Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484
The House of Five Talents, announcing the full range of Auchincloss’s skill as novelist and chronicler, is narrated in the first-person voice by Miss Augusta Millinder, known familiarly as Gussie, a seventy-five-year-old heiress who, after the social upheavals of two world wars and a depression, sees fit to record her memoirs for posterity. Ostensibly penned during 1948, Gussie’s testimony ranges from the gaslight era of her adolescence to the narrative present, providing an insider’s view of society against the backdrop of history.
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Unmarried by choice, having broken her engagement to a promising young architect for reasons best known to herself, Gussie Millinder emerges early in life as a keen observer and occasional meddler, using her spinsterhood as a vantage point from which to analyze and criticize the marital and parental misadventures of her relatives and friends. Gussie’s meddling, however well-intentioned, fails more often than it succeeds, allowing the unseen Auchincloss to inject elements of plot into an otherwise linear narrative.
In her twenties, for example, Gussie tries, unsuccessfully, to thwart her parents’ divorce and her father’s subsequent remarriage to an actress. Later, in an incident presaging the plot of The Embezzler, she will offer to save a cousin’s husband from bankruptcy and prison by covering his embezzlement with her own funds, on condition that the man retire permanently from business. Unhappy in retirement, the man pleads with Gussie to release him from his vow and soon reverts to his old ways, eventually disappearing abroad as a fugitive from justice. With the approach of old age, Gussie again intervenes to force a marriage between her scapegrace nephew Oswald, a Communist sympathizer, and the showgirl who is carrying his unborn child; the marriage predictably fails, leaving Gussie with little choice but to adopt the child herself.
Set mainly in New York City, with occasional excursions to such fashionable turn-of-the-century “watering places” as Newport and Bar Harbor, The House of Five Talents credibly evokes both tradition and transition as Gussie meets the twentieth century, already “liberated” by her spinster status from constraints that still bind her married female relatives. As she approaches forty, for example, Gussie supplements her self-education with college courses and teaches in a girls’ school, although she does not need the money. With the approach of World War I, she volunteers for auxiliary service in Europe, proceeding upon her return to develop a career of active, if selective, community service, giving as freely of her time as of her money.
Notable for Auchincloss’s effective exploitation of first-person narration, The House of Five Talents also presents his first full-scale portrait of American society, showing how the would-be aristocracy defines itself, whether in its choice of sports and resorts or in the marriage of such rich Americans as Gussie’s sister Cora to impoverished but titled Europeans. Gussie Millinder herself, meanwhile, remains among Auehincloss’s most memorable and entertaining characters.