At home with the Vanderbilts
British biographer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's first book characterizes the force and influence of motherhood in a literary double biography, Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age. Visiting Blenheim, the grandiose English seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, Stuart became intrigued by a docent's implication that the 9th Duchess, American-born heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, was a prisoner in her marriage, but that she got out in the end. Then, while exploring the nearby family burial ground, Stuart found an inscription on Consuelo's gravestone indicating that she had clearly remarried. So why had she come back? Perplexed, Stuart wondered if the innocent, 18-year- old Consuelo was forced into a loveless marriage. Rudimentary research revealed that Consuelo's strong-willed mother, Alva, though initially infamous for masterminding the most ambitious match of the Gilded Age, later became known for her powerful leadership in the international suffrage movement. Was this eventual social activism Alva's self-imposed penance for coercing her daughter to marry a virtual stranger?With alacrity and ingenuity, Stuart has probed two lives in a quest to understand the landscapes of one. Her mountainous research has been rendered into an empathic portrait of daughter and mother, social philanthropist and feminist respectively, amid the social and economic flagrancies of the Gilded Age and the eroding aristocratic culture of Britain's nobility. She opens with a suspenseful, fiction-like prologue chronicling Consuelo's wedding day: we observe curious crowds lining the route to New York's St. Thomas Church; we marvel at the opulent floral displays and watch Mrs. Astor escorted to her seat; we hear the strains of the wedding march. But we cannot yet see the bride, for she has not appeared. As the delay lengthened, the guests shuffled and whispered. . . . Five minutes passed . . . then ten . . . then twenty . . . The remaining reportorial narrative primarily follows the life of an American heiress-turned-duchess, but Consuelo and Alva also portrays the often desperately empty ways of 19th-century New York society and of the British aristocracy; the charged symbiosis between mothers and daughters; and the emerging movement for female liberation from suffocating social mores. It is a first-rate first-time effort.