The Social Secretary

October 13, 2010

The Social Secretary,  a novel of Washington, D.C. society, is kind of adorable, but surprisingly fluffy to have been written by a muckraking journalist. David Graham Phillips was known for exposing all sorts of corruption in the senate, and I suppose, as far as subject matter is concerned, that senators taking bribes aren’t all that far removed from senators’ wives trying to dominate local society.  I think there must be a pretty big difference in tone, though.

Society in Washington seems to be split into three basic categories: the politicians (the President, cabinet members, senators, etc.), who aren’t as important as they like to think themselves because everyone knows they’re not permanent residents; the diplomats (ambassadors, attaches, etc.), of whom the best thing that can be said is apparently that they’re very nice for foreigners; and the old Washington elite, local families who know everyone and have a great deal of power in society, and sometimes some political influence, too.

Augusta Talltowers is part of this last group, a young woman who is left pretty much destitute after unspecified financial troubles and the death of her father. One of her friends gets her a job with the Burkes, a wealthy, social-climbing senator and his unpretentious, down-to-earth wife. Gus’ friend thinks Mrs. Burke is “common”, but suggests that Gus might marry the son, Cyrus; but Gus, predictably, takes an immediate liking to the former and doesn’t think much of the latter.

Gus’ job is to help the Burkes succeed socially, and, with the help of a bewildering array of account books, she does. Other than that, not a lot happens, but it’s a very nice not-a-lot. There’s a subplot dealing with a romantic entanglement between Mrs. Burke’s brother and the sister-in-law of one of the ambassadors, which I found a little strange — Robert and Nadeshda read like an Elinor Glyn hero and heroine miraculously transported to a world where everyone realizes how weird they are — but when Gus’ own romance kicked into a higher gear after having been hiding in the background for much of the book, I found myself wondering what it had been in the background of. There is off course, Gus’ campaign to make the Burke’s the most popular family in Washington, but it’s sort of a foregone conclusion that she’s going to succeed, so there’s not much suspense.

I would have liked Phillips to go into more detail about Gus’ strategy, but it’s hard to complain about this book; it’s so unassuming. Fluff from someone who is capable of more serious things is a very nice thing — much nicer than an attempt at serious things from someone who should really only be writing fluff.

Incidentally, Phillips belongs on that list of authors who died excitingly, alongside Paul Leicester Ford and Louis Joseph Vance: he was shot by a man who felt that Phillips had made fun of his family in a novel, or something. I would not have thought that was an offense punishable by death, but obviously someone did.


  1. I really enjoyed this – thanks for the recommendation. It is very slight, but there’s something very satisfying about stories where the characters are really competent, and Augusta is certainly very good at her job.

    • I completely agree — competency is one of the few characteristics that can single-handedly make me like a character. The most dissatisfying thing about the book was that we didn’t get to see more of Augusta at work.

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