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The Scarlet Letters by Louis Auchincloss


Rating: (Recommended)


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Prolific Auchincloss, who has captured Manhattan life perfectly in many prior works, transports the interpersonal dynamics of Hawthorne’s puritan tale into 1950s New York city in a new novel, The Scarlet Letters. On these pages, the tightness of the social order becomes sharp, loyalties are complicated, and power and passion meld. Auchincloss presents memorable characters, a fast moving plot, and an intelligent approach to writing that keeps thoughtful readers engaged. Here’s an excerpt of chapter 5 (pp. 68-78):

What was perplexing to Vinnie was in how many ways Rod was the perfect spouse. That many of her girlfriends envied her she did not doubt. Not only was he a fine-looking and well-mannered man; she sensed that they presumed him to be a vigorous lover. And he was, though he went at it almost as if it were a regular and healthful calisthenic. He was definitely not open to imaginative variations of the act of coition, and the one time she had suggested a ritual described graphically to her by a girlfriend over a beach club sandwich, he had been distinctly shocked. After that she refrained from any further such suggestions and sought to content herself with the supple if habitual movements of his elegant body. How many women, after all, she would ask herself, had anything half as good as that?

And what was more, he was an easy man to live with. He was consistently good tempered, even when in the throes of a grinding securities case, and on the rare occasions when his mood darkened, he was considerately silent. He never reproached her for anything she did or failed to do. If something went wrong his rebuke was confined to a calm and reasonable suggestion of how it could be remedied. The children adored him, and no matter how many nights in the week he toiled at the office, a good part of every weekend was kept rigorously free to teach the girls tennis or take them sailing or, if it was raining, to a movie. He was a good host at their occasional Saturday night dinner parties, mixing drinks for all and never overindulging himself, looking after the shyer or less popular guests, showing a friendly interest in the pleasures or problems of all.


About herself and her own interests he was scrupulously careful to make inquiries as soon as he came home from the office. He interested himself in the fund-raising drives that she instituted for her settlement house and school, and offered her the names of clients to whom she might make an appeal. If it seemed to her that he was not deeply concerned with such matters, but lent a hand and ear solely because they were hers, was she not honest enough to admit that her own concern with them was not much greater? Even if she should raise enough money to allow the settlement house to divert and edify its whole neighborhood, or the school to endow chairs for the finest teachers and provide scholarships for all its needy students, would she enjoy a fraction of the high elation with which Rod approached each new law problem presented by a client? No! When she complained of this to her mother, for whose wisdom she sometimes hankered even as she feared its acidity, she found cold comfort indeed.

“If you want the thrill that men like your father and Rod get out of their profession, you have to go whole hog, my dear. That’s what you and so many of your friends have yet to learn. The job must come first.”

“You mean ahead of one’s husband and children?”

“Oh yes. It might be better not to marry at all.”

“Mother! You think I’d be happier if I’d been a lawyer?”

“Definitely. Or a dentist. Even an undertaker.”

“And an old maid, to boot?”

 “I don’t know how you define an old maid. You could still have love affairs. Only they’d have to come second. The Way they do with men. The best men.”

The way they do with men! The words stuck in Vinnie’s head. Was that true of all love? Even of Rod’s? She was sure, if ever he were faced with having to make the unimaginable choice between herself and his law firm, that he would choose her. But would that really be love? Wouldn’t it rather be duty? She knew, of course, that he could love, in his way, but wasn’t duty the stronger force in him? Ah, that was the thing she didn’t know about him, the inner Rod that had always eluded her, that eluded, she supposed, everybody, even her father. There was something that he grasped tightly to himself, guarding it, perhaps even unconsciously, from the whole world.

Where help came to her, if help it was, was from Harry Hammersly. He and Rod seemed to represent the attraction of opposites. Friends in college and law school and now law partners, they always remained in constant touch with each other. Yet Harry, a merry bachelor, was as mocking and impudent and charming as his pal was sober, polite and at times a bit grim. And if he made fun of the world, he made particular fun of Rod. Rod ordinarily did not appear to mind it, though he sometimes got a bit hot under the collar when Harry questioned the motives behind any legal position taken by the firm. On the whole, however, Harry, like a fool in a medieval court, was licensed, at least in Rod’s domain, to say what he liked.

