What Work Could Gilded Age Women Do?

06/14/2011 11:28 am ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

Remember Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth? Remember how faded socialite Lily Bart drops down the social ladder, from unpaid secretary for her wealthy friends to untrained seamstress in a hat shop?

It's a steep, hopeless, miserable decline, and highly dramatic, but Wharton presented a false portrait of Lily's possibilities. There were dozens of options open to women like Lily in 1905 New York. I discovered them while researching my novel Rosedale in Love, which tells Wharton's story from a completely different angle.

Looking for Gilded Age books in varying genres, I found the eye-opening How Women May Earn a Living. It was published in 1900 by Helen Churchill Candee, a successful journalist, author, and interior decorator, who would later survive the Titanic and keep writing and traveling until she was 80.

Candee explained that the world of work in 1900 was expanding for women way beyond the menial labor Lily Bart ends up doing. She gave very specific advice in surveying the pluses and minuses of dozens of professions that included some you might expect like nursing, waitressing, and secretarial work. Others might surprise you: life insurance agent, realtor, and personal shopper. Yes, that was an actual profession over a hundred years ago! Candee called it "private shopping."

Candee didn't neglect careers that required more education like architecture, medicine and law. But no matter what the profession -- from florist to freelance journalist -- she closely examined the needed skills, the training involved, the expenses, the joys and burdens, and most importantly, the typical salaries. The New York Times Book Review praised her sensible and useful book, noting that it made no distinction whatsoever between men and women: "in the field of business there is no sex. Practical capacity is the keynote to success."

I wrote Rosedale in Love because I wanted to tell Wharton's story from the perspective of Jewish outsiders. One is the banker Simon Rosedale, a character in The House of Mirth whose inner life and background she completely ignores. The other main character is his cousin Florence, a woman I invented along with everything else about his family. Florence may seem privileged, but she's always aware of her outsider status as a "Jewess."

In my research, I learned a great deal about New York in 1905, but one of the most surprising discoveries was how many types of jobs were open to women who needed to support themselves or their families. Wharton ruthlessly narrowed Lily Bart's options in life to make her seem trapped. Reading Candee's book is a reminder that what novelists leave out of their work can be as significant as what they include, and that artistic vision can sometimes cloud the facts.