Gilded Age New York

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Gilded Age New York

Circa the late 19th century (Late 1800's)

After enjoying film The Age of Innocence and later reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book that inspired it, I became fascinated with late 19th century (late 1800’s) New York City, because Wharton actually came from a family that was a part of world depicted in her prize winning novel.  I wished to find more books that take place during that time. I found five separate titles, which includes Edith Wharton’s first major novel and two mysteries. Not all of the books on this list are focused on fashionable society.

The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway
While this book works very well as a family story, a love story, and a novel of manners, all in one book, it also explores the darker side of life among the New York City social elite. The author successfully depicts the hustle and bustle of the New York City of the 1890’s, the varying degrees of living standards, and the chasm between the wealthy and the poor. She also shows the disparity between the sexes and gender-based limitations for women of the era. Virginia, and her sister, are both artists, a budding writer and a musician respectively, who repeatedly face rejection in the form of what we now consider to be gender-based discrimination, and also social constraints of the time while in pursuit of their dreams. When Ginny is introduced to the Fifth Avenue Artists Society, a weekly evening gathering of male and female artists, she feels as if she has gone to heaven. It was uncommon for men and women to mix and mingle so informally at the time. As the protagonist becomes more involved with this community and its founder, she realizes that everything is not always as it seems.
 
House of Mirth by Edith Wharton 
Perhaps The Age of Innocence, a novel which, in fact earned Edith Wharton the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921, making her the first woman to do so, and is about wealthy New York City high-society in the 1870s is better known than House of Mirth, Wharton's first major work of fiction. This novel, published in 1905, features the protagonist, Lily Bart, who from a young age, balances precariously on the tightrope of participating in the glittering, shallow, social whirl of New York City’s moneyed “high-society,” sans any wealth of her own to support the lifestyle, or proper guidance for decision-making with tragic results.  Lily is shallow enough to form the intent to marry a wealthy man to secure her foothold in this world and to pay her bills in support of her expensive tastes at the expense of love, but is impeded by a copious amount of fastidious dithering to follow-through with marital opportunities that she has, and fails to execute her scheme to truly become a member of the elite moneyed classes of New York City.
 
Magnate by Joanna Shupe
Here, we move our focus from London high-society during the English Regency (the early 19th century), to the equally exclusive high-society of late 1880s New York—the “Gilded Age,” where the social mores and customs of the elite social class were just as restrictive as anything to be found in England in an earlier era. This book incorporates many of the historical, social and financial aspects of the time, as well as the tensions between the old money classes, represented by “Knickerbocker” families (the heroine), and the nouveau riche (the hero), who acquired their fortunes through industry and technology of the day. These conflicts together with the backdrop of activities of the railroad and steel industries and the New York Stock Exchange engage the reader in late 19th century New York City and its “fashionable” society. The heroine is relatable, though proscribed by restrictions of her social class to doing little more than attending parties and supporting her menfolk in the background, and is still a woman of her times yet works within her restrictive world to get what she wants.

Murder in Morningside Heights by Victoria Thompson 
Newly married Frank Malloy has opened the doors to his new business: “Confidential Inquiries”—a private detective agency after being “let go” from New York's police force since he has inherited money that makes him a millionaire. Both he and his wife Sarah are “bored” in their status as persons of leisure and Frank hires his former team-members from previous cases and investigations. Frank’s first case at his new detective agency involves the vicious murder of a young teacher at a college for women. The police declare the incident a random attack and refuse to investigate. Malloy employs his wife to interview the “lady professors” who worked with the murder victim and discovers that said victim had secrets. One of the more interesting aspects of this story involve the historical elements, specifically the” New Woman” label given to young women who choose to pursue a college education and a career instead of marriage.  Employment while married wasn’t an option for such women at that time. Also, included as a part of the historical detail are attitudes of the time period that some may find surprising, that have to do with female sexuality, women who choose education and careers, and issues concerning employment compensation for women.
 
What the Dead Leave Behind: A Gilded Age Mystery by Rosemary Simpson
The year is 1888, and Prudence Mackenzie’s father has just died leaving her stepmother, whom her father married three years prior, as her guardian until the marriage her father approved for her takes place. Historical details are quite vivid, with the great blizzard of 1888 and a menacing mood are a backdrop. Prudence was reared by her father who was a judge, following the death of her mother at a very young age, and is provided by him with an education usually reserved for men. In addition, the judge trained her in keen observational skills to notice things that other young ladies in her circumstances would not look for. The historic snowstorm will change Prudence’s life, change her plans and place her in danger.