My hero, Christopher Chandler’s, aunt Milly humourously calls him a “presumptuous mushroom” when he gives my heroine, Bliss Atwater leave to call him by his first name shortly after he meets her. But, as he says, “there are just far too many Mr. Chandlers running about Manhattan.”
And he’s right. Besides him, there are his father, two uncles, two brothers, and a whole raft of male cousins.
While the term is funny when applied to Christopher (Chris to his many friends), their were many a mushroom in the day and age in which this book is set: 1888. The High Society, of the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Fishes, Ward McAlister, and the Atwaters, the Chandlers, the Aldermans , the …
What? You don’t know about the Atwaters, the Chandlers and the rest? I forget not all of you have met them, but they are well worth meeting. Well, most of them are.
Bliss Atwater is an orphan who was first raised in India until her parents died of a tropical illness, then was taken in by an elderly aunt in the Pacific Northwest, until she died suddenly. When a cousin — a mushroom with delusions — tries to force Bliss to marry a frightening, possibly homicidal neighbor, she flees to Manhattan and her father’s twin brother, Henry Atwater and his wife, Hetty, who are at the very pinnacle of Society.
Bliss finds herself thrown into the deep end of Society, completely unprepared for it. Nevertheless she is expected to follow The Rules for Good Society. Chris’ mother, Marriott, a cold, stiff-rumped woman who seems to think it’s her duty tell everyone how to run their lives and households, has memorized every single one of them and has no trouble telling Bliss where she goes wrong. She has no trouble telling Chris where he goes wrong, either, but he’s learned to ignore her.
Within my Society are all sorts of people: rule followers, trace kickers, bad boys, good girls, good boys, bad girls, desperate men and women, bluestockings, silly fops, and of course, our mushrooms.
One of Marriott’s favourite people is Mrs. Astor (one never called her Caroline); and one of her favourite people — or so it has been written in the history books — is Ward McAlister.
Ward McAlister was a Carpetbagger, a man who made a small fortune in the post Civil War South; a mushroom with pretentions. He eventually married a woman of fortune and moved North, where after several years of throwing parties and meeting the right people, he became included into the top circles of Society. He eventually met Mrs. Astor and together they took the top position in Society, declaring who was In and who was Out.
One of Ward McAlister’s passions was making lists of people who were good enough for his “Mystic Rose” as he called Mrs. Astor. Actually, he made lists of everything, including twelve course dinners he’d eaten at Newport twenty years ago. He was known within Manhattan Society as “Mr. Make-A-Lister.” But never within his hearing, of course.
Henry can’t stand the man and calls him “a jumped up little prig who needs to be set down good and hard.” Just before one of his wife’s dinner parties, he sneaks into the dining room and rearranges the place cards, moving McAlister down the table between two completely vapid young women of no consequence. To no one’s surprise Mr. Make A Lister is far from pleased and vows revenge.
On an Atwater? Really!
His unfortunate habit of making lists and telling tales eventually led him to write a book called, Society As I Have Known It. I read it and from a completely historical aspect it is a fascinating look into the life and times of Society. Otherwise it is quite deadly dull. The book lists, as I said, twelve course dinners (in French! — that made the food so much more important), that he’d eaten in Newport, RI when he was twenty five years old. He talks about parties he threw and the people he knew. When it came out, his “friends” were appalled to be named and he was quickly dropped from Society’s A lists.
He died a pauper, forgotten and forlorn, a sad and broken mushroom.
Ward McAlister was a real person, with the same needs, fears, wishes, and desires of every human being, and I in no way mean to make fun of him here. He was a charming man and found a way to climb from obscurity to the dizzying heights of Manhattan Society. Other than catching a glimpse of him from time to time in my book, he rarely shows his face.
I wish I could say the same for some of my other characters; people like Joshual Noris, a nasty, poisonous sort of mushroom. Bliss meets him on her third night in the city. He has heard some rather spurious rumours about her and, needing a wife rather badly, decides to make a move on her at a dinner party. She objects to having her limb fondled and defends herself with a fork.
A smart man would realize that he had misjudged the lady and go search elsewhere for suitable prey. Not Mr. Norris. He begins stalking her at balls, trying to get her alone and in a compromising position. Chris and his friends realize this and surroundher, filling up her dance card before he can get to her. He is reduce to pacing the sidelines, like a lion watching a gazelle, waiting for a chance that never quite comes.
I have female mushrooms, too: Rachel Alderman, Marriott Chandler, Sharlee Medford, and her daughter, Belinda, among them.
As they do in Nature, my human mushrooms come in all shapes, sizes, and colours. Some are edifying and helpful, others merely beautiful to look at, and still others deadly. Some of them are more than one at the same time. It’s up to Bliss to figure it out, because one of the mushrooms wants her dead.