- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003

THE SCARLET LETTERS

By Louis Auchincloss

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 192 pages

REVIEWED BY MERLE RUBIN

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.

What is lost, particularly at the outset, is a certain momentum. The short story version had an enticing shapeliness and there was a sense of inevitability in the way that one scene followed the next. The surprises, the ironic turns of the plot and shiftings of perspective were precisely paced, making for a truly elegant specimen of the storyteller’s art. In the novel, we are abruptly pulled back from the opening crisis of Rod Jessup’s liaison and plunged into the life history of his shocked father-in-law.

But for readers in search of greater substance and psychological insight into the characters and the world they inhabit, Mr. Auchincloss has added layer upon layer of keenly observed detail. He uncovers greater depths of emotion, as in this description of Ambrose’s visceral reaction to his son-in-law’s adultery:

“Ambrose could hardly swallow. His throat was choked, until he coughed several times and then wiped his eyes. Had he allowed the image of Rod as the man he himself had always yearned to be — direct, straightforward, devoid of dark doubts and intrusive conceits — so to seize his mind and soul that Rod’s apostasy seemed the suicide of Ambrose Vollard?”

In making a novel out of a short story, Mr. Auchincloss has added nothing that could be characterized as mere filler. Almost everywhere we look, we are likely to find deeper shades of duplicity, self-deception, and ethical equivocation, as well as a sharper, harder sense of the characters’ motivations.

A touch of calculating self-interest is now shown to play a part in Lavinia’s worshipful relationship with her doting father, and there’s a humiliating sexual incident that further explains the rivalry between Rod and Harry. There are many added swatches of sparkling dialogue; indeed, the writing throughout is polished, witty, and frequently epigrammatic.

Here, for example, is the august senior law partner Ambrose Vollard as an ardent young undergraduate at the time of the Taft administration: “He reveled in the English poets, especially Byron and Shelley, whose fire and cynicism he tried to emulate; he delighted in the madness of Dostoievsky, the oratory of Milton’s Satan, and the violence of Ahab in the newly appreciated Moby Dick. He wrote stories himself, about evil men who preyed on dolts, women who betrayed their lovers, bankers who degenerated into vampires, and clergymen who dwindled into sheep.”

With far more success than the young Ambrose Vollard, Mr. Auchincloss writes of a world in which serious dangers lurk beneath a calm and orderly surface. The world as revealed in his fiction is a place in which rational self-interest is kept in check by intelligent self-restraint. It’s a world where religion has lost its moral suasion, but a code of manners still prevails. But what happens if that code is perceived to be little more than a mask, a delicate construction, over a jungle of self-interest?

As a fully realized novel, “The Scarlet Letters” offers a larger, more comprehensive portrait of a society whose members feel themselves to be living in a state of flux. Is it a culture in decline, or merely one that has grown less hypocritical, franker in acknowledging its baser motives? But isn’t it possible that a certain amount of hypocrisy — vice’s tribute to virtue — may be healthier than a shameless descent to the laws of the jungle? Towards the conclusion of the book, the ever-perceptive Hetty Vollard refers to Justice Holmes’ saying that “the sight of heroism bred a faith in heroism.”

With his customary subtlety, Mr. Auchincloss leaves us in a state of ambiguity, but it is the fruitful kind of ambiguity that sharpens perception, provokes thought and illuminates the complexities of the world in which we all live.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in California.


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