Literature Connects: Penelope and Bromfield as Kindred Spirits in The Rise of Silas Lapham
W. D. Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) is primarily the story of the rise and fall of a successful businessman who tries to get himself and his family into fashionable Boston society represented by the Coreys. However, in spite of the social class boundaries separating the Laphams and the Coreys, two members of each family seem strikingly similar, even though each represents a different gender—Penelope Lapham and Bromfield Corey. What they share is mainly an interest in literature which enables them to develop a critical point of view of their environment. Furthermore, the novel relates these qualities to the two characters’ straightforward sense of humor as well as a detached observation of reality, which make Penelope and Bromfield different from the other more pragmatic Laphams and Coreys. Yet, in spite of being rather passive, both Penelope and Bromfield find themselves longing for heroic deeds similar to those they have read about. While this attitude to life creates more difficulties for Penelope, a young single girl from a nouveau riche background, than for Bromfield, an aging upper class aesthete, I argue that the two characters emerge as kindred spirits by means of their shared investment in literary culture.
From the beginning of the novel, the Laphams are characterized as good-hearted and honest people; however, they strikingly lack the manners of the refined Coreys. Silas is a good family man as well as a considerate employer. In the opening chapter, as he is interviewed by the journalist Bartley Hubbard, the narrator mentions that “Lapham’s burly simplicity peculiarly amused”1 his interviewer. Similarly, Persis Lapham is a responsible mother who was once a schoolteacher. Nevertheless, she also shares her husband’s lack of taste as she spends on “rich and rather ugly clothes.” They were [End Page 114] both happy in their old house, decorating it with “the costliest and most abominable frescoes” (25), until they discovered that the location in the South End was not fashionable enough. In fact, Silas had bought the house “very cheap of a terrified gentleman who discovered too late that the South End was not the thing” (24). Thus, Silas decides to build a new mansion, planning on furnishing it fashionably. It is only the architect that manages to moderate Lapham’s obsession with new things, assuring him that “really beautiful things can’t go out” (42). As Richard Brodhead notes, in the postbellum nineteenth century, middle class culture has shifted “from the highly disciplined self-denials of the work ethic to the now tolerated (even mandated) indulgences of an emerging ethic of consumption.”2 In fact, even Bromfield Corey says the Laphams “must spend” (139), to illustrate his earlier metaphor that “money is the romance, the poetry of our age” (64); however, he does not realize they will spend without any sense of taste.
Corey’s metaphor suggests the importance the upper classes ascribe to literature. In their point of view, the lack of the awareness of culture goes with the lack of reading experience. Thus when Tom Corey tries to convince his father that the Laphams are “not unintelligent” but “shrewd and sensible,” Mr. Corey only retorts: “But that is not saying that they are civilized. All civilization comes through literature now, especially in our country. A Greek got his civilization by talking and looking, and in some measure a Parisian may still do it. But we, who live remote from history and monuments, we must read or we must barbarize” (118). Bromfield Corey, an aristocrat and a would-be painter, considers literature a refining element of the people of his kind. Similarly, at the dinner party, Charles Bellingham suggests the centrality of reading to his life, if only to amuse his friends: “The past of one’s experience doesn’t differ a great deal from the past of one’s knowledge. It isn’t much more probable; it’s really a great deal less vivid than some scenes in a novel that one read when a boy” (200).
This point of view is contrasted with the role literature plays for the Laphams. Mrs. Lapham apologizes that it is Penelope who does most of their reading, borrowing novels from the library, while Silas admits he only has time to read the newspaper. With respect to that, Brodhead explains that as the newspaper of the period was read mainly by the non-elite class that needs to know how things work in the city, it represented “the genre of the cheap, the factual (and commercial), the readily consumable and disposable.”3 Silas does not seem aware of that, as he expects that everyone, including Tom and Bromfield Corey, has read the interview with him in the Events. While Tom mentions he does not see the Events regularly (75), Bromfield does not even know the newspaper Silas is talking about, as the only daily he reads is the Advertiser (143). Similarly, in her conversation [End Page 115] with Tom, Irene illustrates another difference in the reading practice of the two families, when she admits that they are only building a library in their new house on the recommendation of the architect, not being sure which books to get for it. Indeed, for Irene, the whole library issue seems to be “a matter annoying out of all proportion to its importance” (115).
