Historical fiction provides a way for writers to imagine possible dialogue and scenes as they research the facts about an era’s people and times. They weave a new story and breathe life into historical figures and places, much like a historian or docent at a museum. In her latest novel “The Magnolia Palace,” Fiona Davis gave an explanation about historical fiction that added to this artform. She said,
“In all of my books, I like to layer a fictional story over the scaffolding of historical facts, and then parse out the inspiration for the plot and characters in the Author’s Note, as well as provide ideas for further reading.”
Davis draws from true stories written about U.S. steel founder Henry Clay Frick and his family, as well as the tragedy of an early 1900s model to build a complex fictional tale full of scandal, mystery, and romance in the Gilded Age. A coal and coke magnate, real-life Henry Clay Frick lived in New York City and his townhome and mansion became museums that hold many works of art in the Frick Collection. When Davis visited the Frick Collection in 2019, she said she looked up at the figure above the entrance and wondered what would happen if the model Audrey Munson had met Helen Clay Frick, Henry’s daughter. Fiona’s novel takes readers back and forth along two imagined timelines of the Frick family and their legacy with the story of two models, Lillian Carter and Veronica Weber.
The novel opens with the story of a “1910 supermodel” Lillian who loses her mother Kitty to the Spanish flu outbreak in 1919 New York City. She works as a model to artists. A celebrated muse, she has posed for sculptors and her mother has always been by her side. Davis describes her as “the vision of the perfect woman, the embodiment of beauty. An angel. Angelica” (35). Lillian’s likeness as “Angelica” graces various landmarks all over New York. In her grief, she becomes untethered from the ideal and sees her livelihood start to fall apart. She begins to think she is “washed up” at 21. A murder happens in her building while she’s picking up the pieces. Police think she’s involved, so Lillian flees and leaves her old life behind.
Where one door closes, another opens. Wandering through the city, Lillian stops before her likeness outside the home of Henry Clay Frick. In a case of mistaken identity, she walks into an interview to become a private secretary to Henry’s daughter Miss Helen Frick. Lillian intends to leave the family and start fresh as an actress in Hollywood, not unlike artist’s model Evelyn Nesbit from that era. Slowly her dreams change. What starts as a hideaway from the press helps her re-envision her future. She not only learns her time in the art world makes her an asset in the Frick household, but she has other skills and talents that make her a great confidante and trusted advisor.
In 1966, British model Veronica Weber is desperate to rescue her developmentally challenged twin sister from life in an institution. She is on a Vogue assignment at the 5th Avenue townhouse that is now the Frick Collection. Veronica feels disconnected from the other models, and yet wants to have a bond. She tries to stand up for one of the models during the photo shoot, but clashes with the photographer. After she’s dismissed, she hides away and stumbles upon secret messages and starts to explore. The power cuts off and Veronica calls out for help. She realizes she’s been left behind, so she decides to work on this mysterious scavenger hunt until Joshua Lawrence, an intern and archivist, finds her. Together they try to solve the puzzle left behind in 1919. A missing pink diamond is at the heart of their search for answers.
Grief and Loss
Most of Fiona’s characters are recovering from grief and loss in some way. In 1919, Lillian lost her mother and was processing her grief and trying to move forward alone. Miss Helen’s suitor Richard Danforth lost both parents as well and is finding it hard to cope and move forward until he meets Lillian. He wants to replace what he lost too soon though, and Lillian feels like she’s someone he wants to possess, not love for her true self. Henry and Adelaide Frick know a thing or two about loss. Their daughter Martha died years ago but they keep many shrines to her so that she’s always present. Davis wrote this in such a way that I saw their grief as unhealthy. It marred their relationships with their remaining two children Helen and Childs and with each other. (In fact, Fiona mentioned Shakespeare’s King Lear. Totally.) Henry loved pitting his children against each other. He held up Martha as the ideal that Helen could never meet. Adelaide, his wife, never recovered emotionally and withdrew from her responsibilities, leaving those for Helen (really for Lillian). In 1966, Veronica remembers finding her father in his cab dead after his shift as a cab driver. She grieved his loss, while worrying about losing her sister. She fought to prevent that loss the way she couldn’t with her father. She took on the responsibility for her family’s financial woes and wellbeing.
Societal expectations of women whether in 1919 and 1966 shared common ground in certain roles they played in society. Fiona’s characters wonder if they are seen and known in these eras for their contributions in society. Lillian Carter took on many different roles and identities. She went from performing on Broadway to becoming Angelica, a muse for artists. (We’d say she was self-employed today.) She even had a chance to act as an artist assistant. The artists often asked her opinion and took her thoughts into consideration while they worked. As private secretary, Lillian used what she learned while working as a model to become what others needed her to be for each task. But she wanted more in her relationships, especially with men. She wanted to be known and seen, and I loved how Fiona made that happen not just for the fictional character, but also model Audrey Munson. Lillian acted as confidante to Henry and as a companion and well-trusted secretary to Miss Helen. She had the makings of a life coach when she encouraged heiress Helen to see herself outside of the role her family and society expected her to play. Her efforts no doubt caused a shift in Helen’s thinking about her own future. She began the story wanting to please her father, and that doesn’t change; however, she took on roles apart from wife and mother she wouldn’t have available to her before she became and heiress. She started an art history library as well as continued in her father’s footsteps to give back to her city.
I started reading this novel at bedtime, but I found myself reading long into the night. Teenage me would have just stayed up, but 50s Susan needs sleep. When I researched Henry Clay Frick, I saw how much of the true story of the family found its way into the fictional tale. I think Fiona no doubt made the Frick Collection very popular. I really hope someone (Reese Witherspoon?) will read this novel and want to make a film. Below, I included this introduction to The Frick Collection. Also check out this take between Fiona Davis and chief curator of the Frick, Xavier F. Salomon about how her novel brought to life this New York landmark museum. I checked out “The Magnolia Palace” during the last week of October because I loved the mystery promised and found it delightfully engrossing. Other works by Fiona Davis include: The Dollhouse (2016); The Address (2017); The Masterpiece (2018); The Chelsea Girls (2019); The Lions of Fifth Avenue (2020).