06 October 2012

That little spark of celestial fire called conscience

A fictitious description of a party at the Hollingsworths' house, Whileaway on Long Island, gives a glimpse of pre-war life amongst the New York wealthy set:

Outside on the terrace, the breeze was temperate and wild. Though the sun had yet to set, the house was lit from stem to stern as if to assure arriving guests that should the weather take a turn for the worst, we could all stay the night. Men in black tie conversed casually with the rubied and the sapphired and the sautoir de perles-ed. It was the same sort of familiar elegance that I had seen in July, only now it spanned three generations: Alongside the silver-haired titans kissing the cheeks of glamorous goddaughters were young rakes scandalising aunts with wry remarks sotto voce. A few stragglers from the beach with towels on their shoulders were making their way toward the house looking fit and friendly and not the least ill at ease for running late. Their shadows stretched across the grass in long, attenuated stripes.
A table at the edge of the terrace supported one of those pyramids where overflowing champagne from the uppermost glass cascades down the stems until all the glasses are filled. So as not to spoil the effect, the engineer of this thousand-dollar parlour trick produced a fresh glass from under the table and filled it for me.
Whatever Mr Hollingsworth's encouragements, there wasn't going to be much chance of my feeling at home. But Wallace had made such an effort, I was just going to have to splash some water on my face, trade up to gin, and throw myself into the mix.
-Amor Towles, Rules of Civility, London, 2011, p.201.

Amor Towles' novel Rules of Civility, the story of a young woman, Katey Kontent, and her passage through 1930s New York high society from legal stenographer to magazine editor, is not the sort of thing I'd normally read. But the setting and, I have to admit, the cover of the British edition, caught my eye and gave me encouragement. (I've written about this before - in summary, American book cover design is often dreary and unappealing). This was fortunate because Rules of Civility is artfully written, convincingly researched and stock full of authentic glimpses of the period such as the one quoted above. The New York Times described the book as a 'snappy period piece', and sums up its modus operandi pithily: 


One night at the novel’s outset touches off the chain reaction that will produce both Katey’s career and her husband, and define her entire adult life. She’s swept into the satin-and-cashmere embrace of the smart set — blithe young people with names like Dicky and Bitsy and Bucky and Wallace — with their Oyster Bay mansions, their Adirondack camps, their cocktails at the St. Regis and all the fog of Fishers Island.- Liesl Schillinger, New York Times, 12 August 2011

Two interesting historical notes anchor the narrative. Firstly, at the outset, a more mature Katey admires an exhibition of Walker Evans' clandestine New York subway photos at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966, at the launch of Evans' book Many Are Called, which compiled three years worth of secret subway photos from the 1930s. The photos are a remarkable time capsule of American social history:

He seized on the subway reportedly because of the variety of people who, for a nickel, put up with the underworld gloom and the racket of the steel-wheeled cars. He was especially drawn to the riders' expressions, the private preoccupied or daydreamy blankness that people often wear when left alone in public. "The guard is down and the mask is off," Evans wrote at the time, adding, "people's faces are in naked repose down in the subway." And the best way to catch them in the act of being themselves, he decided, was to take pictures without their knowledge.
- Terence Monmaney, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2004

Secondly, the titular Rules of Civility are an actual set of 110 exhortations to good behaviour that a young George Washington copied out as a schoolboy. The 'Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation' offer a glimpse of the stern moral code he was taught, and perhaps offer some insight into his character, given later events and his rise to greatness. And some still make pretty good sense in the 21st century too:

5. If you cough, sneeze, sigh or yawn, do it not loud but privately, and speak not in your yawning, but put your handkerchief or hand before your face and turn aside. 
13. Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others; if you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it; if it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off. 
50. Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any. 
90. Being set at meat scratch not, neither spit, cough or blow your nose except there's a necessity for it. 
110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
Now all that's needed is some ambitious soul to commission a film version of Towles' novel. Perhaps if The Great Gatsby is a success and studios scramble for their own golden age of New York tale, they'll look favourably on this well-crafted story. 
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