While the male Coreys see books as civilizing, Mrs. Corey seems to have an idea about how the Laphams may see them: “I’ve met some of these moneyed people lately, and they lavish on every conceivable luxury, and then borrow books, and get them in the cheap paper editions” (100). In fact, the Laphams view books, similarly as newspapers, simply as sources of useful information. Thus, when getting ready for the dinner at the Coreys’ they buy an etiquette book in an effort to make up for their lack of social experience. At the same time, Lapham recognizes that Pen, as the most well-read one of them, would most likely succeed in conversation at the dinner party: “[Pen] could have talked as well as any of them; she was just as bright” (196).
Pen not only enjoys reading novels, she is also capable of critical thinking. For example, she comments on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, saying she wishes that the author “would let you find out a little about the people for yourself” (88). At this point, Howells may be making her a mouthpiece of his opinion, for he is ambivalent about the characters in his novel himself, slightly satirizing them, yet not making them quite unlikable. Her ability to read critically links Penelope to Bromfield Corey. Much as Bromfield stresses the role of literature in his philosophizing, he does not idealize either the writers or the readers, talking of the former as “recluses” and suspecting that the average literature is “pretty low even with cultivated people.” In a conversation with Bromfield, Tom mentions several reading habits of the period, criticizing people “who read books without troubling themselves to find out even the author’s name, much less trying to decide upon his quality” (116). Importantly, this does not seem to be the case of Penelope.
Penelope is not only well-read but witty and humorous; Alfred Habegger even calls her “the first humorous heroine of an American novel.”4 While all the other Laphams are caught up with the new house, Penelope is the only one capable of an ironical distance, noting that “it would be a relief to live in tents” (57). She also manages to make fun of people she loves in a good hearted way, for instance when imitating her father’s bragging. However, neither her critical thinking nor her sense of humor is known to anyone outside her family as she does not work and does not associate with anyone. As Brenda Murphy explains, in social terms “success is a disaster” for the Laphams, as they have put themselves in a social position where it will be impossible to find husbands for their daughters. They are too wealthy to seek acquaintances in the simple country fashion they know and in their [End Page 116] ignorance they have violated the codes of the society they hope to enter by sending their daughters to the “wrong” schools and not introducing them to the complexities of the Boston social world.5 In fact, even though Silas can recognize that Penelope has got “about as much culture as any of [the Coreys]” (135), he seems to have not the slightest idea about what is appropriate to say when talking to the upper class people. For instance, he is unaware of the importance they ascribe to education, as he openly tells Bromfield Corey that Tom’s upbringing and going through college “won’t hurt him” (142). Thus the lack of understanding of the social code the Laphams have imposed on themselves is the dark side of the success myth; however, there is still a difference in how it affects their two daughters. Throughout the novel, there are numerous suggestions that Irene, unlike Penelope, still has some hope that an upper class suitor would consider her acceptable because of her beauty; even Mr. Corey before meeting Penelope says, “If it had been the pretty one, her beauty would have been our excuse” (270). However, Penelope is considered almost unmarriageable by every single character in the novel, as she is well aware.