Vinnie had originally supposed that she should disapprove of Harry. His impudence verged on heresy, and he laughed at too many sacred things. But his apparent assumption that her wit and wide views lifted her to the level of isolated liberty, making them lonely partners in a world of amiable philistines whom it was their duty to entertain, was flattering. And his well-made but soft body, which she had initially found faintly repellent, even effeminate, she was bothered to find increasingly intriguing to her. The sensuous way he twisted his torso, particularly after making an off-color joke, she reluctantly admitted, titillated her. And in his rare moments of repose, as when he was listening to her — and a very attentive listener he could be — his almost handsome Roman face waxed almost noble, though he soon enough shattered the impression with his high screeching laugh, as though otherwise some deed of heroism might be horridly expected of him.

At length she began to suspect that there was something subtly undermining in the persistence of his jokes at her husband’s expense. And that there might be something disturbing in her own acceptance of these.

One Sunday afternoon in Glenville, when the three of them were seated on the terrace by her father’s tennis court after a game of singles between Rod and Harry, which Rod, of course, had won, the conversation fell on the trial of a famous gangster who was, surprisingly, represented by a respectable law firm. Vinnie asked whether Vollard Kaye would have taken such a case, and Rod firmly denied it.

“But doesn’t even the most hardened criminal deserve a good defense?” she asked.

“Certainly. But hardened criminals, at least the rich ones, of whom, alas, there are only too many, can be very picky in choosing counsel. The problem, however, would never arise with us. No gangster would ever come knocking at our door. He’d know that his defense would be an absolutely honest one, with no dirty tricks. And that’s the last thing he’d want.”

“You imply that the firm representing the gangster in question is using dirty tricks?”

“If it deems them necessary, yes. We’re not all perfect.”

“Only Vollard Kaye?”

“Only Vollard Kaye.” Rod smiled, as if to make the boast a jest, but she saw that he meant it well enough.

“I wonder,” Harry now observed, “if we would be quite so pure if we didn’t already have a plethora of less tainted fees. ~We can afford to dispense with dirty tricks. At least with the dirty tricks of the mob.”

“You mean you have other kinds?” Vinnie asked.

“Oh, we have our nuances and innuendos.”

“What do you mean by that?” There was just a hint of a snarl in Rod’s tone.

“Oh, simply, my dear fellow, that we have the luxury of representing conquerors. After they have been all cleaned up and the blood washed away. Now that William the Norman is firmly settled on his throne we need not bother our pretty heads about how he obtained it.”

“I suppose you’re referring to the cutthroat methods of some of our nineteenth-century robber barons.”

“Precisely. Were they not the predecessors of some of our most respectable corporate clients? And were not their counsel the predecessors of firms like ours?”

“You imply that we’re no different from them?”

“I imply that it might take a mother’s eye to spot the difference.”

Rod’s cheeks had taken on a tint of red. “You think, then, that if I’d been a lawyer in those days I’d have advised our railroad clients to buy legislatures and get around the rate limits with illegal kickbacks?”

“Not at all. You’d have been your clever self. You’d have been the master of the gentleman’s cover-up and earned yourself as honorable a reputation as you have today. It was the name of the game, Rod!

“You don’t know me, Harry!”

Harry’s smile simply broadened at this outburst. “Do I not?” lie appealed to Vinnie. “You know the portrait of your great-uncle de Peyster that hangs in our reception hall? That perfectly tailored little gentleman with the trim goatee who seems to glance down at the visitors and wonder who let them in. Isn’t there a hint of slyness behind that serene gaze? Well, Rod has improved on him. The mask is now perfect. The hint of slyness is quite gone! Welcome to the age of the knight-errant!”

When Vinnie laughed, which seemed to be what he was seeking, Harry hastened to mollify his friend. “Of course, my dear Rod, I was only pulling your leg. We all know you’re true blue.”

Sitting beside Harry a week later at one of her father’s Sunday lunches, she decided to get a few things straight. In the mock serious tone one adopts when one is really serious, she asked him, “You don’t believe in anything, do you, Harry? I mean in God or ethical principles or anything like that?”

“Well, I’m a positivist, if that’s what you mean. It all has to be proved to me. I believe in taste. Good taste and bad.”

