A Well-Behaved Woman, Therese Anne Fowler, author; Barrie Kreinik, narrator
Alva Smith was raised during a tumultuous time of history. Raised in the south, her family moved north after the Civil War. Class and financial background were very important at that time, but an aristocratic heritage was even more so. Her mother had a fine family name, her father, Robert Desha was a politician, and Alva was well traveled and well educated. She was brought up with an exposure to culture and studied in Paris. She was entertained at court, and she visited the cities of the wealthy and upper classes in the United States and abroad. With the death of her mother, Phoebe Desha Smith, followed by the grave illness of her father, Murray Smith, their fortunes changed dramatically. The family was now in dire straits. With opportunity and fortune diminished, the sisters decided that Alva, the most eligible woman in the family, should try and find a well-to-do husband, with a good family name, who could rescue them from the penury to come if she didn’t succeed. Already, tongues wagged and socialites talked and mocked her behind her back.
Although she faced adversity, many times, Alva maintained her courage and demeanor regardless of the cruelty of her peers. The snobbism was palpable as the pinnacle of society was reached only through birthright and wealth and they were an entitled bunch who looked down on those not as well situated as they were. The doyennes of society were fickle and cruel as they doled out their criticisms and withdrew their approval of her, time and time again. Friendships were withdrawn, at will, based on even subtle changes in financial situations and reputations. Invitations to social gatherings ceased.
When Alma seduced William Vanderbilt, and they married, she was still not welcomed back into society with open arms. His fortune was acquired from his grandfather, through the Commodore’s work and investments and not from an aristocratic background, but still, her situation was vastly improved. Throughout her life, Alma actively worked to gain acceptance into social circles that had once been denied to her. When she and William became one of the wealthiest families in the world, some former rejecters actually sought to be in her company and to be invited to her parties. Mrs. Astor, the leading lady of society was one of them.
Alma and William went on to raise three children, William, Harold and Consuelo. Alma was a strict mother who raised her daughter in such a manner that she would never have to compromise, as she did, because of poverty. In those days, women had few rights and were totally dependent upon their husbands for support. They owned little and if they had a fortune, it was under the husband’s control. If Alma had not married well, all would have been lost for the family and they would have been reduced to working as lady’s maids or tutors, never living in luxury or enjoying finery again. It was for this reason that Alma set out to make sure her daughter, Consuelo, married not only well, but also to someone from abroad, who lived in a country where women were entitled to own property. She engineered the marriage of her daughter to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, ensuring her security henceforth.
Alma, was a force for social change and she supported the women’s suffrage movement for all, even Negroes, and she convinced the architects who built her residences to allow her to collaborate with them on projects, a task frowned upon for women. They were thought to be inferior in those and other matters of the mind. Her strong will and perseverant spirit propelled her to greater and greater challenges and successful endeavors. Even though she was often demanding and haughty, she enriched the lives of those with whom she interacted.
Alma struggled with questions of proper behavior, but she always seemed to make the advantageous choice. Although she had close male friends with whom she worked and traveled, she was never anything but a proper lady. Then, she discovered a dreadful secret. Her husband had not been a proper gentleman. She had been betrayed. Although her marriage was never one of passion or love, but more one of mutual respect, she was always loyal and believed he was too. When she discovered his infidelity, she demanded a divorce, and the high society, that she had coveted, shunned her once again. After some time, however, her social standing was rescued. She married Oliver Belmont and was welcomed back with open arms. Such was the fickle nature of the social classes of her day. Social crimes were unforgivable, until they were not.
After suffering another devastating loss, when William, a man she truly loved, suffered from a burst appendix and died, she became more deeply involved with women’s issues and endeavors. She worked to achieve suffrage for women, all women, even those of color. However, the women of high society were not as kind as she. The rights they desired for themselves, they were unwilling to grant to others. They were nothing, if not selfish and pompous. Even the pious held great prejudices toward Negroes and Jews.
Alma was a woman of strong character who always obeyed her instincts and never abandoned her principles. However, to protect the family name and the children’s future, she had generally conducted herself in a way to guarantee her status and not threaten her situation in any way. William’s infidelity changed that and changed the course of her life, as well. As a woman, she was expected to be a good wife, obeying her husband and forgiving him his dalliances. This would preserve her position and the family’s. Her marriage to Oliver Belmont opened her eyes to many new things. She no longer thought of herself as a plank. She became more interested, personally, in social causes, and she did not only engage her checkbook.
In conclusion, the book was well researched and well imagined. The reader, like me, I hope, will be enthralled with the prose, even when the story line seems to have gaps and goes a bit astray. The narrator was perfect. Every character had a different voice, and I felt that each one was perfectly interpreted. This listening experience was truly like a stage performance. The author took liberties with the history to emphasize her own beliefs about feminism, but many tidbits and interesting facts of the times were also revealed. The Negro maid, Mary, was created by the author to emphasize Alma’s interest in social welfare and social causes. The book was written about a time in which women had no power, but the author showed the evolution of Alva’s life, illustrating her unique strength and ability to wield power when necessary. She schemed when she had to, and she cajoled and batted her eyes when it served her needs. She was convinced of the fact that she was right when she argued for what she wanted, and she rarely backed down or capitulated, unless her reputation would be sullied or her family hurt in some way.
When the book ended, I wanted more. I wanted to know what Alma did with her life after she was widowed; how did her daughter, Consuelo, fare after her own divorce? What became of the relationship between Alma Belmont and Consuelo Yznaga, the catalyst for her divorce and the best friend for whom her daughter was named?
The novel was followed by an epilogue from the author, in which she explained how Alma’s life continued. I felt it should have been part of the actual book, unless a sequel is already planned. Also, I was not interested in her political views. She went on to explain that she had rewritten the book because of her political feelings about Hillary Clinton and other women’s issues. I was disappointed that she allowed her personal politics to influence the content of her novel and to deviate from the facts that were known. For me, her comments were a distraction, and the interview, as well, detracted from the quality of the book since it focused a good deal on the political rather than on Alma Vanderbilt. The times and social situation of Alma and Hillary are quite different and to let her personal views color the story so that she could make a political statement was disappointing to me. Social conscience is important, but so is accuracy and common sense. I felt almost as if she was denying, and alternately emphasizing, the advances that women had made, based on Hillary’s loss in her run for President.
I do enjoy the writing of Therese Fowler. It is lyrical and authentic for the time and the place of Alva Vanderbilt. As with her book “Z”, about Zelda Fitzgerald, this book completely captivates the readers by the time one finishes the novel, almost making them feel like voyeurs looking into the windows of the character’s hearts and minds. Alva truly becomes a part of our lives. A perfect stage is set, replete with the trappings of real life in Alva’s day, and the society women waltz across the page, sometimes setting a scene of haughtiness, sometimes behaving genteelly with impeccable manners and carriage. She has brought the past to life with characters that are true to themselves and a setting that feels completely authentic.