Auchincloss' 'Variety': forever patrician

"Her Infinite Variety," by Louis Auchincloss. Houghton Mifflin. 224 pages. $25.

July 30, 2000|By Melvin Jules Bukiet | Melvin Jules Bukiet,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For decades, Louis Auchincloss has been America's premier chronicler of the domain once known as "society." He's given us its lawyers and stock brokers, its pedagogues and debutantes, in clear and attractive prose that has explored the customs of a rarefied segment of the population with the anthropological precision of Margaret Mead among the Samoans. In "Her Infinite Variety," his 56th book, he does no less. Unfortunately, he does no more either.

Auchincloss' new novel tracks the career of Clarabel Longcope Hoyt Tyler from "the earliest signs of her ... incipient beauty" in the 1930s to her ascendance to society's pinnacle in the early 1960s.

Yet despite the vast transformations of the mid-century, Clara's own tiny corner of the world might as well be stuck in amber.

World War II and the Cold War are blips on the screen of this one pilgrim's social progress.

Clara's blue-blooded but empty-pocketed father is the master of a minor college at Yale, a far cry from her mother's Fifth Avenue aspirations. Disappointed by her husband's mediocrity, Violet Longcope drills into her daughter the sense that she must wed well. Yet Clara chafes when she is told that "We poor women can only dream of the top spots in life." She yearns to make her own way.

Clara talks a proto-feminist talk, but she still walks the old Knickerbocker walk. Despite her editorial work for Style magazine, she basically follows her mother's advice and earns her success the old-fashioned way; she marries it.

First she nails the scion of a banking fortune (yes, this is a book with "scions") and then, when she drops him, immediately finds a publishing magnate to take his place.

At each stage, as disaster threatens, Clara triumphs and trades in for a better model.

If she were a calculating Becky Sharp, this might make sense, but it's her very espousal of liberal values that makes Clara's rise unbelievable. Her shallowness is underlined when the potentially complicating events in her life - the birth of a child, the death of a lover - hardly register on her social calendar.

Auchincloss never quite distinguishes between what Clara avows about herself and her actions. We're told that she's left-leaning, yet all she does with the fabulously endowed foundation her last husband has left her is unimaginatively give it to a thinly disguised version of New York's Metropolitan Museum.

Still, Auchincloss knows this world better than anyone and when he makes larger observations they're acute.

He notes that "It was not ... that the poor were seeking ... to bring down the rich ... It was more that they wanted ... to be rich themselves." Indeed, egalitarianism is more of a threat to the Yankee aristocratic way of life than revolution.

It's just that "Her Infinite Variety" seldom follows through in this vein. The book rests content with a benign nostalgia for patrician manners and manors with carriage houses that can't be shared by anyone who hasn't reaped similar ancestral benefits.

As a portrait of a society lady, "Her Infinite Variety" may accurately reflect one time and place, but suggesting that any progress has been made by the likes of Clara Longcope Hoyt Tyler only proves what a long way remains to go.

Melvin Jules Bukiet's last novels are "After" and "Signs and Wonders." His next, forthcoming from Norton, is "Strange Fire." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.

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