Thus when Irene receives by post a Texas newspaper with a complimentary account of a ranch, she takes for granted that the sender is Tom Corey, who she knows is staying at his friend’s ranch in Texas, and that he sent it to tell her he is in love with her. Even though the newspaper does not even mention Tom’s name, Irene “stuck it into the side of her mirror, where she could read it every morning, when she brushed her hair, and the last thing at night when she looked at herself in the glass before turning off the gas” (39). This is only the first of many objects that Irene will keep because of its connection to her supposed lover. In her parents’ conversation, Silas, accustomed to a more direct communication, admits not to understand “why he [Tom] couldn’t write to ’rene, if he really meant anything,” while Mrs. Lapham suggests “that wouldn’t be their way,” hiding her own ignorance. However, both of them let Irene believe that the letter is an expression of Tom’s love, while they eventually learn that it was sent by Corey’s friend after Tom told him he must come North and see Irene. On the contrary, Penelope is the only one who is capable of making fun of the matter: “The first time I ever heard of a love-letter in the form of a puff to a cattle-ranch. But perhaps that’s the style on the Hill” (39). Thus Penelope is the only sensible reader that does not pretend to know more than she really does.
According to both Habegger and Arlene Young, Penelope’s humor is masculine and similar to Mark Twain’s.6 Pen’s humor is probably not feminine in the context of the novel, where women are only permitted a certain kind of humor, represented by Mrs. Sayre, “the lady whose name must come into every Boston mind when humor is mentioned.” On the contrary, Tom [End Page 117] mentions that Pen’s humor is “nothing the least literary” and “a droll way of looking at things” (100). In a conversation with her father, Penelope jests that if she were a young man, she would rather spend her time daydreaming at a club window than pursue a businessman’s life of mundane activity (58). Thus, she implicitly identifies with the passive Bromfield Corey, a man who is not strikingly manly.
Like Penelope, Bromfield Corey is also fond of ironic comments. For example, when Tom talks to him about his visit to Texas, Bromfield starts a speech proclaiming that a Bostonian ought never to leave Boston, concluding that “the Bostonian who leaves Boston ought to be condemned to perpetual exile” (66). This seems a contradiction given his supposed cosmopolitan nature; the fact that Bromfield has been to Italy suggests that he may have once lived an adventurous life. Nevertheless, after Tom tells his father about his intention to work with Lapham, Bromfield admits to his rather unusual lifelong passivity: “In my time, you would have gone into the China trade or the Indian trade though I didn’t, and a little later cotton would have been your manifest destiny—though it wasn’t mine; but now a man may do almost anything” (68). Yet, unlike Penelope, Bromfield has freely chosen this passivity himself, and he is comfortable with it to such an extent that he has transferred it to all levels of his life. Early on, he suggests to Tom that they invite Lapham to dinner, but as Tom thinks it is not necessary at the moment, Bromfield never mentions it again. After some time, when Tom suggests to his father it is time for him to meet with Silas, Bromfield apologizes that he has been leaving the decision altogether to him, explaining that he is always “in the hands of” Mrs. Corey and his children (137). When his wife confides to him that she thinks they could have the Laphams for dinner to figure out whether Tom is in love with Irene, he amusedly agrees, joking that “the only thing that shakes [his] faith in the scheme is the fact that [he] first suggested it” (171). Thus as someone who does not usually decide what will be done, he does not expect that his suggestions will be taken seriously. Like Penelope, he enjoys reading, even to his wife’s slight irritation. After Mrs. Corey comes to town and wants to discuss with her husband Tom’s possible relation with the Laphams’ daughter, she urges him: “Don’t go to reading, please, Bromfield!” (161). This situation may remind the reader of Mrs. Lapham wondering whether “it’s good for a girl to read so much” (135).
Unlike Mrs. Corey, who is concerned with class to such an extent that she claims she finds the idea that Tom joins Lapham’s business “hideous” and “horrid” (94), Bromfield amusedly tells Tom: “You never could draw, but this scheme of going into the mineral-paint business shows that you have inherited something of my feeling for color” (69). On the contrary, the [End Page 118] narrator notes that “no man ever had a son less like him than Bromfield Corey” (127), as Tom shares his clear and practical mind with his mother rather than his father. Thus, while Penelope is characterized as being rather different from her father and sister, Bromfield is portrayed as largely different from his wife and son. The Corey daughters are exempt from this comparison, because for the most part they both seem to echo their mother. For instance, when they come back to Boston after the summer, the narrator mentions that “they had met no one at the seaside or the mountains whom their taste would allow to influence their fate” (155), suggesting they are as strict about observing the social rules as Mrs. Corey. Similarly, after Bromfield meets Penelope for the first time, Mrs. Corey cannot believe he “seemed actually to like her,” and when she reports that to her daughters, she keeps looking from one to another, “as if trying to decide which of them would like Penelope least” (349).
