Thought provoking examination of an extraordinary life - A Well-Behaved Woman: a novel of the Vanderbilts

The Irish Times
By Helen Cullen

This portrait of Alva Vanderbilt is a treat for anyone interested in New York’s glorious Gilded Age.

“Well behaved women seldom make history” – the popular feminist slogan, coined by respected historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich no doubt inspired the title of Therese Anne Fowler’s second foray into biographical historical fiction.

This intimate portrait of Alva Vanderbilt, the powerful socialite of New York’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century, certainly supports the theory. By modern standards, Vanderbilt’s behaviour was impeccable, despite the personal and societal challenges she faced. At the time, however, she was often considered scandalous and vilified for her feminist, antagonistic views and a staunch independence that unsettled the status quo.

Fowler, also a self-proclaimed modern feminist, has established her modus operandi to be the restoration of the reputations of legendary American women whose legacies have become warped by media and myth. Zelda Fitzgerald, her first subject, was beautifully and powerfully drawn in the international bestselling,Z, a novel that crackled with energy as she raised Fitzgerald above her diminished reputation as just F Scott Fitzgerald’s mentally ill flapper wife.

A Well Behaved Woman is a less fiery affair than Z, but no less important in its political deconstruction of Vanderbilt’s narrative. We meet Alva Smith at a moment of crisis where she hovers at the brink of poverty with only her respectable lineage offering hope of salvation. A calculated union with William Vanderbilt, one of the nouveau riche who cannot enter the upper echelons of society despite his family fortune, rescues Alva and her sisters from destitution. Still excluded by the New York establishment, Alva utilises the Vanderbilt millions to strategically navigate the family into a position of power and influence through philanthropy, the puppeteering of grand balls and changing the architectural landscape of New York with the design and construction of mansions akin to nothing before seen in the city. Such is her resolve that when the family are refused a box seat at the Academy of Music, she founded the Metropolitan Opera House.

As a consequence of Alva’s manoeuvring through society, she became the driving force in establishing the Vanderbilts as of the most influential dynasties of the age. Fowler explains that she was motivated to tell Alva’s story out of frustration for how often notable women are reduced to “little more than sensationalised sound bites”; the heroine of this story is often portrayed elsewhere as an aggressive social climber who was motivated purely by power and social dominance. Fowler is determined to reset that balance with this work, and in the most part, she is successful in her mission. We receive a thorough understanding of the cultural and political environment in which the woman was operating and the complex context for the decisions she made.

Missed opportunity

It is a shame, however, that the narrative devotes such considerable time to Alva’s beginnings, her rise to power and first marriage to William Vanderbilt, as opposed to the enormous impact she had on the American suffrage movement in her later years. In fact, the novel ends just as Alva is embracing the idea of how she could invigorate the women’s movement in America, with Fowler offering just an author’s note at the end to summarise Alva’s achievements in that arena. When we understand Fowler’s ambition for the novel; the reclaiming of the narrative for Alva as a powerful woman, who yielded her influence for great positive social activism, it is difficult to understand that editorial choice. Not only was Alva a formidable force in the women’s movement, she was also one of the few suffragettes who fought for the inclusion of African-American women in the cause, at a time when America was still crippled with racial discrimination. Fowler herself explains in her note how Alva’s commitment to the suffrage cause is often overlooked in discussions regarding her legacy and yet in her own novel it is also a postscript rather a major chapter. It seems a missed opportunity. Where Fowler is successful, however, is in the seeding throughout the novel of Alva’s feminist instincts and determination so that her ultimate success as a leading suffragette crusader in later years seems inevitable and entirely satisfactory.

For anyone interested in American social politics, New York’s glorious Gilded Age and the private machinations of the city’s cultural elite, this novel is a treat. Fowler’s attention to period detail is both mesmerising and delicately drawn and the cast of recognisable characters such as the Astors, the Mandevilles and those from the British aristocracy are intriguing. The novel offers an unsentimental, thought provoking and nuanced examination of an extraordinary life during a time where women were grossly undervalued and oppressed. Alva demanded and achieved more, altering the course of women’s lives in unprecedented ways. Fowler has articulated her narrative in an utterly fascinating account of gender politics that still bears a deep resonance today. Alva’s story has been resurrected and made newly unforgettable.

Therese Anne Fowler
Fiction