When I started writing The Wild One, I had no clue that I would eventually be writing about Victorian Boston or the American Aristocracy. All I really knew was that my hero was a rich gambler and the heroine an actress. I was writing the end of the book (which came in pieces and not in order) when the hero and his father started talking about his parents’ courtship. By the end of the scene, I knew two things: 1) I had another book to write and 2) that my hero was part of a member of the American Aristocracy.
Yup, American Aristocracy.
When I started researching rich upper class Victorians the term came up again and again. It jolted me. I already had a fuzzy impression of 19th century debutant balls and parties with “the right people”. I always considered it sort of an American version of the Regency period, but to label it an aristocracy? I thought perhaps that historians applied the phrase for lack of better wording. But no, I found a 19th century quote by a woman saying to a foreign visitor “You just don’t understand our Aristocracy.” Pretty pretentious, huh? As I dug deeper I discovered that Bostonians were probably the most pretentious of all. And fascinating.
Growing up in the Boston area, I’ve come to associate the term Boston Brahmin with stuffy people talking about charity fundraisers. Then I picked up the The Proper Bostonians by Cleveland Armory (part of a series on the American Aristocracy) and learned about how the Brahmins came to be. It really started in the 1830’s or so when the current member of Boston Society hired an Italian count as a dance master, who started a dance academy that would inevitably lead to exclusive “assemblies” similar to the famed Almack’s of London. Papanti taught ballroom etiquette as well, which he enforced by smacking young men on the back with his violin bow. In 1852 Boston established a men’s club like London’s Whites—The Somerset Club. In addition Society members took to promenading through the park at set times and appointed its Queens of Society—one of the first Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, Boston’s version of Lady Sefton of England’s Regency period. Ironically only 30 years after starting a revolution to establish a democracy that basically vilified a pre-determined class structure, Boston did everything it could to create its own aristocracy.
Of course Boston was not the only city doing this. Cities across the nation followed suit. New York had the Union club and Caroline Astor. San Francisco had Eleanor Martin and promenades through Golden Gate Park. Boston Society, however, stood out in its exclusivity. Established by the mid 1850’s, nothing except marriage—not money, fame or intellect—got you in. And Boston strongly encouraged marriage to other Bostonians. By comparison, New York and San Francisco went through various incarnations of “Society”. Fortune, not family, seemed to played the primary role. Bostonians, who were friendly with New York’s First Families, called these people “bounders” or upstarts. No breeding, no customs!
The Brahmins did care about wealth. In fact hard work and thrift was almost a second religion to them. But unlike other societies, they guarded their money jealously, guaranteeing continuing family fortune through trust funds, thus precluding the need for periodic infusions of “new” money. Bostonians also abhorred New York-style ostentation and disdained the publicity that other societies seemed to crave. (In 1892 Ward McAllister actually published a list of New York’s top 400 families—horror of horrors to the Proper Bostonian!) They had their scandals of course, one of which included a murder, but they were kept quiet and the participants ruthlessly rooted out.
In addition they projected their snobbery upon the Irish. Granted, most of the country disliked the Irish, but Boston took it to extremes. When the Irish entered city government in the late 19th century, many of them moved out of the city.
Of course I found all this great fodder for writing. What could be more fun than making Lee, my ne’er- do-well gambler, the son of a Boston Brahmin? And make him a rebel compelled to leave home to avoid disgracing his family? And what better conflict than to present him with Jess, the perfect woman in looks, personality, humor, but who is unfortunately an actress, an Irish actress? Then settle them across the country in San Francisco, which is fairly “safe” for a budding romance, until a murder charge and a race from the law forces the Lee to request help from the last person he wants to see—his father. Oh the fun! I couldn’t resist any more than I could resist writing the prequel (Wicked Woman, published first) when the following conversation took place. The father, Ward, upon learning the “true” character of Jess after she’s left Lee, says,
“If I loved the woman, son, nothing short of mortal wounds would keep me from her side.”
Lee laughed a little. “No, sir. As I recall Mom stabbed you.”
Ward’s eyes gleamed. “It was but a slight wounding. It scarcely deterred me.”
“Nor did anything else, as I recall. By ‘any means, be they fair or foul,’ correct? It’s a miracle that she forgave you my birth.”
“It was,” his father said truly smiling now, “my greatest triumph. You proved quite useful, son.”
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