Alice B. Neal wrote frequently for the Book, generally short fiction and serialized works, with occasional poetry. She provides a fascinating look at four women in the well-crafted short fiction work The Milliner's Dream; or, the Wedding Bonnet. In six short columns Neal tells us much about these women, provides glimpses into their backgrounds, and shows us the world they live in. The women's characters are deftly drawn with brief but telling hints provided throughout the story. Exploring each of them provides us the opportunity to examine what Neal considers to be the positive and negative traits of women in her society, as well as what that society considers important. As a regular and valued contributor to Godey's Lady's Book and friend to both its publisher and its editor, Sarah J. Hale, we will assume that they and the Book's readers agreed with, or at least recognized, Neal's assessment of these women.
Their world, while not described in detail, is alluded to in many ways. The Costars live in fashionable New York and summer in Newport, signifying their wealth. Augustus Brevont, Miss Costar's future husband, is seen purchasing diamonds for her at Tiffanys. The Costar women have their own carriage and are planning a lavish wedding. They expect the men in their lives to support them in luxury. They shop in New York but also commission clothing from Paris. Alice Leary, the milliner's assistant, lives in a different world. She, like the Costars, is a "lady," that is, of white middle class Protestant background. However, her current financial situation, fatherless and doing her best to support an invalid mother and delicate sister, necessitates that she work for a living. Her home is furnished by the efforts of her own hands but we can assume from her other virtues that it is in no way squalid.
Neal, while not describing a home filled with consumables, does acknowledge that consumer goods, particularly fashion items, would be important to her readers. She takes care to describe the bonnets made in the shop. She mentions Brussels lace, a barage veil, colored coat, cinnamon-colored gloves, diamonds, carriages, a cheval glass, muslin curtains, and even prices. However, she is quick to show that people overly concerned with material wealth are negative, while those who consider instead the comfort of life in terms of good relationships with others are positive.
The urban world itself is portrayed sympathetically. It is busy, bustling, and noisy by day, sometimes overpoweringly hot and dusty. Yet it is also a world of cool evening breezes and shade-lined streets. Employment is possible, though sometimes precarious--one must be careful to hold onto a position because another might not be readily available. There is no mention of abject poverty or evidence of crime. A corrupt political system is nowhere to be found; one would suppose such a topic, even if it had any relevance to this story, would not be of interest to Neal's readers. The story instead is on a subject of great relevance to women of the period, the marriage choice.
Madame Millefleurs, owner of the shop, has received a last minute commission from the wealthy Miss Costar who is to be married next day. She is accompanied by her mother, Mrs. Costar, to the shop. Alice Leary, the figure around whom the story unfolds, is the milliner's assistant.
The first to speak, Mrs. Costar quickly condemns herself as a poor example of womanhood. She exhibits a lack of taste and judgment. Though she is familiar with fashion magazines, she has no innate fashion sense as exhibited by her lack of knowledge of appropriate fabrics and her description of an impossibly overloaded bonnet that at the same time should be light. She is demanding, does not consider it necessary for one of her station to be polite to a mere milliner, and assumes that her money can buy any service or article she requires.Though not detailed, her qualities as a wife are questioned when we learn that she has "wearied the patience of the male members of the family by incessant questions" about the arrival of a ship that should be carrying part of her daughter's trousseau. Her selfishness, or at least her thoughtless querulousness in this is highlighted by Neal who points out immediately before that some wives and mothers have reason to be concerned about the delayed arrival of the ship that carries their "treasures," not consumables, but family members.
Miss Costar, the bride to be, follows closely in the footsteps of her mother. She is described as haughty-looking, she speaks "coldly," and has been raised as the "spoiled tyrant of the nursery," her every material wish acceded to. She is to marry the rich Augustus Brevont. When she considers her wedding it is in terms of a spectacle to awe her acquaintances, not as
the start of a life with another person. Of concern to her are the lace of her veil, the number of bridesmaids, and the ostentation of her cortege. Her desire to have her own way results in the flouting of convention by risking being seen out the day before her wedding in pursuit of a bonnet. Such is her commitment to her marriage, and her consideration for the
feelings of her future husband, that only her mother's injunction that "people may talk" prevent her from postponing the wedding when her French bonnets do not arrive on time.
Her lack of concern for her future husband's needs and wishes is further evidenced in the dream vision of the central character later in the story. In it Miss Costar, who has but little thought for her husband as an individual and future life's partner, sees instead only her brilliant conquest of such a person of means. They both live "the selfish, aimless lives of those who have never known want or care," and, having no idea that a good marriage must be built and nurtured, quickly "weary of the bonds they had so lightly assumed. . .Upbraiding took the place of flattery; neglect followed the wilful exactions and senseless homage of courtship. The world gave censure for congratulations, and the end was doubt, distrust, and openly acknowledged dissension."
