What a marvelous story! Therese Anne Fowler who brought the fascinating life of Zelda Fitzgerald into the limelight with her previous novel Z: The Beginning of Everything has returned with the life story of another remarkable woman. This time around Fowler’s focus is on Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, an American socialite in the Gilded Age who is often reduced to a money-grubbing elitist – a one-dimensional portrayal of her life.
When Alva Smith was first introduced to William Kissam Vanderbilt by Consuelo Yznaga, Alva’s best friend, the Smiths were barely keeping their heads above water. During the Civil War, Alva’s father had invested in Southern banks, which destroyed the family’s wealth and forced Alva to make a suitable marriage to save her family from poverty. So the union between Alva and William was not an act of love, but rather a marriage of convenience. The Vanderbilts who made their fortune from railroad business were new money, and the New York’s old guard wasn’t about to accept the Vanderbilts into their circle. Thus, just like Alva was desperate to get her hands on Vanderbilt’s wealth, William was eager to marry Alva because of her lineage – Alva was distantly related to European royalty, and the Vanderbilts thought with Alva by their side, they would be able to sail into the New York’s high society!
But, of course, even with this marriage, Caroline Astor, the gatekeeper of New York elites wasn’t going to make it easy for the Vanderbilts. So Alva, who by then had given birth to future Vanderbilt heirs and heiresses, went to beat Astor at her own game by throwing a lavish ball of a lifetime which reportedly cost $3 million in 1883, and thus securing an elevated social position for her family.
Now I know this makes it sound like Alva was as frivolous as the rest of the socialites. But judging Alva too harshly merely by her extravagant lifestyle would be unfair to her. This was the way of life among high-class Knickerbockers, and Alva was playing a part – the part belonging to the wife of the second wealthiest man in the US.
Also, in many ways, Alva was different from other rich folks. When it came to philanthropic activities, Alva didn’t take the easy way out and just hand her money to agencies as others did. She made a genuine effort to help those in need by taking the time to visit the poor and ensuring they received what they needed. And unlike other socialite wives who were content with their place at their homes taking care of their families, Alva dared to undertake duties which fell outside the conventional wifely role. As a lover of architecture, Alva wanted the Vanderbilts to play a similar role to the Medicis in Florence by becoming patrons of art. So with the help of Richard Hunt, a prominent American architect of the nineteenth century, Alva built many mansions in her lifetime, including Beacon Towers which is said to have inspired Gatsby’s home in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Even if Alva’s knack for building houses hadn’t taken the Vanderbilts by surprise, what she did after finding out William, her husband of twenty years, had been unfaithful to her would have definitely shocked them. The norm among the wives of elites those days was to turn a blind eye whenever their husbands cheated, but Alva wasn’t having any of it! Alva didn’t hesitate to divorce William and go her own way, even though it made her a pariah. And given the time she lived in, what she did could have only been utterly inspiring to other women in similar spots.
A Well-Behaved Woman is a wonderful story of a woman who was way ahead of her time. Fowler dedicates a big chunk of this novel, which clocks roughly around 400 pages, to tell the story of Alva’s rise in society and her first marriage. But I wish Fowler had made this longer and delved deeper into Alva’s second marriage, and more importantly, her role in America’s suffragette movement. After the death of her second husband, Oliver Belmont, Alva dedicated her life to the suffrage cause. And unlike most of her fellow white suffragists who were ready to overlook the rights of African American women, Alva was a staunch supporter of equal rights advocating on behalf of marginalized groups. So if you are still looking to buy gifts for the feminists in your life in this holiday season, A Well-Behaved Woman and Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered are two books which are definitely worth checking out.
Moving on to the giveaway…
… the lovely people at St. Martin’s Press sent me an extra hardback copy of A Well-Behaved Woman. So if you would like to win this excellent historical novel, and if you are from the US (sorry international readers!), please leave a comment below. I will keep the giveaway open until 9 PM Eastern Time this Sunday (9 December) and draw a winner. Good luck! 🙂