All That Glitters Is Not Gold | The Reader’s Shelf

From TV to film, the Gilded Age is all the rage. The following novels illuminate multiple facets of the luxurious—though not-so-golden—era.

From TV to film, the Gilded Age is all the rage. The following novels illuminate multiple facets of the luxurious—though not-so-golden—era.

Tracey Enerson Wood sets The Engineer’s Wife (Sourcebooks Landmark. 2021. ISBN 9781728226255. pap. $16.99) in the dark shadow of the American Civil War as Emily Warren marries Washington “Wash” Roebling, a Union Army veteran and civil engineer, who assists his father’s bridge building endeavors. Wash becomes chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge project and while working develops decompression illness, later becoming bedridden. Emily begins studying, becoming knowledgeable in cable construction, and serves as surrogate chief engineer. In so doing, she faces numerous competing engineers, unsure politicians, and public negativity. Some 14 years from the bridge’s inception to its completion, its extraordinary stone towers and enormous steel cables represent a most celebrated scientific and technological wonder. Though Wood weaves valuable biographical and historical detail into her account of Warren and the Roeblings, she adds a fictitious touch by inviting the celebrated showman Phineas Taylor Barnum into the mix. Barnum’s exuberance adds an intriguing touch to Emily’s path, combining fictional commentary with her actual involvement with women’s rights, suffrage, and pursuit of a law degree. READ NEXT: In Metropolis, Elizabeth Gaffney presents another view of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Joanna Shupe launched her “Knickerbocker Club” series in 2016 with Magnate (Zebra. ISBN 9781420139846. pap. $7.99), a historical romance set in the sybaritic stomping grounds of the superrich whose wealth further increases through stock market investments. Rags-to-riches bad boy Emmett Cavanaugh has fought his way from the streets of Five Points to become the head of a steel empire. Regarded as nouveau riche, he builds an opulent, palatial mansion on Fifth Avenue but detests what blue-blooded Elizabeth Sloane represents. Quite ahead of her time, however, Elizabeth, intent on demonstrating her investment acumen, resists soirées and societal limits. Once she presents Emmett with an irresistible business proposition, the two eye each other with growing interest. Shupe includes many late 19th-century mores and rituals, and readers seeking a detailed look at this era are introduced to the great blizzard that pounded New York in 1888. The idea for this amorous tale of sly subterfuge may have been inspired by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s historic backing of Victoria Woodhull, head of the first woman-owned brokerage firm on Wall Street. READ NEXT: For additional elite enigmas, try Our Kind of People by Carol Wallace.

Thomas Edison might have perfected the light bulb, but he was not responsible for inventing the inexpensive, efficient method of lighting up the nation. It was George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla who developed a process for economically transporting electricity. Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night (Random Paperbacks. 2017. ISBN 9780812988925. pap. $17) sees up-and-coming young Paul Cravath, a Columbia Law School graduate, standing ground in the battle between these “current” giants. Something of a prodigy, the 26-year-old represented Westinghouse in his fight against Edison to electrify the United States. Eccentric, ingenious Tesla, a huge player in this fight for light, also features in Moore’s lively, complex view of the legal battle to illuminate the Gilded Age. READ NEXT: In City of Promise, Beverly Swerling delivers another look at the era, one full of history and vivid detail.

Edith Wharton’s quintessential Gilded Age novel The House of Mirth (Oxford. 2009. ISBN 9780199538102. pap. $10.95) offers a sad but sumptuous study of monied manners. Lily Bart, nearly 30, is an indulgent, beautiful, yet tragic heroine whose continual poor choices are fueled by her belief that money will bring happiness. She needs to marry, but she discards her main suitor due to his lack of wealth and then, through a series of unsound judgments, is ruined. The novel spins out, as so many works about cast-off women do, until the lovely, fickle, and unmarried Lily pays dearly for daring to overstep. Wharton, whose family name was Jones, certainly knew the world she depicts; the idiom “keeping up with the Joneses” is sometimes said to be a reference to the wealth of Wharton’s own family. READ NEXT: The Awakening by Kate Chopin offers another view of a woman who dared to transgress the social constraints of her era.

Historic details of the life of Belle da Costa Greene are the basis for Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray’s The Personal Librarian (Berkley. 2021. ISBN 9780593101537. $27). Belle became a prominent career woman, who, as a librarian, managed, documented, and continued adding acquisitions to the Pierpont Morgan Library. She spent years expanding the collection and became one of the most influential librarians in the United States, socializing with Gilded Age scions like the Astors and the Vanderbilts. She lived a quite complex life, however, concealing her identity as a Black woman. Passing as white, she maintained that her complexion was from her alleged Portuguese ancestry, though her father was Harvard’s first Black graduate and a well-known advocate for civil rights. Her mother was a former socialite among the prominent Black families of Washington, DC. READ NEXT: Karin Tanabe’s The Gilded Years fictionalizes the life of Anita Hemmings, the first Black graduate of Vassar who gained admission by passing as white.

This column was written by librarian and freelance writer Andrea Tarr, Alta Loma, CA.

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