While Bromfield, an aesthete and would-be painter, would once have been a typical representative of aristocracy, he is aware that times are changing: “We represent a faded tradition” (102), he tells his wife. With respect to that, Paul A. Bové identifies Bromfield as “a pale shadow of a Kirkegaardian ironist, a faded seducer, a not quite Knight of Infinite Resignation, a not quite ascetic idealist, not Abraham, nor Marius, nor Dorian,” and notes that Corey is a persistent remainder of a previous type of social life, able to survive within it, but unable to affect it.7 That may be one of the explanations of his somewhat resigned passivity. In fact, while artists and would be artists are often considered somewhat eccentric, Mrs. Corey herself has always thought of Bromfield as “not actively, but only passively extravagant” (96). She notes that gradually, it became “hard to get him out anywhere, even for dinner.” Thus while Mrs. Corey and her daughters meet with the fashionable society and Tom gets into business, Mr. Corey prefers to spend most of his time at home. When he leaves his house to meet with Lapham in his office, he looks so strikingly out of place that Lapham’s bookkeeper mistakes him for an Italian or Spaniard. This impression is given more validity by the narrator who mentions that “as Bromfield Corey found his way at his leisurely pace up through the streets on which the prosperity of his native city was founded, hardly any figure could have looked more alien to its life” (144). Thus he not only has no influence over modern life, he has become so estranged from it that he strikes people as foreign. All he can do is to observe what is going on from the comfort of his home and amuse his family with his bons mots. His wife has only escaped this marginalization, as Habegger observes, by taking on the burden of regulating society.8
Similarly, while the other Laphams concentrate on getting into society and Silas tries to make the most of his business partnership with Tom, Penelope [End Page 119] stays somewhat passive, unless the others make her participate in their efforts. From the very beginning, the Laphams assume that Tom is interested in Irene, who reinforces this impression by her behavior. However, much as the Laphams encourage Irene’s doll-like femininity, they are not sure whether Irene can present her qualities in front of Tom convincingly enough. Thus Penelope is repeatedly called upon to help her sister amuse Tom. Mrs. Lapham clearly believes this is a good idea, as she tells Silas: “I guess it’s lucky for Irene that she’s got Pen there” (135). Irene, who “[likes] being talked to rather than talking” (133), appears rather too passive; however, the tradition of courtship does not require much activity from her. While Irene is glad she does not have to offer any advances, Penelope is more skeptical, saying that not having to do anything in such a situation is “one advantage girls have got” and immediately adding “if it is an advantage” (122). Thus, even though her parents admire Pen’s humor and independence, they only use it for Irene’s sake. Similarly, Bromfield’s visit in Silas’ office is used by Tom for the sake of the formal relations between the two families. Furthermore, while Pen entertains Tom and Irene, Bromfield entertains his son and wife. What differentiates the situation of the two characters is that Bromfield never has to do anything against his will, while Pen is asked to suppress her own feelings when asked to help her sister court the man she loves.
In spite of the social boundaries, both families engage in the same misreading. When talking to Tom, Mrs. Corey asks him about “Mrs. Lapham and her daughter” (99), meaning Irene and suggesting that Penelope is not even worth mentioning. Unlike her husband, Mrs. Corey is not likely to be impressed by Pen’s intellect and reading, as after Tom mentions the Laphams are just reading Middlemarch, she retorts: “I suppose it’s the plain sister who’s reading [it].” Her first impression of Penelope is “thoroughly disagreeable, sly, and pert” (169). When she finally learns which of the sisters Tom loves, she cannot understand how her son could prefer “that little, black, odd creature” to the “wonderful beauty” (264), even though she earlier had described Irene’s range of ideas as “extremely limited” (159). Similarly, Mrs. Lapham even confides to Penelope that she dreads the day when a daughter of hers would be married for her beauty. Penelope retorts ironically “You’re safe as far as I’m concerned” (124). When her mother worries that Irene “hasn’t mind enough,” Pen says she did not know a man fell in love with a girl’s intellect.
