Gervais Hagerty paints an intimate portrait of the Charleston elite in her debut novel, In Polite Company. The colorful story takes us behind the walled gardens of historic homes and into the debutante balls and cocktail parties of Charleston’s high society.
The novel follows Simons Smythe, a TV producer born into Charleston’s aristocracy, who spends her days off surfing at Folly Beach and crabbing around Edisto Island. With the pastel colors and salty air of Charleston serving as a backdrop, the story revolves around a confusing time in Simons’ life: Her job at the local TV station tests her loyalty to her family and her inner circle. Wedding plans lead to confusion and cold feet. In this time of uncertainty, Simons seeks guidance from her grandmother, Laudie, who shares her rebellious spirit and wide-set eyes.
Hagerty, like her main character, grew up in Charleston and has experience producing and reporting local news.
“Simons is not me, but like any coming-of-age-novel, the feelings are true, even though the scenes are made up,” Hagerty explained. “I’ve suffered heartache, and I’ve also fallen in love. My experiences play into my writing. In this way, I’m a little bit of all my characters.”
Through her writing, Charleston’s high society becomes a character in itself. And it’s a subject Hagerty knows well.
Growing up behind Rainbow Row, the novelist spent her childhood roller-skating in the drawing room and digging for pottery shards in the backyard. Her family has been in Charleston for many generations, and her upbringing was a traditional one. “My parents signed me up for the traditional rites-of-passage: I learned the Lindy Hop at cotillion, and I made my debut in a wedding gown,” she said.
When it hits bookshelves Aug. 17, Hagerty’s literary debut is a rare “peek behind the veil of Charleston’s cobbled streets, Southern charm and pedigreed society,” according to New York Times-bestseller Mary Alice Monroe. “In Polite Company offers a nuanced look at birth and death, privilege and discrimination at odds between generations.”
Hagerty wrote the novel to share the beauty of this fabled Southern world, and to analyze the centuries-old power structures at play. The clever Hagerty hopes to “upend the patriarchy a bit” in her writing. When her protagonist is hopeless and distraught, grandmother Laudie “repeatedly and mysteriously” advises her granddaughter to be brave.
“I think it’s hard for women to trust their instincts,” Hagerty said. “We are often taught to put aside our dreams for the good of the group. So many cultures and belief systems shape this way of thinking.”
Simons eventually learns to embrace bravery — something Hagerty understands as a debut novelist.
Hagerty had a “bizarre and strong” impulse to write In Polite Company. As a professor at The Citadel, Hagerty would spend summers and weekends writing. But eventually something had to give for her to dedicate herself to writing in the way she desired.
“With a teaching job at The Citadel, two young children and a dream of being a novelist … In order to fully dedicate myself to my writing, I had to leave my job,” she said.
She advises artists and writers to “dream big, but be smart about it,” explaining that changing her lifestyle to follow her dream has made her spend less, but become richer.
“We had fun changing our lifestyle. My husband brews beer; I get around on a cargo bike. When we buy things, we buy secondhand. This way of life aligns perfectly with our environmental goals. We have a rain barrel and solar panels, and we chop wood on the weekends to supplement our heat in the winter. We’ve learned to install flooring, and I built my own bookshelves. We’ve acquired new skills … We sort of became urban homesteaders, and we love it.”
Hagerty is “excited and nervous” to share this story about her hometown — the good, the bad and the ugly — but despite her fears, she is proud to have taken a risk. Like her protagonist, Simons Smythe, Gervais Hagerty is proof that some rules are made to be broken.
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