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‘A Well-Be­haved Woman’ is a reimag­in­ing of the life of Amer­i­can so­cialite Alva Van­der­bilt, who pushed against 19th cen­tury con­ven­tions by di­vorc­ing and by pro­mot­ing women’s rights, says Josephine Fen­ton

Irish Examiner - Weekend - - Inside -

THERE is noth­ing bet­ter than a tale of gen­teel poverty, as demon­strated by all those Henry James and Edith Whar­ton nov­els. And Char­lotte Brontë’s iconic Jane Eyre is a fine ex­am­ple of the genre. With this fic­tion­alised bi­og­ra­phy, A Well-Be­haved Woman, Therese Anne Fowler fol­lows in au­gust foot­steps.

Im­pov­er­ished Alva Smith en­ters, and even­tu­ally drives, the North Amer­i­can Van­der­bilt dy­nasty, One of four sis­ters, Alva had a com­fort­able girl­hood, as a pupil and debu­tant, in Paris. Now, it is 1874 and in New York she is faced with the con­se­quences of her Con­fed­er­ate fa­ther’s loss of for­tune and her mother’s early death. Alva, as the most mar­riage­able of the young women, must save the day by se­cur­ing a rich hus­band.

Alva’s fam­ily goes back through four gen­er­a­tions of South­ern gen­tle­men, whereas her fi­ancé, William Van­der­bilt, is the first gen­tle­man in his fam­ily. His an­tecedents made money through farm­ing, steamships, and rail­roads, and his grand­fa­ther, the Com­modore, failed to build a man­sion in Man­hat­tan un­til 1846, so he is not among the ‘best New York Dutch, but a ‘Johnny-come­lately’.

It seems a match made in heaven. Alva con­trib­utes the breed­ing and William the cash. Alva com­forts her­self, although she is not in love, with the thought that, ‘at the very least, she would be a prom­i­nent, sec­ond-tier so­ci­ety ma­tron’. The Van­der­bilts ex­pect that Alva will be able to in­flu­ence so­ci­etal at­ti­tudes, so that they can avail them­selves of a box at the opera and in­vi­ta­tions to fash­ion­able balls. Fowler wrote a draft of A Well-Be­haved

Woman be­fore com­ing to an im­por­tant re­al­i­sa­tion. She didn’t like Alva. Then, in an in­spired mo­ment, Fowler en­vi­sioned her pro­tag­o­nist along­side Hil­lary Clin­ton. Alva, like the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, had been ‘char­ac­terised neg­a­tively, through a sex­ist lens’. What Fowler did next was to ap­pro­pri­ate some pos­i­tive ad­jec­tives; those usu­ally as­signed to men. Alva is ‘vi­sion­ary, in­tel­li­gent, de­ter­mined, strong’ and Fowler loves her.

In pre­vi­ous cen­turies, the plots of this genre gen­er­ally con­cluded with a wed­ding and the prom­ise of happy-ever-after in the vein of ‘Reader, I mar­ried him’. But in this more en­light­ened age, women — for even now most read­ers at­tracted by the ti­tle, the cover, and the re­views will be fe­male — ex­pect more. They want to wit­ness what hap­pened next.

How, as the 19th cen­tury evolved into the 20th, did this feisty woman in­vei­gle her­self into the top tier of el­e­gant New York so­ci­ety? Alva’s sis­ter-in-law, Alice, at­tempts her own as­sault on the up­per ech­e­lons, by merely tilt­ing ‘her nose up and go­ing about her busi­ness’. Alice con­sid­ers her­self a cut above and re­peat­edly ex­plains that she and other ladies dis­ap­prove of Alva be­cause of her black maid. Alva, who sees Mary as more of a sis­ter, protests that she is uniquely skilled, be­cause a French lady’s maid trained her.

When Alva com­plains, to Mary, that she is ‘tir­ing of this non­sense’, the black woman an­swers that her whole race is op­pressed and thus Alva’s prob­lems seem rather petty. The mis­tress of the house does not en­gage with this com­ment. Nev­er­the­less, Mary ad­vises ac­tion and de­ter­mi­na­tion, like the abo­li­tion­ists. Sadly, and in spite of her peer­less needle­work, it is not long be­fore the Van­der­bilt sib­lings dis­miss Mary and she re­turns to her for­mer po­si­tion with Alva’s sis­ters.