“You mean as in interior decoration?”

“If you like. That’s one aspect of it. I think it’s bad taste to rob or murder or covet your neighbor’s wife.” Here he rolled his eyes comically. “Though I might be forgiven the last.”

She did not comment on this. “And you certainly don’t think it’s good taste to keep lauding the sanctity of Vollard Kaye.”

“I don’t find my partners apostles, as some do.”

“For some, read Rod Jessup?”

“Well, he certainly seems to find your father one.”

“And you don’t.”

He laughed. “Oh, I admire him! He can thunder like Jehovah and grin like Satan. He’s a primordial demiurge.”

“I think Rod really worships him.”

“Oh, Rod approaches him as the monkeys approach the rock python Kaa in The Jungle Book. But one day he’ll come too close and get caught in those writhing coils.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You’ll see, my dear. You’ll see.” And he ended the discussion by turning to the lady on his other side.

What Harry seemed to be dangling before her eyes was the flattering notion that she was not realizing her full potential, not living her own life to the full. And if one wasn’t doing that, could one escape the suspicion that one wasn’t really living at all? Had she been given all her blessings — and, ironically, weren’t they just the blessings of which an earthly paradise was supposed to be full: a loving family, good health, money and social position? — simply that the imps of comedy might laugh at her?

She quite saw that Harry might be something bad. That there might be, after all, a snake in her Eden. But his companionship gave her the consolation of feeling she was not alone, that she had someone who understood and did not condemn her, because he, too, was being reminded by a conscience of all he had to be thankful for, because, in short, they were sort of spiritual twins, babes lost in an alien world.

“When people tell you to count your blessings,” Harry told her, “it means they’re on to you. They’ve sniffed out the fact that you don’t appreciate all they have done for you. And they resent that. You’re like a child on Christmas Day whose parents have substituted their own list for the one you left on the chimney for Santa.”

“And that child was cheated!” she exclaimed. “It doesn’t matter that the parents thought their list should have pleased her more.”

She found herself trying to see Harry in a more positive light. It wasn’t so much, she sought to persuade herself, that he was tempting her to deny anything in her life; he was endeavoring, on the contrary, to make her realize that she needn’t be ashamed of being a freer and more interesting specimen of humanity than the lot with whom fate had thrown her. So long as she didn’t look down on these — and she didn’t think she did

she could exchange an occasional wink with someone who found himself in the same boat. Yet she had to admit that Harry himself did sometimes look down on people. And one of those people, she was afraid, was Rod.

Harry didn’t work as many nights in the office as Rod did, claiming that if one arrived at eight in the morning and stayed until seven at night and didn’t “shoot the breeze” with fellow workers and take a two-hour lunch, one should be able to get all one’s work done in the time allotted. The result was that he was often free to take Vinnie to plays or concerts to which she had tickets but to which, at the last moment, her husband was too busy to go. And sometimes he would take her afterwards for a nightcap to his elegant little duplex, the garden apartment of an old brownstone, to which he had a private entrance.

Listening to him as he took apart the old world of her lares and penates seemed to demonstrate to her that all her old doubts and reservations had not been merely the idle fancies that flutter through any unoccupied mind, but were substantial parts of her own being, and perhaps sinful parts as well. What made her almost welcome this belated, as she saw it, recognition of naughtiness was that it had a reality that her previous recognition, or fancied recognition, had lacked. She might be damned, but didn’t one have to have been alive before one was damned? Wasn’t it possibly worth it?

As her talks with Harry became more and more personal, he told her some of the problems of his private life. He had, the year before, broken off a long affair with a woman because she had wanted to marry him.

“But why didn’t you marry her?” Vinnie had asked.

“Because I didn’t love her.”

“But, Harry, the time is coming when you ought to settle down. You’re not twenty-one, my dear. Some men are not des­tined to fall head over heels in love. I don’t think the greatest men are apt to feel passion in that way. Daddy, for example. I doubt if he ever really loved my mother. But you want to have a family and children, don’t you?”

“With the right woman, yes.”

“And what sort of woman is that?”

“Well, say a woman like you.”

