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