What the Lady Wants
by Renée Rosen



New American Library, 2014. ISBN 978-0-451-46671-6.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 12/09/2014

Fiction: Historical; Fiction: Literary

One of the highlights of my teen years was to be allowed to go with a friend to downtown Chicago, to the flagship location of the grand Marshall Field & Company department store. I knew the layout of every floor and the locations of every elevator, escalator, and restroom. I loved all the restaurants on the seventh floor, but also stopped at the funky little snack bar in the bargain basement where frozen malts and hot dogs were sold. I could have spent the entire day there. Field's may not have been as glamorous as when Marshall Field was alive; however, it still seemed a wonderworld to me, especially decorated for Christmas.

What the Lady Wants is a novel titled after Marshall Field's motto; he created his store to "give the lady what she wants." He knew his customers—wealthy Chicago women. This novel is less about Field, "The Merchant Prince," than it is about a love story. The principal character is not Field, but the love of his life, Delia Spencer Caton. Delia was seventeen and Field thirty-seven when they met, on the night of the Great Chicago Fire.

Delia Spencer's life proceeded as that of a debutante of the Gilded Age should; she married a socially acceptable and wealthy young man named Arthur Caton who made her laugh and whom she loved. The wedding was a spectacle because Chicago, scorned in the East as backwoods, was determined to demonstrate its sophistication. During occasional meetings Delia always felt a strong attraction to Field and knew it was mutual. Field's wife Nannie, difficult and addicted to laudanum for migraines, became her friend. When the two couples moved into back-to-back mansions on Chicago's then fashionable near South Side, they became a foursome. However, life rarely turns out to be all sunshine and roses: Delia's marriage, at least the intimate side, was unsatisfactory, and Marshall and Nannie clearly did not like each other. The inevitable happened in spite of their resistance. Arthur was accepting and supportive; Nannie left for Europe in a huff, taking their children with her. Eventually she moved there permanently, but not until trying to ruin Delia in Chicago.

The rest of What the Lady Wants is in large part about how Marshall and Delia handled their situation. In spite of discretion, it became the scandal of the city. Delia paid the heaviest price, scorned by women she had once socialize with and dropped from boards and committees she had served on. Rumors abounded that, for instance, there was a tunnel connecting their two houses. But Delia and Marsh stayed the course. Delia remained married to Arthur and was very close to her husband. The three—Delia, Arthur, and Marsh—attended many functions together, ignoring the gossip. They made an odd but happy threesome. After Arthur's death, Delia and Field married, though the marriage was cut short by Field's unexpected death.

There is much more to What the Lady Wants than the love story. The novel paints a rich picture of Chicago's privileged in the late nineteenth century and weaves in Chicago history, from the Great Fire to the Haymarket Riots to the Columbian Exposition. Marshall Field emerges as a vital, attractive, charming man—except when crossed. Field showed no sympathy for the Haymarket rioters and was instrumental in seeing that three men were hanged. He was a tough taskmaster in his store and expected absolute obedience. He fired a longtime assistant manager, Harry Selfridge, who went on to open Selfridge's of London.

Minor characters are all the kings of Chicago industry—Pullman, Swift, Armour, etc. The characters' frequent travels also reveal much about them; they traveled to New York and Europe often, enjoying private railway cars and luxury accommodations wherever they went and taking such privilege for granted.

Author Renee Rosen makes a careful effort to delineate fact from fiction in an informative afterword—where she has toyed with history, she explains why it worked best for her story. That to me is a hallmark of historical fiction: accuracy without losing sense of the arc of a good story, and then letting the reader know what is fact and what is fiction. In the end, this is still a love story, but one told against the backdrop of a vital city growing from adolescence to sophisticated adulthood.


Renee Rosen is the author of Dollface and Every Crooked Pot. She lives in Chicago and is at work on her next novel. Visit her website.

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Stories From the Heart IX

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