Book Review: Maverick In Mauve The Diary Of a Romantic Age
Lifelong New Yorker, Florence Adele Sloane kept a diary from 1893 – 1896. That in itself is not unusual. What is out of the ordinary is that the diary covers Florence’s life from the age of 19 through 23 and her observations on life and her surroundings are written with astute wisdom beyond her years.
Florence herself was no ordinary young woman. She was born September 19, 1873 into enormous wealth and privilege. Her mother, Emily, was a Vanderbilt and her father, William, a Sloane, two of New York’s wealthiest family’s in the 19th century. Yet despite all the glamor and freedom that money provides, Florence was well grounded and extremely modern in her outlook towards almost everything that life had to offer.
Her diary was never intended for publication, so it is a candid view of Florence’s life. Selections from Florence’s diary was published by Doubleday in 1983 as Maverick In Mauve, The Diary Of A Romantic Age. Famed society author, Louis Auchincloss was related by marriage to Florence’s granddaughter and recognized the unique nature of Florence’s writings and brought together the selections in book form. Auchincloss provides commentary and explanations of the daily happenings in Florence’s life.
Florence lived in what has been called “the Gilded Age.” Of course Florence cavorts with the usual crowd in society known as “the 400,” the number of “worthy” people who could fit into Mr’s Astor’s ballroom. The wealthiest New Yorker’s take their summer vacations not at Coney Island, but, Newport, Rhode Island, Bar Harbor, Maine, Shelburne, Vermont and Lenox, Massachusetts. Florence’s descriptive narrative captures the true nature of these outings. Nightly formal dinners which can be extremely repetitive and outings in the daytime with the same group of movers and shakers.
“I want to live up to my motto, ‘To thine own self be true,’ but half the time I am not. I say things I don’t mean; I do things I don’t want to do. Sometimes I think it is impossible to be absolutely true in society, with the false note going all through it.”
What Florence strives for is to be with artists, writers, musicians and creative people and find true love. That outpouring of yearning is the key to the inner young woman which shines through in these writings. Florence has the same insecurities that women today experience. When she compares her attributes with her friends and relatives and compliments them and finds fault with herself.
In part of a long entry from July 30, 1893 Florence reflects,
“I don’t know what I have. I have always bemoaned my fate in having no talent. I am sure I could act, but the knowledge does me no good, because I can never prove it.”
There would be few quicker ways to disown yourself from your wealthy family if you took up the stage as a profession!
Unlike today when everyone seems to be absorbed by their electronic devices, the 19th century instead offered contemplation of your surroundings. Florence expresses admiration of the twilight sky at her country house in Lenox, MA, in a June 4, 1893 entry.
“I was sitting in my armchair by the window last evening, watching, s I do every day, the sunset. It was so wonderfully beautiful. The deep crimson red spread all over the west, fading into pink and joining the deep blue sky. And the white clouds made quite golden, and the nearer they were to the sun the brighter and more golden they grew, till they seemed almost a part of the sun itself, and the little clouds further back seemed quite pale in contrast, till finally they only borrowed their colors from the other clouds, and still further in the east lost it altogether, till on the horizon they were quite dark. And the thought came to me of how it was with us here. The nearer we live to God and His great love, the brighter we are and the more we reflect the image of the dear Christ who taught us what God is. The farther away we are, the dimmer we grow, till finally there is no light at all. And I wondered how near I was, whether I had the real gold in me, or only reflections of the gold. It is not gone, I am sure of that, but is it very bright?”
Whoa! The thought that comes to mind is, how many 19-year-olds today could write something as ruminating as this? It is one of the few references to religion that Florence shares, as the diary is more grounded in humanist insights.
Florence writes of love, friendships and exploration. She never talks about money except when to wonder aloud if a man might marry her because of her wealth. You can believe that men are courting her left and right. The descriptions of dating, which many times involved a chaperone, are an insight to one of the lesser discussed topics of 19th century etiquette.
Pleasure is easier when you are an heiress. But appreciating nature and finding pleasure in it, is not about money.
“Some people think it a ridiculous waste of time to go off alone by oneself into the fields or woods, and mere nonsense to say there is a voice in every tree and flower and a song in every brook. But it is so, and I am finding it out more and more with a real intense pleasure. Why does one live so many years without finding it out? Perhaps so that we may realize and appreciate it all the more when it does come. We take things so much for granted at first; everything is only made for use or pleasure. But we find out that everything is made for each other.”
Reading Maverick In Mauve you can’t help but feel a woman 21st century attitudes living in a time when women had their place and didn’t speak out. From February 5, 1893:
“There has been a n old longing feeling of discontent in me. What am I doing with my life? What have all the days in this year been to me so far? Nothing, nothing. I have listened to the words of love of one man, and thought of them when he was not there.. I am doing the same thing today. I will do it tomorrow. And what is it all for? Is there any good in it for me? Any good in it for him? No it is all a horrible waste; it ought not to be. That is what my life is a horrible waste. I ought not to say so , but I feel it now, feel it with a feeling that makes me mad. Oh! I wonder if anyone wanted to do something as much as I do. It is living in books that always makes me feel this way. I ought to have some work to do, some hard work, that would take my time and mind and everything else.”
Illustrated with previously unpublished personal photographs from Florence’s collection, the people and places written about, vividly come to life. It is not the stuff of dry history.
Highly recommended for anyone who wants to know more about the era of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. If you have an interest in what daily life was like for a wealthy young woman just before the turn-of-the-century, this book will be a page turner. Out of print for 36 years, Maverick In Mauve may be available at your local used book store or can easily be purchased on many used book websites.