A Well-Behaved Woman: a novel of the Vanderbilts…
About the Book:
OUTSPOKEN. BRAVE. BRILLIANT. FIERCE.
Alva Smith, her Southern family destitute after the Civil War, married into one of America’s great Gilded Age dynasties: the newly wealthy but socially shunned Vanderbilts. Ignored by New York’s old-money circles and determined to win respect, she designed and built nine mansions, hosted grand balls, and arranged for her daughter to marry a duke. But Alva also defied convention for women of her time, asserting power within her marriage and becoming a leader in the women’s suffrage movement.
With a nod to Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, Therese Anne Fowler paints a glittering world of enormous wealth contrasted with desperate poverty, of social ambition and social scorn, of friendship and betrayal, and an unforgettable story of a remarkable woman.
GOOD BEHAVIOUR WILL ONLY GET A WOMAN SO FAR.
‘The wealthy have a responsibility to avoid decadence and corruption.’
A Well-Behaved Woman is the second novel in recent times that I’ve read covering the so-called ‘Gilded Age’ in America. This one was definitely the superior of the two, and in hindsight, I can’t help but ponder on the similarities between them. This one is based on the life of Alva Vanderbilt, while the other one was entirely fictitious, however that author did say it was inspired by well-known families of the Gilded Age, of which the Vanderbilts were one, so I’m thinking this is where the similarities have stemmed from. I have to say, I don’t think I need to read anymore novels set in the Gilded Age to sway my opinion that the ‘society set’ were the most ludicrous bunch of human beings to have ever existed.
‘A most ingenious lady costumed as Cat, with rows of white cats’ tails made into an overskirt, and an actual cat’s pelt – head and all – fashioned into a hat.’
‘All conversation ceased at the sight of the first group of eight dancers in the wide, arched doorway, done up as lords and ladies riding life-size hobbyhorses, each rider dressed in a red coat as if ready for the hunt. The horses had taken two months to construct. Covered in real horsehide, each one had big bright eyes and a horsehair mane and tail.’
Too much money being spent on outrageous (and as cited in the above quotes, at times inhumane) extravagance with only a very few of them devoting time and money to charity, improvement of public works and philanthropy. And the never-ending judgement and conceit; where did these ‘rules’ even come from, anyway? Therese Anne Fowler does a really great job at conveying the intricacies of New York ‘society’ and it was interesting how she framed Alva, a woman who knew she needed to be a part of it while still regarding it with a level of realistic disdain all the same.
‘A person might easily come to think that this ball, this house, Alva’s efforts to improve culture and to beautify New York, were only about Alva wanting to elevate herself, with the Vanderbilt family getting the secondary benefits of her rise. One might conclude that she’d put personal ambition above all else in order to feed an insatiable vanity. Well, let them, she thought. An intelligent woman in this world takes her chances where she finds them.’
I really did like Alva, from the beginning right through to the end. She’s not a woman I knew anything about before reading this novel but since doing so, I’m grateful to the author for her thorough and sympathetic account of Alva’s life. This is an entertaining novel, witty and smart, emotionally wrenching at times and highly captivating. I really had to drag myself away from it. Of late, this style of novel, biographical historical fiction, has become one of my favourites, particularly when it’s about the ‘forgotten’ achievements of women from the past. In her real life, Alva very much was a ‘well-behaved woman’, until the point where she realised that it had only gotten her so far. It was at this point that she really came into her own.
‘This life! What had she done, bringing a daughter into such a trap as every man laid for women like them? Good, dutiful women, women who could be counted on, who could be trusted. Even they could be horribly misused.’
Despite spending twenty years clawing her way to the top of society and working to maintain her status, I absolutely loved her for standing firm and divorcing her husband for adultery, for not accepting that she turn the other way, for showing her daughter, and other women, that being treated with respect within a marriage should be the rule, not the exception. For being smart enough to know that society, and indeed, even the economy, would not collapse just because women began to divorce their husbands.
‘I would like gentlemen to stop provoking in their wives the desire to divorce them! Perhaps that is the lesson our esteemed friends will take away from this parting of one of our ‘great men’ from so much of his money.’
My only disappointment with this novel comes from it finishing too soon with Alva. When we leave her, she is just beginning to assert her place on the women’s suffrage stage. The author note gives us details on Alva’s achievements: She formed her own women’s suffrage organisation, the Political Equality Association (PEA) and was one of just a few suffragists who deliberately encouraged and included African American women’s involvement in the fight for the vote. Alva’s association sponsored lectures on a variety of subjects, all aimed at educating women so that they could be empowered to make good choices for themselves and their children. It also operated a Department of Hygiene, wherein women took classes about health that included information on reproduction and contraception, which they could not get from most physicians in that era. They even sold devices for treating uterine prolapse, a common problem for women who’d had multiple pregnancies over a short span of time. She worked tirelessly in so many ways for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and beyond this, campaigning for equal rights. This is the sort of Alva I wanted to read more about, and I can’t help but wish in hindsight for a thinning down of the earlier parts focusing on the frivolity of society in preference of the addition of another part to the novel focusing solely on these later achievements. It just seemed like Alva’s story, her real story, was only just beginning at the end of the novel.
All in all, A Well-Behaved Woman is a fine novel and will please those who enjoy historical fiction, particularly biographical, and it provides plenty of incentive for further reading. Alva was certainly a daring and inspirational woman. As so often is proving the case as I read more and more about such women from history, they rarely got to spend enough time with their true soulmates.
‘Yet it was always there. An affinity. A kind of chemistry between us. The tether of gravity, I would say, no less powerful than the moon to the earth or the earth to the sun.’
Alva was no exception to this, but I guess a little bit of happily ever after is still better than none at all.
Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of A Well-Behaved Woman for review.
About the Author:
Therese Anne Fowler was born in Illinois and is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she earned a BA in sociology and an MFA in creative writing.
A Well-Behaved Woman
Published by Hachette Australia (Imprint – Two Roads)
Released on 30th October 2018