Alva works along­side a so­ci­ety fixer, Ward McAl­lis­ter, and, even­tu­ally, after more than seven years of ef­fort, Mrs As­tor, the ‘queen’ of New York, ac­knowl­edges Alva Van­der­bilt and vis­its her home. To achieve this, Alva has had to build an or­nate man­sion, hold a ball, and pro­vide ex­quis­ite fit­ments and fit­tings, along with del­i­ca­cies and wines. Her fi­nal strat­a­gem is to tempt As­tor’s daugh­ter into join­ing the dance group per­form­ing the open­ing quadrille of the evening. Alva and Caro­line As­tor are

never friends, but they ad­mire each other’s Machi­avel­lian at­tributes.

After some 200 pages, the reader might be grow­ing weary of the machi­na­tions of the cen­tral char­ac­ter. Is she go­ing to build an opera house, so that the Van­der­bilts can have their own box? Or can she per­suade the manag­ing com­mit­tee to al­lo­cate a box at the cur­rent the­atre?

But there are other ar­eas of in­ter­est, as the page num­bers veer to­wards 400. The Van­der­bilt for­tune mul­ti­plies, un­til Alva finds her­self with more dis­pos­able in­come than any other woman in the world, ex­cept her sis­ter-in-law and Queen Vic­to­ria. Does money bring hap­pi­ness? Alva is not en­tirely con­tent.

She knows that some men and women share sex­ual pas­sion and she and William do not. She has lain like a plank dur­ing the con­cep­tion of her three chil­dren. William, known as a play­boy, is away for long months at a time and Alva’s friends hint at in­fi­deli­ties. It seems that men can be­have badly with­out fac­ing any con­se­quences.

Alva’s rep­u­ta­tion, on the other hand, would not sur­vive any hint of an af­fair. She must main­tain it, if she is to lead New York so­ci­ety, give balls, and have a box at the opera. There is one man to whom she is at­tracted and she is en­cour- aged by her friend, the fu­ture Duchess of Manch­ester, Lady C, to take him as a lover. But Alva stands firm, ex­pe­ri­enc­ing eroti­cism only in her dreams.

Would it be pos­si­ble for those ‘shame­ful’ dreams to come true? A well-be­haved woman, such as Alva, has her chil­dren to con­sider, es­pe­cially her beau­ti­ful daugh­ter, an heiress, named Con­suelo after Lady C. Con­suelo is ed­u­cated. She knows four or five lan­guages, ge­og­ra­phy, his­tory and lit­er­a­ture. She is a fit mate for mi­nor Euro­pean roy­alty. But only if her rep­u­ta­tion and maid­en­hood re­main in­tact. Prince Fran­cis Joseph of Bul­garia pro­poses. But the un­sta­ble Balkans?

Ma­noeu­vring within the re­straints placed upon the sec­ond sex, Alva ar­ranges a match. Tak­ing ad­vice from the Vicere­ine of In­dia, she and her daugh­ter travel to Europe, where Con­suelo is dressed by Worth, in Paris, be­fore ‘com­ing out’ at the French court. Lon­don is next on the itin­er­ary.

In A Well-Be­haved Woman,

Fowler is at pains to paint an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of the life and times of Alva Van­der­bilt. At the same time, it is ob­vi­ous to her dear reader that par­al­lels can be drawn with roy­als of more re­cent times, such as Charles and Camilla.

There are also in­ter­est­ing in­sights into the way the me­dia cov­ers high so­ci­ety. William Van­der­bilt pays news­pa­per own­ers to sup­press sto­ries that he prefers kept pri­vate. When Ward McAl­lis­ter writes a book about how he helped peo­ple climb the so­cial lad­der, he is cut by his elite for­mer clients. Fi­nally, McAl­lis­ter and Alva rec­on­cile and he ex­pounds that so­ci­ety scorns the two of them be­cause they are both ex­cel­lent.

But Fowler shows that pa­tri­ar­chal stan­dards pre­vented even the rich­est and clever­est women from equal achieve­ment.

Nowa­days, that would not be the case. Or would it? Was Clin­ton de­feated by misog­yny? Can Trump get away with any­thing, like William Van­der­bilt? Words, words, words, as Ham­let said. Fowler is aware of their power, but some­times slips in her own us­age. No one in po­lite so­ci­ety would have split an in­fini­tive.

Such anachro­nisms are an­noy­ing for the pedant. But for those who are more for­giv­ing, this novel is like wal­low­ing in a jacuzzi: Re­lax­ing and re-in­vig­o­rat­ing. De­light­ful.

Alva Van­der­bilt, 1853-1933: The rich Amer­i­can so­cialite cam­paigned for women’s suf­frage.

Pic­ture: Dim­itrios Kam­bouris/Getty Im­ages

Therese Anne Fowler has fic­tion­alised the life of 19th cen­tury Amer­i­can so­cialite Alva Van­der­bilt.

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