Review: Love, Fiercely

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Love, FiercelyLove, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance by Jean Zimmerman
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 13, 2012
Genres: Biography, History
Pages: 336
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-stars

The New York love story of a beautiful heiress and a wealthy young architect, captured in a famous John Singer Sargent painting

In Love, Fiercely Jean Zimmerman re-creates the glittering world of Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes. Contemporaries of the Astors and Vanderbilts, they grew up together along the shores of bucolic Staten Island, linked by privilege—her grandparents built the world’s fastest clipper ship, his family owned most of Murray Hill. Theirs was a world filled with mansions, balls, summer homes, and extended European vacations.

Newton became a passionate preserver of New York history and published the finest collection of Manhattan maps and views in a six-volume series. Edith became the face of the age when Daniel Chester French sculpted her for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, a colossus intended to match the Statue of Liberty’s grandeur. Together Edith and Newton battled on behalf of New York’s poor and powerless as reformers who never themselves wanted for anything. Through it all, they sustained a strong-rooted marriage.

From the splendid cottages of the Berkshires to the salons of 1890s Paris, Love, Fiercely is the real story of a world long relegated to fiction.

Love, Fiercely began with the painting that appears on the cover. Zimmerman started out researching I. N. Phelps Stokes because of her interest in his ponderous history of New York City he wrote. When she viewed John Singer Sargent’s painting of the two, though, she became captivated by his wife, Edie (nicknamed Fiercely). Thus, her studies shifted, encapsulating their romance along with the gilded age of New York.

I do not often venture into nonfiction, despite the fact that I was a history major in school. While history itself is more often fascinating than not, historians are not necessarily good writers. Many nonfiction titles read like a catalog of facts, putting the reader to sleep immediately. Zimmerman, on the other hand, has a fanciful, very fiction-oriented style. Even those who ordinarily avoid nonfiction will probably enjoy Love, Fiercely.

Women end up wearing a lot of stupid things for fashion in the gilded age. Zimmerman outlines many that the Minturn girls suffered through, like corsets, absurdly large hats, leg of mutton sleeves (if you google those, the wikipedia result for 1890s fashion actually includes the famous picture of Edith and Newton), and droopy ‘pouter pigeon’ bosoms. What on earth does that last one mean, you might wonder. Well, I certainly did, since I don’t know about any kind of pigeon except the regular ones that are everywhere, and they sure don’t seem to look remotely bosom-y. I had to know, especially because I was shocked by the description of the bosoms as ‘drooped at the perfect angle.’ Here’s what I found:


Style is for the birds.

Okay, so that is a pouter pigeon. Yikes, right? So, you’re probably wondering now how this translates to clothing, and, no, it’s not because the bosoms are so large that they look like birdie goiters. End result:


Bosoms: the new bellies.

Okay, that was fun, but I should probably review more than just two words of this book, huh?

What makes Edith so interesting is that she is such a strong woman. Before marriage, she posed for a sculpture, a big one, representing the public; this was rather scandalous, but she did not let it stop her. Unlike most women of her time, she felt no shame in waiting to marry until the age of 28. She even turned Nelson down the first time he proposed, unsure whether she wanted to give herself in marriage. Once married, she did take his name, but she maintained her control over her own money. Their relationship was a love match and based on equality and mutual respect.

The one thing that really bothered me about Zimmerman’s account was her constant focus on the fact that their union was childless. She mentions that Edith must have wanted children, because that’s what women were supposed to do back in the day. What I find odd is that she has no quotes from anyone at the time mentioning this desire for children. Also, the phrasing of it (“it would be natural for Edith to wish for children”) seems to suggest that there is actually know way of knowing. If she is just making an assumption, why keep bringing it up like fact? And, if she truly believes Edith Stokes to be the new American woman, why is it so hard to believe that she might not want to be like every other woman and have children?

The Stokeses were instrumental in the evolution of New York. Newton was an architect, aside from his hobby of gathering historical views of Manhattan, and spent a lot of his career designing improved tenements. Edith was part of radical efforts too, like teaching unskilled immigrant women sewing or starting kindergartens.

Love, Fiercely is a fascinating look at turn of the century New York, although I might have been happier with a little less focus on Newton Stokes’ book, especially given the fact that the title stresses the romance.

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