Consuelo and Alva: A Review

October 31, 2018 |  Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Consuelo and Alva: A Review

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 If you were to either read a book or watch a TV show taking place in the late 1800s or early 1900s, chances are good that you’ll run into certain themes: Opulent mansions, great families and greater fortunes, and the glamor of a bygone era. If this rings a bell, it’s hardly surprising. We as a society have an obsession with the grandeur of this time period (appropriately known as the ‘Gilded Age’), and this is reflected in the media that we consume. Just as the name would suggest though, all that glittered was not gold in the Gilded Age, and the lives of the people in this time were just as complicated as any today. 

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 One of the best stories that shows this is the history of Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt, a mother and daughter from the prominent Vanderbilt family. The story of Consuelo’s upbringing and marriage has actually gained a fair bit of notoriety over the years, even gaining an episode in the Smithsonian Channel’s series “Million Dollar American Princesses.” As the heiress to the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family, Consuelo was trained by her mother Alva to be the prime example of a high society woman; Alva kept her daughter under a strict regiment growing up, even infamously forcing her to wear a makeshift back brace to ensure that Consuelo had perfect posture. In 1895, Consuelo was forced into a marriage arranged to the Duke of Marlborough by her mother. Seeking a prominent husband for her daughter, Alva found the duke, who had a lofty title and family history, and more importantly was in serious need of money. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s socially advantageous but loveless marriage became the icon of the “cash for class” marriages that were common among wealthy Americans. 

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In the biography “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: the Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age” by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, Consuelo and Alva come to life as a truly believable pair of women. Although the book starts with the dramatic details of Consuelo’s wedding (which was appropriately extravagant), Stuart takes the time to examine lives of the two women, beginning at Alva’s childhood in the Antebellum South and ending with Consuelo’s death in 1964. 

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 As the book follows through the events of their lives, it takes the time to explore Alva and Consuelo’s mental states and motivations. Alva proves to be a much more complicated character than one might think: despite giving the air of an imposing socialite, Alva is shown to be frustrated with the limitations placed on women in this time. It’s implied that Consuelo’s marriage may have been at least partially motivated by an attempt of Alva’s to put her daughter in a position where she could exert some control over her life. Consuelo meanwhile deals with her own issues of finding fulfillment in her new life as a duchess, and the realization of her own conflicts with the rigid class structure of aristocratic society. As they work their way into the 20th Century, both women grow and change significantly; Alva eventually finds her calling as a suffragette and devotes her life to the cause, and Consuelo finds meaning in various charity projects and through her own agency eventually divorces the duke. 

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 While Amanda Mackenzie Stuart is not a professional historian (she is in fact a screenwriter by trade) she takes all of the due diligence when researching a historical topic. The book  is filled with references to primary sources, and Stuart takes an even tone while writing about the women. At the end, the book even includes a section on further reading about other high society women in the time period. In closing, while “Consuelo and Alva” is generally focused on the two titular characters, it is more than just an individual case of grandeur and tragedy in a bygone time: it is a look at the emergence of modern society, seen through the views of two women shaped and empowered by their circumstances


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