The Dark Lady
A modern day novelist of manners, Louis Auchincloss is frequently compared to Anthony Trollope. As a recorder of a way of life the comparison is valid; however, he seems less inclined to show us the flair, the wit, or the good warm blood of his characters that marked Trollope’s style. It is as though, because they are of his milieu, he wants to shield them from the probing and critical eyes of the non-U and the unwashed. Over a decade ago, S. K. Overbeck wrote of Auchincloss, “Aside from its inventive ironies, Auchincloss’s prose is all polish and no spit. . . .” (Newsweek, March 27, 1967.) It is unfortunate that the same can be said of Auchincloss’ later work, including this novel; he seems to be observing from a distance, not coming close enough for the reader to feel, taste, or smell the realities he intends to convey.
The outsiders seem more real than the highborn, wealthy WASPs in many of Auchincloss’ novels, and this is no exception. Ivy Trask, a successful self-made woman, is one of the more memorable of Auchincloss’ characters. The author often exploits the hand-in-the-velvet-glove ploy; this time there are two—both Ivy and her protégée Elesina Dart are classic examples of the strong, manipulating, singleminded woman.
Ivy is at heart a driven, insecure, unloved, and unloving woman. Auchincloss has her fill her emptiness by living vicariously through well-born, lovely Elesina, an actress she rescues from alcoholism brought on by two destructive marriages and a fading stage career. As Ivy succeeds in strengthening Elesina’s position, she diminishes those around her. The ultimate irony is exemplified by the fact that Elesina fares so well under Ivy’s sponsorship that eventually there is no longer room for Ivy in the world she has built for Elesina.
Early insecurity has made Ivy into a snob, and although her position as editor of Tone should be assurance enough, she revels in her close association with Clara and Irving Stein. Stein, a lawyer and former surrogate judge, is now an investment banker and art collector. As a member of the Stein inner circle, Ivy uses the devices at her command to make herself indispensable to Clara in much the same way that she did earlier to the relatives who took her in as an orphaned niece. Eventually she begins to sense a subtle change in the Steins, fears they are beginning to take her for granted, and may soon hold her in contempt. In a calculated attempt to prove she can produce something of value on her own, something to enhance her standing in their eyes, she proposes a visit to Broadlawns of her actress friend, Elesina Dart. Through the consequences of this act, an act which precipitates changes of lifestyles and a breakdown of family ties, friendships, and a marriage, Auchincloss becomes a moralist. He turns moralist, too, in his treatment of Irving. Elesina is maneuvered into a loveless marriage to Irving after Ivy sets about breaking up his marriage to the colorless Clara. In a departure from the traditional view that it is the woman who pays, he condemns Irving to a life of invalidism and impotency soon after he and Elesina take the vows.
Continuing to hew her path of disaster through the lives of those she touches, Ivy focuses on David, the Steins’s youngest child, the one who means the most to Clara. She encourages an affair between Elesina and David—to hurt Clara as much as to gratify her grand plan for Elesina’s happiness....
(The entire section is 1415 words.)