BoatGirl’s #CBR4 Review #27: The Vanity Girl by Compton Mackenzie
The Vanity Girl by Compton Mackenzie is another successful Gutenberg Roulette pick. One of the fantastic side effects of randomly picking books from Gutenberg this way, is that when I enjoy the book it encourages me to look up the author as well. A quick perusal of our good friend Wikipedia shows Mackenzie to have been a fascinating individual (as was the last author I reviewed here). For movie buffs, several of his novels were made into films, including Sylvia Scarlett, who appears here occasionally as a cynical frienemie.
This book covers the story of Norah Caffyn’s rise from a comfortable middle class upbringing to become Countess of Clarehaven. Initially, she is young, beautiful, and incredibly self-centered. She parlays her youth and beauty into an acting gig, which allows her to meet wealthy, titled men. Determined not to go the way of other actresses, she sets very strict rules for her own behavior and follows them. Hilariously, she decides that her name just isn’t elegant enough for the stage, but her sister’s name of Dorothy is perfect, so she renames herself Dorothy Lonsdale and invents a fabulous backstory as she tries to snare a titled husband. Dorothy’s husband Tony, the Earl of Clarehaven, is quite a good match for her. Spoiled rotten and rich, he adores her as he would a new toy. Unlike her, he doesn’t seem capable of growth.
For much of the book she reminded me a great deal of Scarlet O’Hara in the way she traded on her beauty and felt that she was owed things because of her beauty. However, unlike Scarlett O’Hara, as life kicks Norah/Dorothy around she grows, becoming more self-aware and sympathetic with maturity. In that, I guess this was a pretty realistic book. Who among us wasn’t a self-centered brat at 19 and hopefully a more decent person with the passing of 10 years?
Recently I’ve read a number of books from this time period and I realize that what I enjoy are the period details. It is like studying anthropology to read about people for whom a normal day didn’t include things like grocery shopping, doing laundry or using a computer, and whose lives revolved around being social, always sending notes and darting off to lunch or dinner or the theatre. It’s hilarious to see how important class was to them – you could actually go buy a book that told you who someone else’s ancestors were and why they received their titles.
What is becoming more and more noticeable and distasteful to me about these older books is the casual racism. For instance, in The Vanity Girl, one of the major characters is a Jewish man named Hausberg/Houston. He is a friend of Dorothy’s since fairly early on in her career, becomes a business partner with her husband, vacations with them, and is considered by Dorothy as a potential husband for one of her sisters. Despite all this, the book has many disturbing anti-semetic descriptions and allusions to ugly things as typical of his “race”. I don’t see why the book had to sink to this. Hausberg/Houston is sort of the anti-Tony – highly intelligent, self-made and very disciplined, although not necessarily a nice guy. All the anti-semetic remarks really detracted from the book. Although, it probably explains the alienation that Hausberg felt in upper class British society and why he did certain things.
I can also see more parallels to Gone with the Wind (which I HATED, btw) as I think about it. Tony or, more specifically, his title of Earl, are the stand-in for Ashley while Hausberg turns out to be a not handsome Rhett. Olive, a former roommate, is Melanie and Clarehaven is Tara. And they all come together to allow the heroine to grow and mature. The difference is that in this book, she does seem to grow into someone you might want to actually talk with. For my book club, I have to read an Edith Wharton, but I think after that I’m going to take a fairly long break from this time period of late Victorian/early Edwardian. It’s starting to get to me!