She didn’t reply to this, and he didn’t press the point. But they continued, on other occasions, to discuss sexual matters with what she liked to think was a clinical detachment, and in due course they came to an analysis of her own. Harry at last extracted from her the admission that she had never had sex with any man but Rod.

“I think it’s a pity,” he informed her blandly, “for any woman to be so limited. Far be it from me to say anything about Rod’s performance in bed, which I’m sure is very fine, but there are joys in variety and experimentation, and in an ideal society I don’t think any man or woman should be confined for life to a single mate. There ought to be ways of extending one’s experi­ence without incurring blame for broken vows. Indeed, that is why wife swapping is not an uncommon suburban practice.”

“Really? Do you think it ever happens in Glenville?”

“I know damn well it happens in Glenville.”

“Rod would die at the very idea.”

“I agree that he would. So it could never happen to him. Anyway, I have no wife to offer him in return.”

“And just what the hell do you mean by that?”

“My dear Vinnie, you know very well what I mean by that.”

Which, of course, she did. Which, of course, they had been leading each other to. So here it was, right on the table. He did not try to fool her with any perfervid declaration of passion; he simply put it on the ground of a sensible, even a civilized, divi­sion of her life into what could be with a little care, a little concern for the feelings and prejudices of others a series of watertight compartments. There was no reason to believe, he now insisted to her, that what prudes called adultery had al­ways to be found out. He knew of any number of cases, includ­ing couples of her acquaintance, where the so-called betrayed spouse remained in permanent and blissful ignorance of what was going on. Vinnie remained mostly silent on the occasions when he expounded his sexual philosophy, but her mind was afire with erotic images.

One night, while Rod was on a business trip to Chicago, Harry, after taking her to a movie and afterward to his flat for the usual nightcap, had retired, for an oddly prolonged time, to his bedroom, leaving her alone with her drink. When he sud­denly appeared in the doorway, she gasped. He was clad only in a silk kimono with an unmistakable bulge at his crotch.

“Be not alarmed,” he reassured her calmly. “No hand will be laid upon you. I am going to put on a record of the great duet from the second act of Tristan. It is, of course, notoriously the musical expression of the physical union of the lovers. I suggest that we listen to it in silence, after which you will be entirely free to choose your own finale. It can end in your stormy exit, like the bustle of King Mark, in which case I shall simply call you a taxi, or in our happier submission to what I am bold enough to call our most mutual attraction.”

She thought he looked almost magnificent as he stood there, silent now, before her. Then, when she nodded, he placed the record carefully on the machine and switched it on. She listened, transfixed, to the glorious voices of Flagstad and Meichior until Mark burst in to interrupt their climax. Harry rose, turned off the instrument, and faced her with a grave look of inquiry. Again she nodded, and he opened his kimono.

In the months that followed she found feverishly rewarding the different ways of lovemaking to which her imaginative and widely experienced guide introduced her. Their rendezvous were always in his apartment and took place at noon, on his ostensible lunch hour. In this new school she proved herself an eager and proficient student, and the guilt that now assailed her in every hour when she was not with him seemed even to add to the overall intensity of her pleasure. When she thought of the horror that some of her doings would arouse in Rod (whose suspicion she was careful not to arouse by any interruption of marital relations), or in her father; when she heard, ringing in her head, their imagined exclamations of “decadent” or “depraved,” she thought, with an acceptance and resignation, that heaven and hell had to be different places, and never the twain should meet.

On Harry she now felt a dependence that was more like the blind devotion of a dog than a love in any romantic sense of the word. She took him as a kind of new god who had ravished her and become her master. One Sunday morning, when Rod was again away on a business trip, and she had gone to Harry’s flat instead of taking the girls to church, and found herself nude, kneeling on his living room rug, her hands clasping his bare buttocks and her lips receiving his ejaculated sperm, she knew, with a dreary satisfaction, that she had no further to fall.

Readers come away from The Scarlet Letters both questioning and understanding the complicated behavior of all the characters Auchincloss presents with such clarity. From the beginning to the end of the above excerpt, Auchincloss takes us into Vinnie’s life, and we understand her passion and desire in new ways, thanks to his fine writing. Executive readers may wince from time to time with resonance about worklife and the implications and consequences of the compromises that can be made in the workplace.

Steve Hopkins, April 23, 2004


ă 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Scarlet Letters.htm


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