When the Vanderbilt name is spoken today, it generally conjures masculine associations of a wealthy powerhouse family that reigned during the Gilded Age. It’s roughly the same summary that would have been offered 100 years ago. But with “A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts,” North Carolina author Therese Anne Fowler broadens that narrow view by reframing the story through the eyes of a woman who married into the family and subsequently shattered long-established customs.
Born Alva Smith in Mobile, Ala., the 21-year-old woman was in a predicament in 1874. She was “ripened unpicked fruit rotting on the branch” with a dead mother, a dying father, three sisters and little money, thanks to her father’s handshake deals with undercutting cotton dealers and bad investments in the Confederacy. Although they had lost their fortune, the family had a “spotless ancestry,” and the name held clout. The pressure was on for Alva to marry well in order to live a satisfying and respectable life, but there were throngs of young ladies with the same directive — and “so many fewer gentleman to try for” since the Civil War.
Alva set her sights high. She didn’t just want to marry someone wealthy, she wanted someone with high status among New York’s notable names, such as the Astors, McAllisters and Carnegies. Status would afford her more control and protection from “being battered about by others’ whims and life’s caprices.” Today that dilemma may seem shallow, but this was a time when women were deemed legally and socially inferior to men. Women quite literally needed men for security, as they had little means of making money on their own, and Fowler never lets the storyline stray far without reminding readers of that reality.
With William K. Vanderbilt, Alva lands just the kind of strategic partnership she wanted. But just before their wedding ceremony, she ruminates: “Inside the chapel was an amiable but uninteresting gentleman who in a few minutes would, by the terms of God’s divine law and the laws of the country, own her. Whatever he believed was correct in regard to her keeping, he could enact.”
As a girl, Ava was taught to regard romantic love as “a frivolous emotion, certainly no basis for a marriage.” But her views change when she doesn’t grow to love William, or vice versa, over time. Still, she resolves to stay loyal to him — even after a man in their circle, Oliver Belmont, stimulates her mentally and confesses his love for her. And even after William begins to control her friendships, becomes increasingly dismissive and stays away from home for long periods of time. A woman initiating divorce at that time was uncommon and taboo. It was, essentially, social suicide.
The historical novel is the Fowler’s follow to “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” which sought to flesh out the woman who’d often been reduced to author F. Scott’s crazy wife in historical accounts. While researching her new book, Fowler found Alva’s reputation as an overly ambitious social climber had been similarly distorted. Fowler includes instances of truth to that portrayal — Alva’s flaws included some conniving, selfish tendencies — but she also provides context that helps explain the origins of those inclinations.
Early in their marriage, Alva proposes a plan to the Vanderbilts that would bolster their legacy and finally elevate “the family to its rightful place in society.” She suggests they use some of their unfathomably large fortunes to build beautiful mansions in New York. Then she coordinates with a famed architect to design many of the properties herself. (Her brother-in-law, George Vanderbilt, would build the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.) She also throws carefully planned grand balls for the elite and succeeds in climbing her way to head socialite. But inevitably, “contentment, she had learned, lay beyond money’s considerable reach.” That truism is reinforced when the source of her financial security, her husband, betrays her in a devastating manner.
An important theme that runs throughout the novel is revealed in the first scene, when a charity organizer asserts that people living in poverty are born inferior, while Alva and her sister argue that circumstance plays a role. Even after marrying one of America’s wealthiest men, Alva sees beggars as being “reduced by circumstances.” When the Vanderbilts pass the new Statue of Liberty on their massive yacht named after Alva, she tells her children that, “God made us equal and it’s man who creates the imbalances” — a sentiment that gets her reprimanded by William. Ever fearful of losing her security, she convinces William to sign over to her he title to one of their homes by arguing that should he die, she’d be “at the mercy of circumstances I can’t affect.”
Fowler’s goosebump-inducing account of how Alva turned the housewife role on its head is a well-timed and inspirational read. Women were supposed to be subservient and ignore their husbands’ infidelities, but Alva charted a new path. In her later years, Alva actively supported progressive politics and championed suffrage rights, working for the passage of the 19th Amendment — efforts that are mostly alluded to in the author’s note. Today, a women’s rights memorial in Washington, D.C. is partially named after Alva.
In the novel’s closing scene, Alva and her daughter are marching under the Women’s Social and Political Union banner in England, when the daughter questions whether such a protest was necessary, since women had been making progress. Alva counters that women had been working toward equality her entire life, with not enough to show for it. “Men only respect power,” she says. “So we must be powerful.”
by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s Press
392 pages, $27.99
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