Along with her acculturation, another quality Penelope shares with the Coreys is her relatively good knowledge of upper class manners that she might have acquired either through her reading or somewhat instinctively. Tom once mentions to his parents that Pen is like her mother (67). With respect to that, it is to be noted that Mrs. Lapham does have a vague understanding [End Page 120] of social norms, as she tries to explain to her husband the difference between them and the Coreys: “It isn’t what you’ve got, and it isn’t what you’ve done exactly. It’s what you are” (120). Unlike her, Silas would, in his ignorance, invite Mr. Corey for a visit before the Coreys invite them, or even suggest a fish dinner at Taft’s (146). Importantly, when Tom asks Pen why she is afraid of his mother and sisters, her answer echoes Mrs. Lapham: “I don’t know. It isn’t anything they say or do. It’s what they are” (356–57). These passages would suggest that Penelope’s and her mother’s understanding of the social code is about the same; yet the former goes far beyond the latter. For instance, after Bromfield Corey visits Lapham in his office, Mrs. Lapham starts to worry that Silas is “flattered out of his five senses” and that he may do “something we’ll repent” (147–48). When Penelope advises her simply to let the Colonel go as he “isn’t going to hurt anyone,” that the Corey family can take care of themselves, Mrs. Lapham admires her daughter’s insight. However, it is important that Pen is praised only for her passivity here; better than her mother, she understands she has no influence on what will happen.
Still, unlike the other Laphams, Penelope does not let any social norms oppress her more than necessary. First, when Mrs. Corey visits the Laphams, Penelope clearly does not try to change her behavior to impress her, as she talks and acts the same way as any other time. However, while James M. Cox emphasizes that “Penelope’s knowledge of George Eliot and Dickens forms the basis of her conversation with Tom Corey, and her drollery secures her from the embarrassment that forever threatens Irene in her encounters,”9 Mrs. Corey only finds her “pert.” It is now that both the women realize they have had very different expectations from one another. Second, when Mrs. Corey finally decides to invite the Laphams for dinner, carefully selecting the other guests to limit the possible embarrassment as she does not question that the Laphams will come (172), to her shock Penelope refuses to come. As Habegger notes, she wisely avoids the pointless ordeal and stays home.10 On the contrary, the others will experience quite an amount of stress because of the dinner. First, Mrs. Lapham even worries about writing her response to the invitation: “Mrs. Corey had said ‘Dear Mrs. Lapham,’ but Mrs. Lapham had her doubts whether it would not be a servile imitation to say ‘Dear Mrs. Corey’ in return; and she was tormented as to the proper phrasing throughout and the precise temperature which she should impart to her politeness” (179). Second, Silas does not know whether to take gloves or not. Third, Irene, for all her beauty, is not even aware she is wearing a ball dress rather than a dinner dress. Elsa Nettels correctly observes that upper class families like the Coreys “require prospective members of their society to pay the price of admission in qualities of breeding and intellect that can’t be cultivated without money but can’t be measured by it.”11 [End Page 121]
As Penelope refuses to attend the dinner, she does not know that the sentimental romance Tears, Idle Tears was discussed there when Tom accidentally happens to talk to her the next day. By being somewhat reluctant to admit she has just finished reading that book, she again shows her critical skills. Brodhead mentions that by the 1860s, story-paper or dime novel publishing “emerged almost contemporaneously with the mass market form of literary publishing in the 1850s, and the two were at first not sharply differentiated.” Thus as a common reader, Pen would not have to feel ashamed about reading such a novel; however, she seems to recognize that story papers, in Brodhead’s words “favored the genres of high colored romance . . . , not the edifying writing of everyday life.”12
