From Publishers Weekly
In 1875, the strong-willed Alva Smith married an heir to the Vanderbilt fortune in order to save her own family from further descent into genteel poverty. Twenty years later, she compelled her daughter Consuelo into a loveless marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough, in order to provide her with a career rather than an empty life. Mother's and daughter's remarkably similar trajectories through life—difficult first marriages, happy second ones, social leadership, arts patronage, a shift into activism—were shaped by the opportunities wealth offered and the calculated use of marriage as a business transaction in their class and era. In her first book, Stuart uses a remarkable breadth of sources to follow her subjects to Newport, R.I.; India; late Victorian and Edwardian England; the heart of the women's movement; and the south of France at the outbreak of WWII She tells a riveting story but keeps her distance from her subjects, not offering final judgment on Alva's coercion of her daughter or allowing emotion to intrude on the deaths of major characters. Still, Alva and Consuelo emerge as unique and fascinating characters, and the details of their lives and times make a very entertaining read.
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In 1895, on the eve of Consuelo Vanderbilt's marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough, the New York World published a concise reference chart: the bride, at eighteen years old, weighed a hundred and sixteen and a half pounds, had "delicately arched" eyebrows and a nose that was "rather slightly retroussé," and was heir to a twenty-five-million-dollar estate. She had no interest in the groom, but a British aristocrat, albeit a poor one, held irresistible appeal for Alva, her socially ambitious mother. Stuart's history marshals an impressive trove of primary documents, from newspaper accounts (the Times had a reporter assigned to cover bridesmaids) to letters and autobiographical writings. But her account, while impeccably researched, lacks psychological acumen. We learn that Consuelowho gave the Duke the descendants he needed, divorced, and remarriedis credited with coining the phrase "an heir and a spare," but it's hard to tell what it might have meant to her.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker