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Review: A Well Behaved Woman, by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martins, 2018. 392 pp. $28

In 1874, Miss Alva Smith, Southern belle of good name but a lost cotton fortune, puts herself on the New York marriage market, much the way gambler with a limited stake visits a casino. She snags William K. Vanderbilt, who must be counted quite a catch, having more money than even he knows how to spend. But it’s not love or even physical attraction that motivates her, only the financial considerations that will save her three sisters, their invalid father, and herself from destitution, and William’s apparent liking for her. Bad idea, you say? Marry in haste, repent at leisure?

Alva Vanderbilt, duly attired for her costume ball in March 1883 (courtesy nyhistory.org via Wikimedia Commons)

Well, yes, and as a Vanderbilt, there’s plenty of leisure around, about two hundred pages’ worth, in this case. By that time, Alva has learned a thing or two about her husband and the high society she was so eager to join. The first lessons are brutal. William’s notion of sex is lift the nightgown, push hard, grunt, roll off, and return to his own room. The day their first child is born, he gives Alva an extravagantly expensive bauble “for her trouble,” and goes off to inspect champion horseflesh for purchase. After all, as he says, he has nothing better to do.

Alva shouldn’t be too surprised. As the impecunious Miss Smith pursuing William in the dining room of an upper-class watering hole, she senses that she herself might as well have been a horse:

The other marriageable girls were too lovely, all of them, those rose-milk complexions and hourglass waists and silks that gleamed like water in sunlight. The Greenbrier resort’s dining room was filled with such girls, there in the company of clever mothers whispering instructions on the most flattering angle for teacup and wrist, and sit straighter, smile brightly, glance coyly — lashes down. The young men, who were outnumbered three to one, wore crisp white collars and linen coats and watched and smiled and nodded like eager buyers at a Thoroughbred market.

Yet, as Fowler painstakingly reveals, the results of this successful husband hunting aren’t all bad. Alva enjoys many of the things William’s money buys — physical comfort, fine clothes and jewels, beautiful homes that she helps design (and for which she has a gift), protection from life’s hazards. The Gilded Age comes alive in these pages, with its shockingly conscienceless opulence while hunger and hardship stalk New York; the social cabals involving who can snub whom and feel righteous about it; and the assumption, embraced by both sexes, that women are ornaments, hearth warmers, and social arbiters but never, ever thinking, independent-minded people with their own inner lives or interests. I like how Fowler’s drawn the two major characters, and though I can’t say I like William, I do get that he feels a dynastic weight on his shoulders and acts accordingly. Unfortunately, others suffer from his self-inflicted wound, because he’s a man incapable of reflection or questioning his prerogatives.

You know that Alva’s different from her cohort, that within her lurks a social reformer, a sympathetic person, perhaps even a democrat, and the narrative implies that had the field been open to her, she could have trained as an architect. The first scene of A Well Behaved Woman shows Miss Smith touring a tenement with seven other upper-class ladies and displaying a singularly receptive, empathic reaction. I love this scene, and Fowler’s clever to introduce Alva that way. Two hundred pages is a long time to wait for consciousness, and the author is giving the reader something to hold onto during the interim.

But I’m not sure the tactic succeeds. I understand Fowler’s commitment to a slow burn, because Alva has been taught all her life that an outwardly brilliant marriage is all any woman could (or should) want. I agree that her inchoate dreams for wider horizons shouldn’t lead her in another direction too soon or too easily. Further, the payoff, when it finally comes, does satisfy, and Alva’s subsequent actions justify the author’s contention that this socialite was an ardent, practicing feminist.

That said, however, it’s another question whether you actually care about Alva’s intricate, time-consuming machinations to make Caroline Astor accept the Vanderbilts as social equals. No doubt it’s true to life, but, as Alva’s African-American maid gently suggests, there’s prejudice, and then there’s prejudice. Moreover, Fowler proves her case early on that William K. Vanderbilt, like other men of his class, is selfish, tyrannical, and completely deluded as to the relationship between wealth and character. Piling on the evidence adds nothing new.
Consequently, whether A Well Behaved Woman will please you depends on your patience for the Gilded Age and its sins. It’s a well-written book, and Alva’s a worthy character, but I wonder whether Fowler could have told her story more effectively.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.