As becomes clear immediately after Tom professes his love to Pen, Tears, Idle Tears parallels the love triangle subplot of Silas Lapham in which one girl gives up her lover for another only because she knows that the other one was in love with him first. Until that moment, Pen is realistic and sensible, finding the novel unnatural and rather forced. She keeps her ability to think critically when condemning the romance’s heroine’s action: “She was sacrificing him for someone who couldn’t appreciate him half as she could.” Pen even asks Tom: “Why can’t they let people have a chance to behave reasonably in stories?” (217). However, after Tom makes clear he loves her, she changes her attitude completely: “I’ve read [my italics] of cases where a girl gives up the man that loves her to make some other girl happy that the man doesn’t love. That might be done” (230). Thus, ironically, while Pen appears capable of recognizing the faults of the characters in a novel, she seems to lose this insight when faced with the same situation in her own life. Or she may prefer to take over the attitude she has read about instead of practicing her own. Several critics have tried to explain the motivation for this change in Penelope’s behavior. Dawn Henwood suggests that “because Silas’ attitude towards Pen encourages us to see her as a quick-witted, independent minded young woman, it is easy for the reader to overlook her more conventional side.”13 Interestingly, this would again link her to Bromfield Corey, who is “not actively, but only passively extravagant” (96) and consequently quite conventional. In her analysis, Henwood credits Mrs. Lapham with having more insight into the characters of her daughters than Silas, as she identifies Pen as a dreamer and Irene as the more perceptive of the two sisters. This observation is further evidenced by the narrator’s remark that Penelope’s large eyes “had the peculiar look of near-sighted eyes which is called mooning” (36) when introducing the character. In Henwood’s reading, Pen thus turns to a world of blatant emotional excess and exaggerated idealism in order to live the fantasy of controlling her own destiny, by whatever desperate or self-destructive means.14 [End Page 122]
Other critics have emphasized reading Penelope as a literary type. Paul John Eakin goes as far as to suggest that the New England Girl is a young woman in late-nineteenth century fiction to whom self-sacrifice is second nature.15 In addition, Habegger explains the importance of the title Tears, Idle Tears (besides being taken from the famous Tennyson’s poem): “The reason why novels encouraged the reader to identify with an altogether superior heroine was to make possible the intensely pleasurable payoff at the end, a climax not considered successful unless it produced a physical effect—happy tears.”16 Penelope herself admits to that reaction: “I’m provoked with myself when I think how I cried over that book—for I did cry” (217). Another character, Miss Kingsbury, also seems to confirm that she tended to identify with the heroine, even while criticizing the romance: “There’s such a dear old fashioned hero and heroine in it, who keep dying all the way through and making the most wildly satisfactory and unnecessary sacrifices for each other. You feel as if you’d done them yourself” (197).
In addition, after she learns about her father’s financial problems, Pen shows she has acquired another false notion from her novel reading. While her awareness of her and her lover’s class difference and the ensuing anxiety is something she shares with her parents, Pen is prone to dramatic gestures which she calls “heroic.” Because she does not want Tom to learn about her family’s situation directly from them, she immediately writes Corey a note, asking him not to see her anymore until she permits him, without providing any explanation. When justifying this act to her mother, she expresses her disappointment with the course of the following events: “But the Colonel has gone to ruin so gradually that he’s spoilt everything. I expected that he would be bankrupt the next day, and that then he [Corey] would understand what I meant. But to have it drag along for a fortnight seems to have taken all the heroism out of it, and leave it as flat!” (304). Consequently, Mrs. Lapham immediately urges Penelope to write Corey an explanatory note and the narrator sums up Pen’s mistake, identifying the source of her misconception: “Our theory of disaster, of sorrow, of affliction, borrowed from the poets and novelists, is that it is incessant; but every passage in our own lives and in the lives of others so far as we have witnessed them teaches us that it is false” (306). While the idea of the incessantness of disaster could possibly allow for an abrupt bankruptcy, the complexities of real life do not bring about such development. Thus Pen’s inability to anticipate the more likely course of events is again attributed to her reading.
