Amanda Mackenzie Stuart has written a particularly good dual biography of Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, and her mother Alva Vanderbilt. In 1895, Alva famously coerced the eighteen year old Consuelo into a loveless marriage with the Duke of Marlborough, a thoroughly disagreeable man, who made little pretense of loving Consuelo, but did need her money.
Most people know of these two women as exemplars of the Golden age and as the most infamous example of a driven, social climbing mother pushing her reluctant daughter into an utterly miserable marriage just to get the prestige of an English title. All that is pretty much true, but fortunately there was a lot more to their lives. With considerable independence and initiative, they each stepped outside their gilded spheres and took action to help the needy and disenfranchised.
Alva Vanderbilt didn’t have a particularly easy life prior to marrying one of the grandsons of the Commodore, the founder of the great Vanderbilt fortune. Alva cared passionately and ferociously about many things, including social status and architecture — she commissioned several over-the-top palaces, including Newport’s Marble House. Alva didn’t waste a lot of time on personal reflection or considering other people’s perspectives. She knew what she wanted, and she went after it with a vengeance.
Unfortunately one of Alva’s greatest passions was the raising of her Consuelo, her eldest child and only daughter. Alva was convinced that a British husband with a title was the only acceptable fate for Consuelo, so she went out and got Consuelo a duke. When Consuelo timidly voiced objections, Alva ran over her like a steam roller.
Consequently, Consuelo ended up married to one of the most limited and mean-spirited men in England. Their marriage produced two sons, but Consuelo and the Duke were completely unsuited to each other and never got along. They separated and ultimately divorced, which was considered terribly scandalous at that time.
That Consuelo ultimately triumphed over her overbearing mother and boor of a husband and found her own way to be happy and useful was nothing short of miraculous. Equally interesting was Alva’s strong support for feminism and suffrage. At times Alva was like a bull in a china shop with her fellow feminists, but she nonetheless made important contributions, both financially and strategically. Consuelo shared many of her mother’s views but eschewed her hardball tactics.
Despite Consuelo’s disastrous coerced marriage, there was never a definitive break between mother and daughter. Alva never stopped trying to manipulate her daughter, but Consuelo learned how to manage her own life and deflect her mother’s attempts to control her. They ended up as neighbors in the South of France toward the end of Alva’s life.
This is a fine book about two fantastically wealthy women, who never forewent their privileges, but nonetheless became social activists and knew how to wield their wealth and power to improve the lives of others. In addition to the drama of their own lives, Alva and Consuelo lived in interesting times and knew a slew of the most famous men and women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is a great read, and you learn a lot of interesting American and British history along the way.