Does a novel about a historical figure who specialized in arranging advantageous marriages, including her own, strike you as plutocrat porn? Not to worry: Therese Anne Fowler’s “A Well-Behaved Woman” eschews the “Dynasty” approach in favor of a gimlet-eyed look at the vacuity and hypocrisy of life among the 400.
The 400, you may recall, were the cream of American Gilded Age society; the number having been arrived at by estimating how many revelers could fit into the Manhattan ballroom of that society’s doyenne, Mrs. Williams Backhouse Astor Jr. — the Mrs. Astor. Her gatekeeper was Ward McAllister, who like Fowler’s well-behaved protagonist, Alva Smith (1853-1933), came from the South and married well.
Alva’s catch is William Vanderbilt, a grandson of the Commodore, upon whose death William becomes one of the world’s richest men. His wealth is a godsend not just for Alva, but for her whole blue-blooded family, who were in such dire straits as to be getting by on two skimpy meals a day. In return, Alva will put her connections and intelligence to use in raising the nouveau-riche Vanderbilts’ social standing.
How Alva and Ward devise a plan and bring it off makes for one of the novel’s most entertaining episodes. The first step is to get the newlyweds invited to an Astor ball. This comes to pass, but the grande dame refuses to notice the couple when they arrive. Nonetheless, Ward assures his co-conspirator that they’ve made progress — “this is an incursion.” The clever scheming by which Alva eventually triumphs as “the supreme hostess of New York, the lady who brought Mrs. Astor to heel,” should be left for the reader to discover.
The supreme hostess, however, is less than supremely happy. William turns out to be a generous, decorative, sporty, empty-headed, furtively unfaithful playboy. Alva manages to overlook his faults until her dearest friend, Consuelo Yznaga (after whom Alva and William have named their only daughter), writes her a remorseful letter: Consuelo and William have been carrying on behind Alva’s back for years. This hurts all the more because Alva has long harbored, but never acted upon, a crush on another rich man, Oliver Belmont (of the Belmont Stakes clan), who has just about everything William lacks, notably brains, charm and ambition.
Regarding Oliver, Alva is a bit dense, denser, in fact, than Fowler has generally made her out to be. How could such a close reader of social cues not sense that Oliver, whom she runs into frequently, has a crush of his own — on her?
At any rate, Alva makes up her mind to seek a divorce, something that women of her class — or any class, for that matter — rarely do at the time. William urges her to behave as a wife should: forgive him and pretend that all is well. She refuses. The couple’s protracted debate over whether she can cause such a scandal without inflicting severe damage on herself and their children makes for high drama. Alva not only sticks to her guns but to protect her old friend Consuelo, she forces William to supply grounds for the divorce by faking an affair with a different woman, who is well-paid for her trouble.
After some initial setbacks, Alva rallies to hang on to her high place. Not so fortunate is her old friend Ward McAllister. Like Truman Capote in the 1960s, Ward commits the egregious error of writing an insider’s book about the upper crust. His “Society as I Have Found It” is a memoir, and Capote’s unfinished “Answered Prayers” is fiction, but each writer suffers the same punishment: ostracism by the crowd he betrayed.
Fowler closes out her narrative just as Alva’s life is entering its final phase, when she has lent her prestige and given a big chunk of her money to the cause of women’s suffrage. By then — the first two decades of the 20th century — Alva was in her 60s and 70s, and the actual campaigning fell to younger women, especially the American Gandhi, Alice Paul. But Alva’s support was both vital and controversial, suffragettes, as they were called, being no more reputable than divorcees. (To learn more about Alice and Alva’s teamwork, visit the old headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, now the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, on Capitol Hill.)
Fowler, who lives in North Carolina, has now written two novels with Tar Heel ties. Her first, “Z,” was about Zelda Fitzgerald, who spent her last years in an Asheville mental institution. And making a few walk-ons in “A Well-Behaved Woman” is William Vanderbilt’s brother George, who poured most of his share of the family fortune into Biltmore, the ultimate Gilded Age pile, also located in Asheville.
In writing both books, Fowler has noted, she started out not liking the main “character.” And each time, she discovered, “the evidence didn’t match the reputation.” Fowler’s Alva is tough, cagey and unwilling to settle for the role of high-society ornament — what’s not to like?
Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, lives in Asheville, N.C.
By Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s. 400 pp. $27.99.