On the November 25th cover of The New York Times Magazine, Nancy Pelosi poses in a crisp coral pantsuit and matching heels. Her legs are crossed at the knee—shocking!—not the ankle beneath the quote, “No one gives you power. You have to take it from them.” Rewind about a century, to a drawing room of Gilded Age Manhattan. Pinky finger lifted from a bone china teacup; corseted, beruffled, millinered-to-the-heavens, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont makes an eerily similar remark: “Men only respect power. So we must be powerful.” The relationship of women to power has always been fraught.
Britt Tisdale: In a starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote of your new novel A Well-Behaved Woman, “Fowler’s engrossing successor to 2013’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, again showcases her genius for seeing beyond the myths of iconic women.” Many of us have an image of Zelda Fitzgerald, while less is known about Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. How did you come to her as a subject?
Therese Anne Fowler: Alva was at the end of a research trail that began with an article I came across detailing the famous 1934 custody battle waged for “little” Gloria Vanderbilt by her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, against her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. I was intrigued by the women and the scandal, and went looking for more information about the family. It turns out that where the family’s social standing is concerned, all roads lead back to young Alva Smith, who married into the family the year Gertrude was born. I quickly learned that Alva was a fascinating figure in her own right.
BT: Historically, Alva has a bad reputation. She’s known for being a materialistic social climber, flaunting her extreme wealth, and forcing her daughter into an advantageous marriage. Yet she also championed women’s suffrage, fought to include African American women in the movement, and helped found the National Woman’s Party. How do you reconcile these apparent inconsistencies?
TAF: That, in a nutshell, was the challenge. But as I came to understand, that bad reputation is largely unearned. Many people who were writing about her in her time labeled her critically because she dared to assert herself at a time when women were supposed to be content with “feminine” behaviors and pursuits.
Later judgments built on this mischaracterization and added to it, singling her out for criticism of actions that were in many cases common practices for people of her class and era. For example, she was merely one of many extremely wealthy people who “lived large” in the Gilded Age. The era earned that designation because excessive spending was ubiquitous within that class. There was no flaunting on Alva’s part, unless we conclude that all of her cohort flaunted—in which case she is no more to blame than the rest.
Once I recognized the mischaracterizations (late in the process, unfortunately), I was able to draw a character whose personality matched the evidence rather than the reputation.
BT: Do you think Alva’s “bad behavior” might have been interpreted differently if she’d been a man?
TAF: Absolutely. Where she was labeled “pushy,” a man would be called “ambitious” or “assertive.” A man is “a leader” but a woman is “bossy.” Where Alva “flaunted her wealth,” a man would be said to be “demonstrating his standing” or “enjoying the fruits of his labors” (even if he hadn’t labored at all). A man who protected his daughter from an unwise marriage despite her resistance and arranged a far better one for her would be lauded, while Alva has been demonized for doing just that. Her behavior was viewed through a prejudiced lens and represented accordingly, and then those judgments were repeated ad nauseam over the ensuing century.
This is not to say that she was some kind of saint; rather, she was simply a strong woman whose personality didn’t fit the feminine standard, and so she was punished by men as well as women for refusing to keep to her place.
Also: understanding context is crucial to understanding just about everything. The too-common facile assessments of Alva have done her a real disservice.
BT: In 2018, women’s options in life are still limited in comparison to men’s. How have the rules and expectations of society changed? How do they remain the same?
TAF: With the exception of some fundamentalist and/or evangelical sects, society is now in favor of women having formal education, having professions, operating in the spheres of what used to be a world entirely reserved for and run by men. However, research has shown that women still assume the greater burden of responsibility for running the domestic sphere, even when/if they work full time and have equivalent (or greater) earnings than their partners. And women are still keen to judge one another (not to mention themselves) for falling short of whatever the current standards may be—a practice we really, really need to cease.
BT: A Well-Behaved Woman is also a love story, but marriage was tricky in Gilded Age Manhattan. You write that a woman’s husband would “by the terms of God’s divine law and the laws of her country, own her . . . . If he grew displeased with her in any way, he could lock her up or send her away. He could beat her.” How were Alva’s choices shaped by this definition of marriage?
TAF: Every woman of the time, regardless of class, had her choices shaped by these laws and the other social strictures limiting how far unmarried women could go toward building a life independent of a man/marriage. What’s more, romantic love was considered to be little more than a frothy fantasy, reserved mainly for extramarital dalliances if it was indulged at all.
The upper class routinely practiced marriage-arrangement for their sons and daughters. Alva was brought up to expect a marriage of mutual advantage, and so when such an opportunity was arranged for her by her closest friend—at a time when her own family’s situation was desperate—she took it.
At the same time, she believed romantic love was both ideal and desirable, so for years she struggled with this tension between the practical and the ideal, making the “right” choices according to society’s rules and her family’s needs but yearning for a man she couldn’t have.
