This is the story of two amazing characters. Archie was an Astor, heir to his part of a huge fortune who was orphaned at an early age. He, along with most other men in her orbit, fell in love with a novelist from an aristocratic cash poor family from Virginia who found his money very appealing and agreed to marry him.
They were married for a few years of high drama; Archie experienced great anguish and Amelie who was feted wherever she went, was miserable with headaches and became addicted to morphine. Eventually they were divorced.
Archie had the vision of creating a idealistic mill town in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina where the workers had all the amenities; with investments from his many family members, he was well on the way to success in this enterprise. Apparently because at a critical moment, he was distracted by a scheme to create roadways in Marseille which would have required a great deal of capital, his brother Winty managed to have him committed to an asylum in upstate New York. He escaped after four years but was unable to regain control of his assets for many years. And he died a little crazy.
The circle they traveled in are amazing: Stanford White (architect of the Gilded Age, and of course, of Cabell Hall at UVa), who was a partner of Archie in his business undertakings; Dr. Weir Mitchell, of the "rest cure" that almost drove Charlotte Perkins Gilman ("The Yellow Wallpaper") crazy and who had the audacity to give literary advice to Edith Wharton; Henry James, who was quite taken with Amelie and her literary talent; and William James, who was one of the few intellectuals to take a scientific interest in the psychology of religion and mysticism. He admired Archie's efforts to connect with his subconscious and his effort to use his gift of a psychic temperament to further scientific inquiry.
I kept thinking of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence as I read this; the strength of the social hierarchy to enforce its rules at that time was impressive. These were the very people that Edith Wharton was writing about. Archie's Aunt Caroline was the creator of the list of 400 people who mattered socially; this was the number that fit into her ballroom.