The only character who is aware of the influence of novels but critical of them is Mr. Sewell, the parson. Declaring that “there [never] was a time when [novels] formed the whole intellectual experience of more people,” he seems to echo Bromfield Corey, if he did not immediately add that “[novels] [End Page 123] do greater mischief than ever” (197). Sewell seems to be the advocate of Howells’ realism, when he suggests that the novelists might be a great help to people if only they painted life as it is and accuses them of not doing so. In particular, he claims that “the whole business of love, and love-making and marrying, is painted by the novelists in a monstrous disproportion to the other relations of life,” teaching readers that “love is perpetual, that the glow of a true passion lasts forever; and that it is sacrilege to think or act otherwise” (198). It seems that Penelope has acted on this belief when she thought that Irene would love Tom until the end of her life. Moreover, Pen seems to carry on that belief even long after it is clear that Irene recovered from her disappointment, as she still insists that she “ought to be just as much ashamed as ever” for marrying Tom (355). Thus Sewell is right to say that Pen has taken over this belief from her reading, “in spite of her common sense” (241). However, Pen also earns some praise for her behavior towards the end of the novel. When she refuses to see Tom during the period of her family’s financial problems, the Laphams “had a proud satisfaction there had been no engagement and that it was she who had forbidden it.” In addition, Mrs. Corey says that Penelope has behaved “very well” (306–07). While this view is most likely motivated by her secret hope that Tom will not marry Pen after all, when Mr. Corey corrects his wife, saying that Pen has behaved “too well,” he seems to commend her morality.
Because Pen refuses to attend the dinner party, Bromfield Corey does not meet her until well into the novel. Thus the dinner enables him to evaluate only the other members of her family. While he emphasizes to his wife that “Mrs. Lapham’s range was strictly domestic” and, more metaphorically, that “Colonel poured mineral paint all over [him]” (269), Bromfield seems in a way fascinated by Silas’ experience of the Civil War. As Young notes, during the Civil War “the common soldiers like Silas . . . fought and died; from their comfortable sitting rooms, the upper class patriots like Bromfield Corey read about these soldiers, no doubt with great admiration for their courage but little true sense of their suffering.”17 Thus, like Pen, Bromfield seems to miss a sense of heroism in his life. While she tries for “heroic” gestures modeled on her novel reading, he may understand it would be useless and is resigned to listening to other people’s heroic stories. Consequently, Silas’ heroism may have tempted Bromfield to rethink his evaluation of the “ungrammatical” Colonel. While Bromfield gets the opportunity to appreciate Penelope’s father, however, he still does not see her in person until he knows Tom was going to marry her after all.
When the Coreys finally visit the Laphams, Penelope, restored to her humorous state of mind, deliberately makes them wait in the drawing room with the frescoes that she knows they will consider tasteless. This awareness [End Page 124] again differentiates Pen from the rest of her family. On the other hand, she receives her visitors “with a piteous distraction which [can] not fail of touching Bromfield Corey’s Italianized sympatheticism.” In addition, “he was very polite and tender with her at first and ended by making a joke with her, to which Penelope responded in her sort” (348). Thus Young is right to observe that the Coreys’ visit “signals the return of a comic mood to the ironic voices of both Pen and Bromfield Corey.”18 Later, when driving home, Bromfield describes Pen as a “merry little grig” and, unlike his wife, he says he can understand why “a formal fellow like Tom” should like her: “She hasn’t the least reverence, I suppose, and joked with the young man from the beginning.” While Mrs. Corey echoes the contemporary belief that joking in women was considered impolite, Bromfield rather appreciates it. Moreover, he is right; for Penelope admits to her mother that when she was with Tom for the first time, she tried to make him think that she was “pretty—and funny” (229). Perhaps, had Bromfield met Pen before, he would have understood that it was Penelope and not Irene that Tom was in love with.
