Society’s Favorite Rebel: Reviewing “A Well-Behaved Woman”

 

The year was 1874. Alva Smith’s once prominent Southern family was on the verge of collapse. Destitute from the Civil War, Alva’s mother was dead and her ill father didn’t have much time left—nor did his money. With slim options available to women of the era, that young girl’s desperation to save her family began the story of one of New York City’s most infamous society figures: Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt and later, Mrs. Oliver Belmont. 

Often remembered by history for her domineering society presence, shocking divorce, and daughter’s scandalous annulment, Alva’s side of the story is told through Therese Anne Fowler’s new page-turning novel, A Well-Behaved Woman (St. Martin’s Press). In the process, Fowler brings to light Mrs. Belmont’s contributions to the women’s suffrage movement, women’s divorce rights, and New York City architecture. 

At the same time, she unveils the dirty secrets of New York’s 400 and life under the reign of Mrs. Astor. With not much to offer aside from her family’s good name, Alva hooks William K. Vanderbilt with the promise of elevating his family’s social standing—scarred by their new money and Uncle Cornelius J. Vanderbilt’s reputation for gambling and debauchery. Unable to impress the city’s most powerful society matron on good behavior alone, Alva proposes that the Vanderbilts build extravagant mansions in the city to establish their prominence. She begins working with architect Richard Morris Hunt to build her own Petit Chateau on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, modeled after the architecture she fell in love with growing up in France. 

Alva Vanderbilt scandalized society when she filed for divorce from her adulterous husband in 1895, and paved the way for other prominent women to do the same when she was awarded in excess of $10 million, sole custody of her children, and several estates. Though the women of her time showed no appreciation, Alva’s bravery altered the course for wives in every economic class. She went on to found the Political Equality Association and leverage her substantial means to propel the women’s suffrage movement. When Alva Belmont passed away in 1933, a banner draped over her coffin read “Failure Is Impossible.” 

Folwer makes you root for Alva as she plots to outwit the indomitable Mrs. Astor, cringe as a motherless girl navigates her first night as a married woman, and mourn when a well-behaved woman is betrayed and humiliated by the man who possessed her unwavering devotion. Although conversation is imagined and some characters are rooted in fiction, A Well-Behaved Woman reframes history’s narrative and gives a new voice to a woman who refused to exist solely as an accessory to a prominent man of society.