Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Nineteenth-Century House of Cards

“Who then is right? How can we all be right? Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight to perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect. Both cannot be right. There is only one thing in life that I must and will have before I die. I must know whether America is right or wrong.”

A novel concerned with the intricacies of the social milieu in 1870s Washington D.C. might not cross your mind as being the first place to look for an exploration of modern democracy and a cracking portrayal of political and personal intrigue. Yet there is so much in Henry Adams’ 1880 Democracy which resonates with modern concerns about the pursuit of power, the nature of governance and corruption of the political elite that it could easily be reimagined as a twenty-first century political drama.

Young New York widow Madeleine Lee heads to the heart of American democracy to discover ‘the gold of life’ she finds lacking in the philanthropy and philosophy with which she currently fills her days. Clever and attractive, with younger, less politically-minded sister in tow, what Madeleine finds there instead is Silas Ratcliffe, the Senator from Illinois, a man without moral scruples who has his eyes fixed firmly on the Presidency (and soon also Mrs Lee).

Silas Ratcliffe could give Frank Underwood a run for his money
Madeleine’s struggle throughout the book in determining the rights and wrongs of American democracy is brought to a crisis in the judgement she must make of Ratcliffe, as politician and as prospective husband: “If I throw him overboard, everything must go, for he is only a specimen.”

The novel is a wonderful satire on this incestuous and power-obsessed society, headed by the incompetent and ridiculed President and his much-hated First Lady, who Madeleine first sees as ‘two seemingly mechanical figures’, shaking the hands of their visitors as if they were only ‘automata, representatives of the society which streamed past them’. All seek only self-advancement – the men through office, the women through marriage.




Victoria Dare, who manages to snare herself an Irish lord, is one of the most conniving of political manipulators, while Madeleine herself is subject to rumours, gossip and harassment in the press, through her association with Ratcliffe. This society is one in which women too are powerful (although this power is dissipated upon marriage) – Madeleine, in a reversal of what you might expect from a novel of the period, regards ‘men as creatures made for women to dispose of’, thinking that they are ‘capable of being transferred like checks, or baggage-labels, from one woman to another, as desired’.

The men meanwhile are embroiled in manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres, in-party fighting, and large-scale bribery to replenish personal and campaign funds. Madeleine’s desire that Ratcliffe and his peers should act in the ‘interests of the people’ is naïve, extraneous to the realities of life in D.C., and, while she frames the choice she must make at the novel’s close in terms of wider principle, her friends and sister are looking out for her best interests likewise.

The morality of democracy, Adams suggests, comes back to the morality of the men who participate in it – and not just the power-hungry who find themselves in Washington. “The bitterest part of all this horrid story is that nine out of ten of our countrymen would say I had made a mistake” Madeleine opines. In other words, democracy is wrong.

Are there any other nineteenth-century American novels you would like the Secret Victorianist to blog about? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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