The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873) is Mark Twain’s first novel. He and Charles Dudley Warner wrote it together after an argument in 1872 about “the current state of popular fiction.” Their wives were involved also, sitting in on nightly reviews of the joint product. It reads like that: too many characters, too many plot lines, developments that don’t develop, odd changes in tone.
The book is a blend of the personal and the political. Twain had spent time in Washington, D.C. and he observed well. It pains me to read his descriptions of all the nice little tricks of corruption, as a new Congress gathers in 2011, making equally pious noises.
It is only for the politics that the book is worth reading today. That said, my attention was caught by two female characters. Ruth, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker family desires to study medicine and become independent. Laura, the beautiful adopted daughter of a land-poor Missouri family, fails at love, becomes a ruthless lobbyist and, eventually, murders her former lover. These characters represent the authors’ attempt to understand feminism. It is good that they tried, but sad that they failed.
Here is Ruth, arguing for her medical education:
I want to be something, to make myself something, to do something. Why should I rust, and be stupid, and sit in inaction because I am a girl? What would happen to me if thee should lose thy property and die? What one useful thing could I do for a living, for the support of mother and the children? And if I had a fortune, would thee want me to lead a useless life?
Sounds right to me, but the authors undermine her case. She begins the course, decides she needs more “general culture’ (do male medical students require that?), goes off to an academy, turns into a party girl, comes back to study and labor “beyond her strength” in a hospital, and almost dies of a fever before recognizing her own true love. Arrrggghhh!
Laura is beautiful and true-hearted, yet rendered insecure by the loss of her parents in a steamboat accident. She is wooed by a dastardly Confederate officer, then abandoned after a false marriage. The reaction is a typical 19th-century illness and a change in her nature.
Laura was ill for a long time, but she recovered; she had that resolution in her that could conquer death almost. And with her health came back her beauty, and an added fascination, a something that might be mistaken for sadness. Is there a beauty in the knowledge of evil, a beauty that shines out in the face of a person whose inward life is transformed by some terrible experience? Is the pathos in the eyes of the Beatrice Cenci from her guilt or her innocence?
Laura not was much changed. The lovely woman had a devil in her heart. That was all.
Here is a woman who managed to be both victim (“terrible experience”) and perpetrator (“devil in her heart”) and we know what must be ahead for her. Still and all, it is great fun when she takes on the Congress and lobbies on behalf of the family land and fortunes. I was sorry to see her lose, then end up in prison, only to prevail after some wonderfully cynical trial scenes. A survivor all the way, until the authors — not knowing what else to do with her — kill her off.
Twain and Dudley have glimpsed the situation. They see that Ruth is reasonable to desire education and independence. But they know in their hearts that she should belong to some man. They grudgingly admire the Laura who is hell-on-wheels as a lobbyist and manipulator. But they know that evil beauty is dangerous and must not be allowed to live.