Consuelo and Alva: Love and Power in the 'Gilded Age': Love, Power and Suffrage in the Gilded Age

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9780007127306: Consuelo and Alva: Love and Power in the 'Gilded Age': Love, Power and Suffrage in the Gilded Age

A fabulously wealthy New York beauty marries a cold-hearted British aristocrat at the behest of her Machiavellian mother – then leaves him to become a prominent Suffragette.

On November 6th,1895, crowds of curious sightseers gathered outside the Church of St Thomas on Fifth Avenue in New York.Those who had arrived early enough to peep inside the church saw that it had been decorated with thousands of white flowers at eye-watering expense. Even a casual reader of local newspapers would have known that the small, dapper bridegroom with his best man was a great English aristocrat. An audible shiver of schadenfreude went through the crowd at the arrival of the bride. She was twenty minutes late and anyone who caught a glimpse beneath her veil could see that her face was swollen with crying.

On the day Consuelo’s grandfather died he was the richest man in America; the Vanderbilt fortune stood at $200 million. Her father, Willie K, started to spend it, being the first generation of ‘social Vanderbilts’. In this he was enthusiastically assisted by Consuelo’s mother, a force of nature called Alva Erskine Smith, who was determined to take the family to the top of New York society. And like many other American plutocrats, a chronically underfunded English aristocrat was just the thing. It didn’t matter that Consuelo loved someone else; as Alva once told her, ‘I don’t ask you to think, I do the thinking, you do as you are told.’ But like many a woman before and since who has been coerced into marriage (paradoxically, her mother had divorced her father by the time Consuelo herself was making what many termed ‘the match of the century’), Consuelo threw herself into children and good works; Winston Churchill encouraged her to make her first public speech, and increasingly an interest in social and political matters became a way of dealing with loneliness, and this in turn added to the tension between the Marlboroughs. Sunny, the ninth Duke, with his own loveless childhood, was unable to provide kindness or understanding to his increasingly socially aware wife, who made no secret of the fact that she resented and frequently despised him.

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Review:

‘A dual life story that reads as pleasurably as the best fiction but with all the intelligence of a first-rate biography…completely absorbing.’ Amanda Foreman

• Amanda Mackenzie Stuart is a highly promotable, well-connected author.

• Will appeal to Edith Wharton fans (the story of the Vanderbilt children inspired her book The Buccaneers); also those who enjoyed Diana Souhami’s Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter.

• Massive review and feature coverage.

From the Author:

New York, Newport and Blenheim: Amanda Mackenzie Stuart talks to Sarah O’Reilly

Can you describe how you felt when you finished writing Consuelo and Alva?

I was delighted when I finished writing the first draft of the book, but immediately felt thoroughly ashamed of myself because it ended with Consuelo’s funeral. When I came to rewrite it for the final time, and reached her funeral again, I took myself by surprise by feeling quite unaccountably upset.

Did you find, when you were writing it, that you carried the characters around in your head when you weren’t at your desk?

Yes, I did – for the best part of four years. I often found that issues suddenly clarified when I was doing something different. But I did have some difficulty convincing my nearest and dearest that the best way to finish writing was by apparently doing nothing.

What difficulties did you encounter in writing a double biography?

The book started out as a single biography of Consuelo, until the case for making it a double biography became compelling. As things turned out, I found it easier to write about two people, perhaps because I do have a background in drama. It was more work of course, because I had to research two lives instead of one, and that meant the book took a good deal longer to write. But it only really came into focus when I realised that it was almost impossible to understand the story of Consuelo’s first marriage without understanding Alva too, and that both Alva’s anxieties and her dynamism made the story much more interesting.

Your subjects were the focus of intense scrutiny because of their fabulous wealth. Did the Vanderbilt riches act as a barrier when it came to your own imaginative and sympathetic link with your subjects?

I’m not a millionaire, sadly, so understanding such opulence did require an imaginative leap, but the way in which their possessions were catalogued and observed also made it easier to enter their world. It would have been a difficult book to write if I’d felt viscerally repelled by the Vanderbilt riches.
Because Consuelo and Alva were both so rich, there were very few barriers between what they wanted and getting it, so it was possible to approach the choices they made in architecture, clothes and entertainment as illuminating rather than repellent. In particular, they played out many of their attitudes and ideas through the houses they created. In some cases, the buildings that survive are of just as much interest as letters or diaries, particularly Marble House in Newport. In other cases, fragments that remain are just as intriguing – for example, scraps of the same fabric and boiserie appearing in Marble House and Blenheim, which raise questions about the Duke’s avowed rejection of American taste.
Stories, rumour and intrigue dogged Consuelo and Alva throughout their lives, with everybody from newspaper men to writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton intent upon building fictions around them. Did this hamper your ability to uncover the true story of their lives?

Obviously I had to tread carefully, but the abundance of this kind of material helped rather than hindered the quest for the truth. It was extremely useful that the American press was so undeferential and downright rude about society families like the Vanderbilts – gossip in the Gilded Age equivalent of today’s tabloid press often corroborated other sources. And Edith Wharton’s fascinating New York novels echoed Alva’s views about the position of society women in New York in the later part of the nineteenth century, which was helpful in a different way.

Biographers seem to divide between those who claim great intimacy with their subjects and those who are more dispassionate. Where would you place yourself on the scale?

I do think one has to be on one’s guard against being taken in by one’s subject, as well as those with a vested interest in portraying him or her in a particular light, but at the same time one has to balance that sensitivity with the need to see matters from the subject’s point of view, which demands a high degree of sympathetic engagement. Personally, I soon discovered that each of my main characters demanded a different balance between the two. Alva demanded intense engagement from everyone she met and I could still feel the force of it. But I also felt it was necessary to stand back and put her in context in order to understand her behaviour. It was almost the other way round with Consuelo. The historical context was much better known, but she was harder to read because she survived her upbringing by keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself. The challenge with Consuelo was getting to know her. When I did, she was highly likeable.

Both Consuelo and Alva wrote their own memoirs. Can you speak a little more about the selves that they projected in these works? And how conscious were you in your biography of presenting them in a light they would have approved of?

I felt no obligation whatsoever to present them in a light they would have approved of – quite the opposite! Like many people, I thought Consuelo’s memoirs were at their best when it came to describing the early part of her life in New York, Newport and Blenheim, and felt irritated by her saintly tone in other places. I’ve tried to show in the book that she wasn’t as saintly as all that – and all the more interesting for it. Alva’s memoirs, which were never published, were written after her conversion to feminism and are somewhat self-serving. In her case, the challenge was to decide whether what she said in her attempt at autobiography was simply an act of feminist self-fashioning, or self-serving but true.

In correspondence with their lives, the book shifts between periods spent in relative idleness and periods in which both women were extremely active in social affairs – which did you enjoy writing about more?

I found writing about the periods when they were active in social affairs more interesting, but I’m aware that not everyone shares that view.

Finally, was there anything that surprised you during your research? Anything that you hadn’t expected to find when you embarked upon the biography?

I knew very little about the campaign for women’s suffrage in the US when I started, and became fascinated by it. But the biggest surprise was Alva, without doubt. I’d no idea, when I started, that she would turn out to be such an intriguing mixture of monster and heroine.

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