by Diana Burg

Syracuse University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0815609315.
Reviewed by Diana Nolan
Posted on 01/02/2009

Fiction: Historical

While Southerners are positioning for civil war, many folks in the North are focused on Burch vs. Burch, a sensational divorce trial unfolding near Chicago. Dalliance, Diana Burg's first novel, explores the upper crust life of a wealthy banker and his flirtatious wife as their relationship disintegrates into misguided trust, imprudence and vindictiveness. Burg skillfully creates a narrative in the form of diaries, letters, and journals written by the Burches and a newspaper reporter.

We first meet Mary Burch in 1848; she is 18 and lives with a doting uncle in Albany, New York, where she enjoys a life of parties, picnics and balls. Mary is more interested in romantic interludes and acquiring social graces than the growing women's rights movement. When she learns of the passage in New York State of the Married Women's Property Act, Mary writes her thoughts:

"I can picture a society in which women will work as long and hard as men...leisure will have been erased forever."

Mary finds the life she desires marrying Isaac Burch, a dour banker, 15 years her senior. Although Isaac thinks he is too old for Mary, he is flattered that she receives his advances warmly. They settle in Chicago, where Isaac pursues his business leaving Mary to entertain and be entertained by his associates and friends.

The issues of the times: slavery and child labor, buzz around Mary and Isaac. Since they do not indulge in such practices themselves, the Burches feel comfortable and unaffected. While Mary appears happy, she frequently confines herself to her room with severe headaches. Her gay life erupts in controversy when a friend of Isaac reports that Mary refused to receive him when he called. Hearing gossip of Mary's flirtations, Isaac torments Mary to admit to dalliances with other acquaintances, particularly his lawyer, David Stuart. Mary claims she only accepted gifts, kisses, and "nothing more."

Enraged, Isaac relentlessly torments Mary, threatening to put her out of the house. After one all night session, Mary breaks down and signs the confession her husband places before her. She is told to pack her bags, is shipped to Albany, and forbidden to see her children. Isaac files for divorce accusing Mary of "criminal intercourse" with David Stuart.

Nearly a year passes with Mary still in Albany, denied access to her children, awaiting her trial. Mary berates herself in letters to family and friends. Isaac circulates her confession and letters to many newspapers in order to "inform" the public of her behavior. By the time the trial begins, all of Chicago and much of the country are familiar with Mary Burch and David Stuart. At the trial Mary expresses her innocence and denounces her coerced confession.

I found this a highly emotional novel. Author Diana Burg used actual newspaper accounts of the trial. The story reminds the reader of the injustice between classes and between genders during 19th century America, and of the historic controversies the country faced.

Burg is working on a sequel about the life of David Stuart as a Union commander at the Battle of Shiloh and the siege of Corinth, Mississippi.

Diana Burg has written several short stories and screenplays. Dalliance is her first novel. She lives with her husband in Colorado. For more on Dalliance, see the book website.

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