Tom and Penelope’s marriage at the end of the novel has been read in various ways by the critics. For instance, Henwood has argued that “Howells’ romantic subplot seems less a correction of popular plots than a confirmation of their inescapability.”19 While I agree that the marriage represents a happy ending, I find Geordie Hamilton’s reading much more fitting: “Tom and Pen are not poised to take Boston society out of the hands of the Brahmin elite, and Silas and Persis are not going to sit down to tea every Sunday evening with Bromfield and Anna Corey. If these things were to happen Silas Lapham would not be part of the genre of American realism.”20 Still, while Howells does not suggest any wide ranging changes in society or particularly close relationships between the two families, the narrator does say that “traits in Penelope’s character reconciled her husband’s family,” explaining that “these things continually happen in novels” (359).
While the reader can wonder whether Howells refers to the romances he has been criticizing or to his own novel, Bromfield Corey is capable not just of appreciating Penelope’s qualities but also of sympathizing with her, as they share a similar experience of marginalization. While Bromfield has largely decided to become a detached observer, Pen has been forced into that role by her family’s social standing. Nevertheless, both Bromfield and Pen are avid readers and gifted entertainers with an acute sense of humor. Whereas their sense of humor is a powerful weapon that society permits them to use to deal with the limits it imposes on them, their reading may be a means of both escape and education. More specifically, as an aristocrat who did not embark on a business career, Bromfield takes refuge in his reading, enabling him not only to appreciate Silas’ account of his [End Page 125] experience in the war but to connect with the businessman. Similarly, Penelope’s reading enables her to understand social norms. Finally, both her reading experience and her sense of humor make a lasting impression on Tom, who prefers her complex personality to Irene’s doll-like beauty. Like Bromfield, Penelope has learned to use humor not only in self-defense but also to express her independent identity.
1. W. D. Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 21. Subsequent references to the novel cited parenthetically.
2. Richard H. Brodhead, Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth Century America (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 94.
3. Brodhead, pp. 5–6.
4. Habegger, “Nineteenth Century American Humor: Easygoing Males, Anxious Ladies, and Penelope Lapham,” PMLA, 91 (October 1976), 893.
5. See Brenda Murphy, “Howells and the Popular Story Paradigm: Reading Silas Lapham’s Proairetic Code,” American Literary Realism, 21 (Winter 1989), 27.
6. See Habegger, p. 894; and Arlene Young, “The Triumph of Irony in The Rise of Silas Lapham,” Studies in American Fiction, 20 (Spring 1992), 47.
7. Paul A. Bové, “Helpless Longing, or, the Lesson of Silas Lapham,” New Essays on The Rise of Silas Lapham, ed. Donald E. Pease (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), p. 33.
8. See Habegger, p. 895.
9. James M. Cox, “The Rise of Silas Lapham: The Business of Morals and Manners,” New Essays on The Rise of Silas Lapham, p. 122.
10. See Habegger, p. 894.
11. Elsa Nettels, Language, Race and Social Class in Howells’s America (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2014), p. 169.
12. Brodhead, p. 78.
13. Dawn Henwood, “Complications of Heroinism: Gender, Power, and the Romance of Self-Sacrifice in The Rise of Silas Lapham,” American Literary Realism, 30 (Spring 1998), 16.
14. See Henwood, p. 16.
15. See Paul John Eakin, The New England Girl: Cultural Ideals in Hawthorne, Stowe, Howells, and James (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1976), p. 122.
16. Quoted in Murphy, p. 28.
17. Young, p. 51.
18. Young, p. 54.
19. Henwood, p. 26.
20. Geordie Hamilton, “Rethinking the Politics of American Realism through the Narrative Form and Moral Rhetoric of W. D. Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham,” American Literary Realism, 42 (Fall 2009), 32.