Book Review: Love, Fiercely

Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romanceby Jean ZimmermanHoughton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012According to author Jean Zimmerman, the inspiration for her new book - the utterly winning  Love, Fiercely - came from a painting: John Singer-Sargent's 1897 portrait of Edith Minturn and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, made during the young couple's honeymoon and now hanging in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The portrait was unconventional (the couple are dressed in casual vacation attire rather than the formal clothes usually caught on canvas) and caused a ripple of commentary, and it fired Zimmerman's imagination. "The iconic female," she writes, "in other words, had risen off the fainting couch to fiercely confront her new reality, bringing to bear some version of Edith's unabashed energy."Zimmerman expands on the contrast:

Out of the dozens of youthful heiresses upon whose countenances Sargent bestowed permanence, there was not another whose demeanor departed so radically from the standard feminine ideal. The accepted female type in classical painting was the sugary, dimpled nude, pressed into allegorical use as a nymph or mermaid, standing in for the dawn, perhaps, or representing the evening star. This was a kind of painting designed to appeal to nineteenth-century American art collectors. These were the two-dimensional women found on canvases decorating every well-to-do parlour wall.

There's a bit more complexity involved in even run-of-the-mill Sargent portraits than this description hints, but even so: the zest of the book is on full display. Zimmerman takes readers to Edith Minturn's idyllic youth in what is now the Stapleton district of Staten Island, the games and frolic, the frequently serious childhood illnesses in an age still largely without scientific medicine, the vast and storied family history (Edith's maternal grandparents were self-exiled Boston Brahmins, Sarah Blake Sturgis and Francis Gould Shaw, who were friends to Thoreau, Emerson, and James Russell Lowell, and who were parents to Robert Gould Shaw, whose Saint-Gaudens monument guards the entrance to Boston Common). We see the spirited little Edith grow up into an outgoing, idealistic, utterly uncompromising young woman (it was her brother who nicknamed her "Fiercely").She seems a diametrically unsuitable match for Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, gaunt and bookish heir to the magnificently wealthy Phelps family of Murray Hill, New York, and Zimmerman has a great time narrating their stormy courtship, even in its earliest stages, during the New Year's holiday of 1894-95 at the palatial Stokes Stockbridge home in the Berkshires:

It may have been the absurd excess of the setting that put Edie off, the looming faux-Tudor edifice the size of a grand hotel. She was a Minturn, after all. She may have felt as dwarfed by the Stokes family wealth as she was by the family seat. She was known to be progressive, a suffragist, interested in the rights of man and woman both. The Minturns were well-off, but not in the same financial stratum as the Stokeses. She may have thought that the young scion, jug-eared, earnest, undashing Newton Stokes, was attempting to buy her. In response, she pronounced the one word he did not often hear.No.

He didn't hear it for long. The two eventually discovered the many perfect ways they counter-balanced each other; they wed, and Love, Fiercely is the story of their lives together, that intense, largely unvoiced love binding them together through an Edwardian novel's worth of adventures, including Edith's becoming the model for the enormous Statue of the Republic at the World's Columbian Exhibition (1891-93) and Newton laboring for years to produce his The Iconography of Manhattan Island, of which Zimmerman may just be the only ardent fan in the entire world:

Manhattan, America's great masterpiece, has generated its share of masterpieces. Any listing is necessarily incomplete. But a six-volume, thirty-nine-pound book, wholly singular though little known, stands as one of the greatest tributes to New York City ever created.

Two shadows loom over Love, Fiercely as events unfold: Edith has "pumpingly" high blood pressure, and the Gilded Age in which the couple live and practice their philanthropy is headed for the First World War and the Great Depression. Both take their toll: as Zimmerman writes, "Health, wealth, art and floor space. When the Great Depression afflicted the nation, Edith and Newton lost it all, their lives shrinking down like the iris of an eye." The couple were forced to move, to 'retrench,' to sell off various pieces of the huge collection of objects and decorations they'd amassed over the years. "When Newton and Edith's household was wounded," we're told, "it bled art." And Edith herself contracted, as stroke after stroke impeded her ability to walk and speak. Finally, heartbreakingly, she dies, leaving Newton to carry on for a few years as more of a ghost than a living man.Love, Fiercely is a small, intimate-focus book, in many ways more of a lively, awestruck conversation than a labored historical study (hence the proliferation of vocal idioms like 'went viral' or 'comfort zones'). It's a stunningly personal meditation on two extremely worthy people history has largely forgotten, and it rescues them from that oblivion as much as any book can do. If the last few biographies you read bored you, or if the last few period-histories you read seemed lifeless, do yourself a favor: read this book. You'll find yourself living in the year-to-year company of two very interesting, valiantly individual people, and you'll find the time enchanting.