Probing Morals under Masks of High Society

Article excerpt


Although Louis Auchincloss is rightly esteemed as a brilliant portraitist of what might be called high society, it is also true that in depicting that world and probing the nexus between individuals and the circumstances in which they find themselves, he provides us with a revealing portrait of society in general. "The Scarlet Letters," as its Hawthorne-inspired title suggests, is a story of adultery, but it is also a story about the wider adulteration of values that seems to affect every facet of society, from corporate ethics and the legal profession to friendship, love, and family.

Mr. Auchincloss first wrote "The Scarlet Letters" as a short story, and it debuted in that form a year ago as the final piece in his collection "Manhattan Monologues." The story had a sharp-edged, crystalline luster, and a seamless blend of function and form that was intensely satisfying, morally and aesthetically. In it, Mr. Auchincloss presented the case of Rod Jessup, "a young man universally admired for his impeccable morals and high ideals," who is the heir-apparent to his father-in-law's venerable law firm.

Jessup shocks his community not only by committing adultery, but by doing so in a very blatant manner with a middle-aged lady of "fading charms and loose behavior."

But no one - not even Rod's attractive wife, Lavinia - is more distressed by this bombshell than his father-in-law, Arnold Dillard, who up until now had worshipped Rod as the son he never had: an improved and idealized version of himself, who was even more scrupulous and stalwart in defending his ideals, both personal and professional.

But while the sadly disillusioned Dillard, coached by Rod's clever, rivalrous friend Harry Hammersly, angrily casts aside his tarnished favorite, we soon learn that things are not what they appear to be. Far from being an adulterer in any meaningful sense of the word, the noble Rod, having discovered that his wife was conducting a hot and heavy, not to say degrading, affair with the aforementioned Harry Hammersly, took it upon himself to spare his father-in-law's feelings. He covered up Lavinia's transgression and made himself look like the guilty party. Rod's own idealism is also somewhat damaged in the process, but not entirely, and by the story's end, justice of a kind has prevailed.

In transforming the story into a novel, Mr. Auchincloss has done a number of interesting things. First and foremost, he has delved more deeply into the lives and backgrounds of the major characters, starting with Rod's parents-in-law, the Dillards, whom he has renamed Ambrose and Hetty Vollard. (Some other small changes - such as the resetting of the opening scene from 1947 to 1953, the better to evoke the tense atmosphere of the Cold War and the conformist 1950s - reveal the craftsmanly author taking this opportunity to fine-tune his work.)

More significantly, Mr. Auchincloss uses the novel form to give us a sense of how these characters and their milieu have changed over the course of several decades.

We learn a lot more about the history of Ambrose Vollard: his disaffected parents, the religious doubts that brought him into conflict with the headmaster of his school, his embrace of the law as a worthy profession, his marriage to the estimable Bostonian Hetty Shattuck, and his special feelings for his firstborn and favorite daughter, Lavinia.

We also learn a lot more about the man Lavinia picks out as the perfect husband for herself and son-in-law for her father, Rod Jessup. The complicated nature of Rod's uneasy friendship with Harry Hammersly is further explained, and Auchincloss has added a new character, Jane Farquar, a well-heeled divorcee and soi-disant "realistic romantic" who becomes the second Mrs. Jessup. There are other notable changes and additions: incidents and developments that not only flesh out the story, but darken it. …