Consuelo and Alva: love and power in the gilded age by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart

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The Independent Culture

This becomes a fatal flaw when Mackenzie Stuart starts issuing, by her tone and approach, invitations for you to weep at the awful fate of naive 18-year-old Consuelo Vanderbilt, married off in 1895 by her ambitious mother Alva to the cash-strapped Duke of Marlborough in a match that was more commercial transaction than fairy tale. Perhaps I'm just hard-hearted - or poor - but I felt a fleck of steel in the throat and decided to reserve my pity instead for the penniless retainers on Marlborough's Blenheim estate who were obliged to pull the happy couple's carriage by hand through the grounds.

It's that emotional edge that lets the book down, for elsewhere Mackenzie Stuart keeps her lengthy narrative going by holding up the two Vanderbilts' stories as representative of the fate of the "American heiress" in what she variously calls the "Golden" or the "Gilded Age". Such young women, who carried with them the newly acquired industrial fortunes of a suddenly thriving America (Consuelo Vanderbilt's grandfather had grown up on a derelict farm before starting the first ferry to Staten Island), had at the end of the 19th century only one career option - marriage. And they could find a husband by only two routes. One was to marry an American: "further consolidating vast fortunes, creating an aristocracy of money but effectively embracing the 'new'." And the other was to marry a European aristocrat - embracing the old, albeit at considerable cost to the family coffers but with, in theory, a sizeable pay-back in terms of the trappings of tradition, elegance and culture.

Since Consuelo's spirited mother, Alva Vanderbilt, had done the first, it seemed natural that she should want her more placid daughter to go for the second. So much so that when the young Consuelo tried to block her mother's plans and marry a New England gentleman for love, Alva feigned a heart attack in order to get her own way.

But as both Wharton and James chronicled, such transatlantic unions rarely brought enduring alliances. The Duke of Marlborough, a fierce and unattractive traditionalist who quickly used up the Vanderbilt millions to refurbish Blenheim, was so insensitive as to mistake his new wife's understandable reticence on their honeymoon for physical illness. His immediate reaction was to take out insurance on her life when a bunch of roses and a kind word might have sufficed. Hardly the stuff of romance.

Yet these marriages were presented as precisely that in the popular American press in its society columns. Alva Vanderbilt was an assiduous courter of the papers in her efforts to dazzle them with her money into forgetting the Vanderbilts' somewhat shabby and very recent roots, and so displace the Astors at the pinnacle of New York society. Her every new house, house party and domestic intrigue were slavered over in the papers which made of the names featured what we would today call celebrities. Consuelo's entry into the British aristocracy was her mother's greatest publicity coup. Huge crowds lined the route taken through New York by the bridal carriage and hordes pushed at the gates hoping to catch a glimpse of the wedding party.

Yet, as many have discovered subsequently, there is also a dark side to building yourself up through carefully stage-managed interviews and well-placed photo spreads. And so when Alva's marriage to William K Vanderbilt collapsed, she felt herself hounded by reporters and judged by her public. Likewise when Consuelo finally tired of her boorish husband and her "gilded cage" at Blenheim, their divorce was the talk of London and she was lucky to retain any contact with her two sons.

Perhaps it was the similarity in their experiences of men and marriage, or perhaps some shared genetic predisposition, but out of their individual and parallel tragedies mother and daughter managed ultimately to salvage some lasting good. Both became enthusiastic supporters of women's suffrage on their respective sides of the Atlantic, with Alva in the more radical camp of the Pankhursts. In the end, both women wanted to be valued, respected and useful for something other than their bank accounts and dowries.

Mackenzie Stuart tells their story of tragedy turned to triumph with a sure touch for that bigger social and moral picture. She might have told it rather more briefly - about 100 pages could have gone if she had cut out much of the endless and repetitive detail of the parties Alva and Consuelo arranged - but nevertheless she manages to convey the problem of being an American heiress, without ever quite persuading you that it was a pain.