Silas Lapham is a self-made man. He grew up on a poor New England farm, went off to fight in the Civil War & came back to marry the local schoolteacher & make a successful business out of the mineral paint-mine his father had discovered on his land. Now, in middle-age, Colonel Lapham is a rich man, successful enough to be included in a series of newspaper interviews of the Great Men of Boston. He & his wife, Persis, have two daughters, Penelope & Irene; he employs a lot of people at his paint works & his Boston office & he has plans to build a grand new house on the Back Bay, the most select neighbourhood in Boston.
On their summer holiday, Persis & her daughters make the acquaintance of Anna Corey & her daughters. The Coreys are old Boston, a family that has an established position in society. Anna’s husband, Bromfield, is a dilettante. His father made money & Bromfield has been content to spend it. His son, Tom, is more like his grandfather. He hasn’t decided what to do with his life yet. Tom met the Lapham ladies on a visit to his mother & sisters & is smitten with one of the girls. He’s interested in the Laphams & asks the Colonel to take him into the business. Anna returns from her holiday to find Tom working for the Colonel & on visiting terms with the Laphams. She’s dismayed by Tom’s obvious interest in a family that may have money but isn’t quite out of the top drawer. The Laphams realise that their daughters haven’t had the right education, haven’t made the right connections to take their place in Boston society. This becomes more obvious as they ponder Tom’s interest in the girls compared to the standoffish behaviour of the rest of the Coreys.
Tom enjoys his work with the Colonel & has plans to help expand the business. He likes the Colonel, enjoys his obvious pride in his achievements & admires his success. He can’t help contrasting his own father’s lazy assumption of superiority with the Colonel’s energy. Tom is part of a new generation that takes people as they find them & has little time for the worries of his mother about his friendship with the Laphams & her fears that he wants to marry one of the daughters.
The Colonel & his wife have a comfortable relationship. Persis was a teacher before they married & she had a slightly higher social position in their hometown. She has always supported the Colonel but also acts as his conscience in his business dealings, whether he wants her to or not. Early in his career, the Colonel took a partner, Rogers, into the business. He soon found he didn’t like having a partner & bought Rogers out, just before the business took off. Nothing Rogers has done since has been successful & Persis has always been troubled by this, feeling that the Colonel did the wrong thing by maneuvering Rogers out of the business. Rogers turns up like a bad penny & plays on the Colonel’s uneasy feelings over their past dealings which leads to the beginnings of trouble for the Colonel & his fortunes.
The Rise of Silas Lapham is an absorbing study of character & of a society that is forced to change with the times. I loved the Colonel & Persis. Their marriage is strong although Persis has less involvement in the business than she did in the early days when they were building it up together & the Colonel has started to keep secrets from her which will cause misunderstandings. She worries over the girls & how to launch them in society (although the girls don’t seem very concerned). The Colonel thinks that money can solve any problem. He loves spending it on fast horses & his plans for a house become more grandiose & less tasteful every time he comes up with a new idea. Even his choice of a building site shows that he’s not part of the best society. He chooses to build on the “lesser” side of Back Bay. Persis spends a lot of time trying to rein the Colonel in & uncomfortably reminds him of his obligations to men like Rogers.
Penelope & Irene are embarrassed by their father’s boasting as he shows Tom around the new house but excited by the new friendship with Tom & impressed by his obvious interest in the family. The Coreys are forced into a social relationship with the Laphams through Tom’s involvement which leads to a disastrous dinner party & looks as though it will be a permanent relationship if he goes ahead with a marriage proposal. I was reminded of the novels of Edith Wharton in the way that Howells explores the subtle gradations of social acceptability but Howells is also very good on the reality of family life & its comedy & tragedy. The Rise of Silas Lapham is a great read & I’m definitely looking forward to reading more William Dean Howells.