Considerably different in tone and content from Wilder’s previous novels, Theophilus North may to some extent be seen as an attempted novel of manners, describing customs and manners in the homes of the very rich, both above stairs and below. The fictional moment, located between World War I and the Great Depression, is indeed well chosen for the purpose, showing a society in transition yet not quite fully transformed. As narrator, North frequently mentions the names of Henry James and Edith Wharton, both of whom had spent some time at Newport while composing their well-known novels of manners; also noted in passing is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published during the year 1925. Coming from an author as self-conscious and deliberate as Wilder, such references are not to be ignored.
In preparing the sketches that comprise Theophilus North, Wilder remained well aware of his most evident models, particularly in the delineation of character. If North himself appears by turns irritating and implausible as a character unless and until he is viewed as an extension of Wilder the literary artist, the various inhabitants of Newport are presented from a distinctly Jamesian or Whartonian perspective; any number of the episodes, moreover, might well have been expanded into full-fledged novels of manners, had the author chosen to do so. James Bosworth, a self-absorbed New England eccentric worthy of James or John P. Marquand, surrounded by a houseful of grasping parasites...
Theophilus (Teddy) North, the stiff and stuffy narrator. North has recently quit his teaching job at a prestigious boys’ preparatory school in Raritan, New Jersey, and has come back to Newport, Rhode Island, where he was stationed during World War I (1919-1920). He returns older and wiser, having finished college and lived in Europe for a year, to work for the summer as tennis coach, companion, and tutor to the wealthy residents of Newport. Conscious of his own middle-class background, North draws clear lines between himself and his employers (refusing, for example, to be entertained in their homes), but his regular interactions with these rich residents of the seaside resort allow him glimpses into their lives of privilege and leisure. Priggish and pedantic, a real “planner,” as one character calls him, North is constantly lecturing his employers about what they should do to change and then setting up elaborate schemes (often involving wild stories or lies) to bring about the necessary transformations. He is both a savior figure and a cupid, either helping people to transform their lives or matching people who should be together. His means and methods are highly manipulative and usually involve some type of deceit. North is, at least in background, a thinly disguised portrait of the author, but his formal manners and didactic relations with others seem closer to the seventy-five-year-old author than to his thirty-year-old character. In contrast to some of the cardboard characters in the various stories, North has a certain three-dimensional, if punctilious, reality.
Diana Bell, the spoiled and headstrong daughter of one of the oldest families of Newport. North is hired by her father to head off her elopement, and he does it in such a way that no one is hurt. Other influential people hear of his exploits.
Miss Norine Wyckoff
Miss Norine Wyckoff, the last of a line of Newport aristocrats. Her house supposedly is haunted, but North helps her to dispel that rumor so that servants will again stay there at night and she can as well. This story demonstrates more about how North operates: He digs into the past, finds out much about the residents and their history (here, about how the story of the haunted house got started), sets up an elaborate scheme (as usual involving, often unknowingly, several other characters), and carries it to its successful conclusion.
Flora Deland, a gossip columnist, originally a part of the Newport colony but now an outsider, digging around trying to uncover juicy items for her national gossip columns. She is not a bad person, but her parties are wild “flapper” affairs at which much liquor and indiscretion may flow. She is the object of gossip herself, but North helps her, as he helps so many others, to acquire a better reputation.
Dr. James McHenry Bosworth
Dr. James McHenry Bosworth, a seventy-four-year-old widower and former diplomat who is trapped in his own mansion, Nine Gables, by his family and servants....