shows how Delia nurtures a community. Despite feeling the hatred from Field’s wife, Delia casts open arms to Field’s children and treated them like her own. When Delia can not fully share a traditional family with her husband or society, she created a community with her sister and others in her home.
Rosen doesn’t preach about the comparison between Delia’s age and ours. But readers seeing Field’s reaction to the Haymarket Protests could probably think about the 2008 Wall Street failure or the Seattle Riots against the World Trade Organization.
The protestors who fought Field wanted an eight-hour working day, and fled during a bomb throwing that some experts believe came from merchants or the police. Rosen shows Field’s anger blasting beyond legal rights to frame anyone as a scapegoat for the bombing. He pushed the police to bring martial law to the city and forced the prosecution to extreme measures.
Meanwhile, the Occupy Wall Street protestors were forced off public land when the merchants moved the police to act. In both cases, thousands of lower middle class Americans lived in squalor, were forced to live in camp grounds, or lost homes.
Delia struggled to find one of the shades of morality and community to help her. Forces would stop her from feeling compassion for the poor after the fire when she returned home from the church. She could do no more to help. Her world would not allow her to enter a business, but the world was changing and her sense of design thrilled Field’s ideas of marketing. Delia grew almost as a symbol of feminism. From the ashes of the ostracizing by women in her early life, she emerged as a key leader of the Board of Lady Managers for the World’s Fair and helped select a female architect for the Woman’s Building. How did she accomplish that?
Rosen created a world where readers will turn the page to see just how Delia moved ahead with each new conflict. As readers delve deeper, they will see a version of the world they live in today. One report indicated that on the day President Nixon resigned, he looked at an image of President Kennedy. He is reported to have said that while America saw Kennedy as their ideal person, they chose Nixon as the man that they most resembled. That can be said about the times Rosen describes. The Gilded Age with Field might have been the age and character Americans most typified, but Delia was the person they most desired they could become.