Through her treatment of Miss Costar, Neal displays her ideal of married life. Wives should be attentive to the needs of their husbands. They should be supportive and giving. But Neal is not proposing simple submission. The married couple should also expect to develop, through care and dedication, a close, loving, and satisfying relationship. Mutual trust is the key, and selfless love the foundation, to this companionate vision of marriage. A certain amount of concern with money is reasonable, but the pursuit of "luxury and boundless leisure" leads only to unhappiness.
But what of the unmarried woman? Neal provides one example in the person of Madame Millefleurs. First described as an "obsequious Frenchwoman" we soon learn that Madame's astute business sense has invented the French persona, transforming the simple Miss Flowers of Division Street (thus referencing her humble beginnings). This business sense is well attuned to her customers. She knows when to speak, when to listen, and when to "not hear" what is discussed between mother and daughter. She is also very good at what she does, having a "well practiced hand" and turning out bonnets that, while not on par with French confections, are at least in demand. Her success is evidenced by the fact that she has several employees and a large establishment. She is an exacting task-mistress, yet is willing to pay her employees well for their work. However, Neal hints that her business fervor borders on greed. Madame knows exactly how far she may go in setting a price for her wares and knows as well that, despite the fair wages, her real hold on her workers is the threat of turning them out into a precarious overcrowded work force.
Neal's portrait of Madame Millefleurs provides an interesting, if ambivalent, glimpse at the career woman. That a woman can be a successful business person is unquestioned. Neal, as a published writer, was one herself. But Madame's taste and judgment are pragmatic, not the result of some inborn aesthetic sense. The working conditions she provides for her employees are not appalling but certainly not the most comfortable. Her wages are fair, even high. She is a successful manager though she tends to govern by threat and not by loyalty. She is not supportive of her employees, tending to criticize rather than praise. She does not seem to be discontented with her life. However, it is clear that Madame is not quite a "lady" and, as such, she should not be seen as an exemplar for Neal's readers. Her tendency to be dishonest with
other people while it may help her business, is also an indication that she is not a role model.
The true lady of the story is Alice Leary, the milliner's assistant. The work she does is not for her own advancement but to support her mother and sister. Her "exquisite taste and skill" have promoted her to the "head of the workroom" which means her wages are reasonable, but her work is still exacting and exhausting. Like most heroines, she is sufficiently lovely, though dressed of necessity in plain dress. Her beauty is defined in terms of smooth bands of dark hair, a patient-looking demeanor, and a slight form, all indicators of what the ideal woman should be. She is clearly the model for womanhood but she is not a goddess of perfection. Neal shows Alice tired, dispirited, plagued by headaches, envious of Miss Costar, discontented with her lot, and resentful. It is in this state, shut up in a stifling room faced with the daunting task of creating a new and unique bonnet, that she falls asleep and dreams.
As might be expected her dreams are not happy. She is surrounded by jeering bonnets of ages past and she sees the future of Miss Costar and Mr. Brevont. Their wedding is all pomp but no substance. Alice (and Neal) make clear that marriage is a solemn and heavenly occasion and that true devotion does not need wealth. Waking to find her "someone" expressing his deep concern for her she finds new strength both to tackle the dreaded bonnet next morning and to lay aside her envy. Neal eases her burden somewhat by allowing Alice's betrothed to have news of a "most important advance to his slender salary." In keeping with her theme of devotion over wealth she is careful, however, to provide not too grand an increase, only one that would not end but "shorten their probation by years perhaps."
Thus the questions of the story are what makes a successful marriage, what are the desired traits of a good person, and what is important to pursue in life. These questions and their answers are in keeping with her culture. The emphasis is on "heart," devotion to others, embracing one's duty, a vaguely defined but none the less real reliance on religion, a moderate concern for money, a marriage of partnership but one in which the man can support his wife both economically and spiritually, and a distrust of excessive wealth. This is an anglo urban culture based on a market economy where the people share common ideals, though all do not choose to adhere strictly to those ideals. Her readers are assured that an interest in fashion is acceptable but that the real intent of the writing is to learn what constitutes the true woman. That Neal conveys this message with an entertaining and gently ironic wit is testament to her writing skill. That the subject of the marriage choice is addressed again and again throughout Godey's Lady's Book is indicative of its central role in the lives of women of a particular class who had few other options.