BECOMING BETTER

Jean Croker Petke


Opulence and Disarray

Opulence and Disarray

Last week I explored the summer cottages in Newport, Rhode Island — mansions created by America’s wealthiest during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. These mansions depict an unimaginable life of wealth and culture. For the original inhabitants, this was the only life they knew. And for most of them, these houses were only one of several that each family owned.

This time and place was bursting with over-the-top wealth, social rules and expectations, and an intense desire to exceed the ostentatiousness of the neighbors, supported by labor-intensive practices of the day.  The social season was a couple of months each summer. Parties, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning, included hundreds of guests. The orchestra played dance music in strict order. Meals extended beyond ten courses. Women changed their clothes (dress, stockings, shoes, undergarments, hats, and gloves) five to seven times each day. Outfits, designed in Europe, were worn only once. Bedsheets were changed twice a day, whether the bed had been slept in or not. All laundry was done by hand. Gold was everywhere, much of it real.

And there were gold grand pianos in every home, sometimes in the ballroom, sometimes in the music room. Surely in their day, they sounded magnificent. The owners would be satisfied with nothing less.

As I wandered through the rooms, I felt like I’d been invited to the party but had not dressed appropriately. I was frumpy, with no sense of decency and propriety. The hired help dressed better than I did. Perhaps this is what time travel feels like — feeling displaced with no knowledge of the societal rules.

I took a bit of my life with me on this trip. I had my piano books, hoping to at least study my pieces, though I had no access to a piano. Oh, to play from memory on a gold piano in a grand hall, looking out to the sea. My French couture gown glitters in the candlelight. Schumann sounds exquisite here.

I’d hoped to read my paperback book about twelfth century England during some down time, though it seldom happened. While this book transports me to another time, I can only imagine reading a leather-bound volume in a ornate estate library facing a humongous fireplace. Perhaps the butler will bring me some tea and cakes.

It’s a bit strange returning home after experiencing such grandeur. My entire house is smaller than a ballroom. My yard is smaller than a cutting garden. My mahogany grand piano is plain and short. My fireplace is tiny, but sufficient to remove the morning chill. Paperback books are piled beside my chair. I have to fix my own tea before I can settle down to read.

There’s little order to my ordinary life. Papers and books pile here and there.

There’s no gold glittering in the candlelight. No crystal chandeliers. A ceiling fan stirs the air. Birds splash in the birdbath near a few pink flowers.

There’s no need for more.

Live is rich, just as it is.

Until next Tuesday . . .

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5 Comments - Leave a Comment
  • Pat Bolan -

    So fascinating to see such oppulence, so hard to imagine such wealth, so stressing to imagine the society “rules” of the day, so glad to be home.

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