She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Clara Carter, the only child of a prominent New York City doctor, is a 17-year-old girl living in the Gilded Age of the 1890s. This is the era of hoopskirts and corsets, debutantes and balls, rules and expectations, and old money being challenged by new.
Clara’s mother died when Clara was a girl. Miss Miller, Clara’s governess, has prepared Clara to attend Vassar College. Those hopes are dashed when Clara’s Aunt announces that Clara will be debuting, and Miss Miller is dismissed. Thus starts Clara’s social-education whirlwind and her formal introduction into high society.
Clara’s father and aunt insist on her catching a rich husband, none other than Franklin De Vries, the heir to the De Vries fortune. Unfortunately, Clara’s best friend, Lizzie, is set on catching Franklin, too, and Clara’s heart prefers Harry, Franklin’s younger brother. Amid her social confusion, she is introduced to the problems of immigrant groups and the poor; Clara is forbidden to think about helping them.
As the balls and parties of the debutante season progress, Clara finds Harry to be kind and have surprising insight into God and what God expects from His followers. After Clara’s father has a stroke and she succeeds in getting Franklin to propose, Clara turns her back on the life he offers. When her father dies, Clara finds that Dr. Carter’s Elixir, which is her father’s recipe, is mostly alcohol and cocaine. Instead of selling the recipe and living comfortably for the rest of her life, Clara burns it. She also gives the deed for the tenements her father owned to a newspaper reporter she trusts. Her hope is that he will make a difference in the lives of the immigrants who live in those tenements.
Once Clara sells off her family’s house and possessions, allowing her aunt to retire on the coast of Massachusetts, Clara accepts a position as a companion to a dowager on a trip to Europe. Unbeknownst to Clara, the lady is actually Harry’s aunt. Harry has arranged the position and uses the trip to propose to Clara.
Clara, Lizzie and the DeVries family attend Grace Church. Clara is inspired by one of the sermons and later learns that most people attending weren’t really listening to the pastor. She’s saddened by the shallowness of being at church for appearance’s sake or simply to see what the fashionable people are wearing.
Harry DeVries appears to have a personal understanding of the Bible and what God in Christ Jesus asks of us, yet never really shares the Gospel with Clara. Harry and Franklin’s sister, Katherine, also shares Harry’s beliefs. Clara’s mother sang hymns at her church and for Clara when Clara was young. Clara, in revisiting her mother’s favorite hymns, realizes that the words form a Gospel of their own and open Clara’s eyes to what Christ meant to her mother.
New York society during this time period focuses on materialism and social position.
Even though Clara would much rather continue her studies than become a debutante, she obeys the wishes of her father and her aunt.
Franklin kisses Clara rather roughly during a moment together at one of the balls. Harry gives Clara a gentle and caring kiss. Franklin offers Clara his hand in marriage if she will join him in Newport with the expectation of premarital sex. Clara declines. Franklin later gives Lizzie the same offer. Lizzie accepts but the story implies that she doesn’t intend to give in to Franklin’s demands until after the wedding.
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