Monday 24 October 2011

Richard Vandermarck

            It’s that time again - time for another round of “Dick or no Dick.” As a refresher, the rules are simple: I read a book with a character named Richard in it, and I evaluate whether he is a dick or not. This is in an effort to prove or disprove my theory that “any easy way to establish your character is a dick is to name him Dick.” So far, this theory only seems to be working for movies (as in Van Wilder and Crocodile Dundee). This week’s entry is Richard Vandermarck written in 1871 by Miriam Coles Harris.
Although the book is entitled Richard Vandermarck, Richard is not the main character. In that sense, this reminded me of the book Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy (an amazing novel about upper-middle-class Jewish life in Victorian London), in which the main character is not Reuben but a young woman who is in love with him. That’s about all the two books have in common, though, as Reuben Sachs is an insightful, thought-provoking look into Jewish life, while Richard Vandermarck is mainly about a young woman (Pauline) living a life of leisure. Most of the book consists of Pauline describing her daily life at Richard’s country estate, somewhere outside of New York City, and details how she fell in love with the German tutor of Richard’s nephews.
Richard, who is getting quite old at 29, has fallen in love with Pauline. He met her at her great-uncle’s house; Pauline is an orphan who lives with this wealthy uncle, while Richard is an up-and-coming business man (perhaps on Wall Street; they are in NYC) who works for said uncle. Because he loves Pauline, Richard invites her to stay with his sister and her friends in his country house, so is (understandably) a bit sad when Pauline falls in love with the tutor.
Of course, fate intervenes, and the tutor commits suicide. Pauline is naturally upset, and Richard helps her deal with this, indicating that he is a stand-up guy. Shortly after Pauline returns to New York her rich great uncle dies. Everyone who knows her assumes she’ll inherit all the uncle’s money, but no will can be found declaring such. Without a will, the money will go to the great uncle’s jerky brother, who would gladly let Pauline starve.
Pauline is in dire straits. After all, she has no skills (other than being ornamental) and she’s never worked in her life – how will she manage? Richard Vandermarck, who is extremely rich, offers to marry Pauline so that she can keep her social position and comfortable lifestyle. Pauline reluctantly agrees. Richard is ecstatic. The woman of his dreams is going to marry him! He doesn’t care that she’s only doing it to keep away the horror of poverty; he desperately wants to provide for her, and if she’ll let him, he’s happy.
But alas! Richard finds the great uncle’s will (it was simply misplaced) and tells Pauline she doesn’t have to marry him. After all, she’s independently wealthy. Pauline kicks Richard to the curb, (albeit in a fairly nice fashion) and goes off to Europe. Richard, ever the masochist, continues to manage her money, while he throws himself into his work. Several years later, Pauline returns to New York and hears a rumor that Richard is going to marry someone else. This gets her thinking.... She invites Richard over, finds out he is not getting married, and coyly suggests they get back together. Richard seems happy about this, but he does have the sense to ask Pauline if he is “‘to be trifled with again?’” When his request for a straight answer makes Pauline nervous (it seems she can’t decide if he actually wants to marry her or is just giving her a hard time), she claims she can’t answer, as nothing will ever satisfy him. Richard responds that nothing “‘ever has satisfied me ... before.’” And so the book ends! At first I thought my Kindle copy had cut off the ending, but it hadn’t. The book implies they will get married (and Richard will finally be satisfied), but at least Richard had the audacity to request that Pauline not break his heart again.
When I read this book, Richard V immediately reminded of something I had read in The Atlantic about settling. The female author was talking to a male friend, who had dated, off-and-on, a beautiful and smart woman. She would break up with him, he would win her back, and round and round they went until she called it off for good, saying she didn’t love him. But now both of them have gotten older and remain unmarried, and the guy hopes she’ll come back to him because he knows she wants to have children. When the author asked him if that was settling, or if he felt like he would be being used, he was perfectly content and cheerful. He said that his beautiful ex-girlfriend would be settling, but he would get to marry the woman of his dreams.
            Richard Vandermarck is just like that. When Pauline was down and out, penniless, he wanted to marry her. He was excited to marry her, even though she was clearly less than thrilled at the prospect. When, years later, the two reunite, the reader knows that all Pauline has to do is say the word and Richard will marry her. Although the book is sort of sweet in that true love wins out in the end (at least for Richard; jury’s still out on Pauline), I also found it really annoying that Richard was content to remain a bachelor forever if he couldn’t have Pauline. Maybe I’m not romantic, but it would have served Pauline right if Richard did marry someone else, a woman who appreciated him and didn’t just come back to him out of jealousy. I know the jealousy was what made her realize her true feelings, but it was lame. While I like the idea of women getting to see the world and do stuff before marrying, Pauline was not really an especially likeable character.
            So, once again, our Dick isn’t really a dick. He might be a lovesick fool, but he’s not a dick. *Sigh* Yet another blow to the theory.

Lori Gottlieb, “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” Atlantic Magazine 

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