She Walks In Beauty Summary

Siri L. Mitchell

She Walks In Beauty

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She Walks In Beauty Summary

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In New York City during the Gilded Age of the 1890s, Clara Carter is the only child of a popular physician. Clara’s mother is gone, having died when Clara was young. In her place is governess Miss Miller, who has prepared Clara to attend Vassar College.

Plans change, however, when Clara’s aunt arrives and announces that Clara will be debuting, or making her entrance into the social world of the wealthy and influential. Miss Miller is fired, and Clara begins the process of learning how to maneuver in the formal worlds of high society.

Clara’s father and aunt aim to find for her a rich husband. They have chosen the heir to the DeVries fortune, Franklin DeVries. There is a significant stumbling block, however: Clara’s best friend Lizzie is in love with Franklin, and Clara is interested in Franklin’s younger brother, Harry.

Clara learns how to wear a corset, perform the necessary dances, and use proper manners. She becomes the darling of the newspaper social pages. As Clara begins learning the rituals and processes of high society, she’s introduced, too, to the troubles of the economically disadvantaged and immigrants. Her father is a slumlord, as well as a doctor. She’s forbidden from thinking about ways to help the people in his tenements.

Clara attends church, and while she is touched by the pastor’s sermon, she’s disheartened that most of the parishioners are only there to make appearances, and to see what the fashionable people are wearing.

Franklin proposes marriage, if she will leave with him for Newport, and participate in premarital sex. With debutant season underway, Clara realizes that Harry has sophisticated insight into God and God’s expectations for people who worship him. Clara’s mom often sang hymns, and as Clara thinks about her relationship with God and the excesses of the Gilded Age, she begins to understand the important relationship her mother had with God.

Clara’s father suffers a stroke. Franklin proposes, though Clara is ever more unsure that she wants the life of a high society wife. When her father succumbs to his stroke and dies, she learns that his famous elixir that’s brought him such fame and wealth is little more than alcohol and cocaine. Disgusted and afraid of the mindless life that would ensue from selling the recipe for the elixir, Clara instead burns it, turning her back on the fortune selling it would have earned her.

Clara gives the deeds to her father’s tenements to a newspaper reporter she trusts in the hope that the reporter can make some of the necessary improvements to the lives of the people living there. Again, Clara is turning her back on a fortune that is, in many respects, her birthright.

Clara liquidates her family’s home and the items inside of it, paying for the opportunity for her aunt to retire on the Massachusetts coast, and takes a position working for a dowager embarking on a trip to Europe. What she doesn’t know when she accepts the position, however, is that the dowager is really Harry’s aunt, and he’s using the trip to propose to Clara.

She Walks in Beauty is a work of historical fiction, meaning that elements of history play an important part in the novel’s plot. Details of the Gilded Age’s excess are intertwined in the plot’s action, including specifics on the rituals and maneuvering of dining, manners, and fashion.

These details are woven through a romantic story featuring a familiar love triangle. Clara is torn between securing the hand of a wealthy suitor and ensuring her family’s wealth and status, and following her heart toward a different man and helping others that do not enjoy the successes of the people at the balls and other events she attends.

Clara struggles in particular with the Bible’s message of tending to the less fortunate, a message that was important in her mother’s life. She rebels against the self-centeredness of high society and the expectations her successful father has for her.

The novel’s title is taken from the title of a lyric poem by Lord Byron, which describes a woman of unusual beauty. The poem ends with a line declaring the beauty and purity of innocent love unsullied by the social pressures Clara faces. Said to have been inspired by Byron’s attendance at a ball, the poem mirrors the importance of formal events in Clara’s story.