BT: Before her wedding night, Alva knew shockingly little about sex. She was advised to lie still as a plank during intercourse; if she showed any sign of enjoyment, her husband might question her virtue. These days, a sex tape leaked on the Internet can catapult a woman to celebrity. Has the pendulum swung too far from repression to exploitation? Is there an in-between?
TAF: Fortunately, most of us reside in that in-between. Also fortunate: we continue to create and shore up a more sex-positive culture that accepts females as the sexual humans men have always been permitted to be.
Exploitation has always been a problem, even in Alva’s time (though not in her circle, certainly). It continues to be. We need to keep educating ourselves and our daughters (and our sons and our partners), encouraging sexuality that empowers rather than degrades. It’s not a simple matter, but we can start with the recognition that female sexuality is no more wrong than male sexuality is, and go from there.
BT: With the #metoo movement and the recent testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the veracity of women’s stories is a hot topic. How does your book speak to this moment in history? What might Alva say?
TAF: In representing Alva’s experiences with her husband’s infidelity and the treatment she received when she chose not to accept it quietly (as was the practice) and to instead seek a divorce, A Well-Behaved Woman helps us see the broad view of what we’re dealing with culturally—how ingrained these misogynistic attitudes and practices are and what it takes to push back, so that eventually a woman’s account of wrongdoing will receive fair and even-handed assessment.
I think Alva would say (as would I) that the issue of veracity is foremost one of power—that is, who gets to have the final word. Truth is the least of it. Late in the book, I have Alva speaking with her daughter about the effort for women to be enfranchised. Alva says, “Men only respect power. So we must be powerful.”
BT: You revised A Well-Behaved Woman after the publication of Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happened. How did Sec. Clinton’s experience influence your understanding of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont?
TAF: Because I’d taken my research materials at face-value—which is to say I believed those prejudicial accounts of who Alva was—I crafted my representation of her accordingly. But when my literary agent weighed in on the finished draft, her response made it clear that although I’d done good work, something just wasn’t jibing. There was a dissonance, yet we couldn’t quite put a finger on the cause.
Meanwhile, I was reading a lot of coverage about Clinton’s memoir and observing how the media’s representation of her was so different from accounts given during the run-up to the ’16 presidential election by people who actually knew her and had worked with her over decades. I had a “eureka” moment: suppose Alva had been the victim of the same kinds of media mischaracterization?
I re-assessed the information I’d relied on, and reframed Alva using the adjectives and assessments we’d get if a man had done the things she’d done. Then I went through my manuscript and did a surgical revision of her character—without changing any of the story’s events. The dissonance disappeared, because now the character on the page matched the evidence of her life rather than her reputation. I wish I’d known sooner that I should be skeptical, that I should more carefully consider the motives of and influences on the various sources I’d relied on. Lesson learned!
BT: The novel’s epigraph is taken from Victorian era author George Eliot, who famously wrote under a male pseudonym: “A woman’s lot is made for her by the love she accepts.” How does Alva’s refusal of the status quo speak to women today?
TAF: Women today are in many ways under siege, bombarded by messages that are designed to induce us to see ourselves as in need of correction: we should be thinner, firmer, blonder, younger, more accomplished, better wives, better mothers, better decorators, better daughters, etc. We are so conditioned to feel diminished and in need of some product or some guidance or some procedure that when it comes to relationships, we enter into them from a position of inferiority. The result of that is, often, dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
Alva ultimately improved her own lot by rejecting her husband and embracing a partner who would be not only truer in the sense of physical fidelity but also a true love. She later she drew great satisfaction from doing work that improved the lives of countless other women, earning her another kind of true love (along with an important place in history). If women today can learn to recognize and refuse the status quo, to reject it as unhelpful and unhealthy, we’ll be able to make better choices sooner, and therefore be happier and more satisfied with ourselves and our lives. I think it’s a theory worth testing, don’t you?
THERESE ANNE FOWLER is the New York Times bestselling author of A Well-Behaved Woman and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. Her work is available in numerous languages worldwide. Z has been adapted as an original television series for Amazon Studios, starring Christina Ricci. A Well-Behaved Woman is in development with Sony Pictures Television. Therese earned a BA in sociology/cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing, both from NC State University. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and PEN America, she lives in Raleigh, NC, with her husband, author John Kessel.
BRITT TISDALE earned her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Seattle Pacific University, and her MA in Counseling form Reformed Theological Seminary. Her work has appeared in or been awarded by Bellingham Review, Sonora Review, Ruminate, Rock & Sling online, Leadership, Group, and Pleiades (forthcoming). She has just finished a first novel titled A History of Indecent Behavior. Britt lives in downtown Orlando, Fla., with her husband Bill and two teenaged children. Connect with her online at BrittTisdale.com.