For years, I thought Gilded Age New York socialite Alva Vanderbilt’s ferocious ambition was only rivaled by Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice as the most grasping, husband-hunting mother imaginable, however my assumptions have been proved totally unfounded in A Well-Behaved Woman, a new bio-fic by Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.
Applying her skill at thorough, in-depth historical research and thought provoking fictional characterization Fowler has re-imagined Alva in my mind.
Alva Erskin Smith was born in 1853 into a privileged but impoverished southern aristocratic family. Educated in France, her mother died young and her father, also gravely ill, returns with his children to New York City in hopes of reconnecting with family and friends. One of his daughters must marry well to save their starving family. Alva sets her sights on the Vanderbilt clan, industrial tycoons who are new money to the standards of New York’s social elite. William Kissam Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, was soon her best bet. Like many challenges in her life, those in her radar are soon overtaken, and they marry in 1875. Their union would be the social event of the season, and help improve the Vanderbilts social standing.
As we watch Alva pull the Vanderbilts up the steep social ladder of New York in the Gilded Age, a fascinating story emerges revealing her many talents. With the Vanderbilt money behind her, she builds mansions, has three children, heads up charitable organizations and throws lavish parties. Her drive to raise the Vanderbilt’s social standing culminates in her obsession with her daughter Consuelo’s marriage to an English lord. History has not been kind to Alva on that front preferring to only remember the scandalous divorce that ensued, but there is much of her life that warrants the well-behaved woman that the title of this book teasingly professes.
Eleanor Roosevelt (who ironically is in the book) is often credited as the author of this quote that may have inspired the title of the novel:
Well-behaved women seldom make history.
I think the author is having a bit of fun here. Alva, while working within the confines of social stricture, eventually was known as someone who “bucked” the system and worked for change during the Suffragette movement. Most of society would not have said she was a well-behaved woman of her generation!
Awash in the decadence of an era in American history that created industrial tycoons and the women behind them, a Well-Behaved Woman is a well-deserved rediscovery of the life of a fascinating woman retold with sensitivity and spirit. Brava!
5 out of 5 Stars
A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts, by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s Press (2018)
Hardcover, audio recording & eBook (400) pages