As deceiving as this title may be, Alva Vanderbilt was anything but a well-behaved woman. As a pioneering suffragette, Alva shifted the definition of womanhood and motherhood in her later years. But in her youth, Alva saved her family from being destitute by marrying a Vanderbilt, a ‘new money’ man. The Vanderbilts took on the grace of Alva’s heritage as a southern Smith and Alva took on their enormous wealth. It was a union of survival, by both parties in some way. It was a courteous marriage, or so Alva thought.
The story of her life is the harsh discovery of what lies behind social graces. The emotions behind what we show, the moments in relationships that aren’t shared, the darkness behind the happy. It’s a struggle we all know pretty well. Perhaps even more in this day-and-age, when we’re so consumed with how we present ourselves in the world and online. Perhaps that’s why Alva’s story is timeless in a way. Perhaps that’s why it was such a fitting read for this summer. As Alva is marching and sacrificing herself to the knives of the media and gossip for the right to vote, for her own daughter’s independence, for herself, women are once again in arms for the right to their own autonomy. While Alva’s story is nearly a century old, too many of the elements have yet to start to age.
Perhaps it takes looking back to see a way forward. And Therese Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman is the most enchanting and accurate way to do such. I learned that after reading this story, another work on Alva’s daughter, Consuelo, which I read a few years ago, was actually inaccurate in its portrayal of Alva as a mother. That text used a legal transcript from a court proceeding in England in which Alva testified that she forced her daughter to marry a Churchill against her will in order for her request for a divorce to go through. This however, and the details offered within the litigation, was not true. Alva lied in court, blemished her own identity as a mother, to ensure that her daughter was freed from her own marriage. However, while Consuelo admits this was a deception perpetrated by the both of them to allow the divorce, time has forgotten the lies. And in many ways Alva’s reputation has been distorted by this. Fowler’s work is a step in repairing the legend that is Alva Smith.