I was fortunate enough to visit Blenheim Palace earlier this spring. A few years ago, I read a book about Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt. When visiting the palace, I was intrigued again (I don’t think re-intrigued is a word), by the young American woman who brought so much money to the Palace as her wedding portion. Seeing the Palace in person, and comparing to the photographs and the images in my mind, was almost overwhelming. I loved my visit there and bought the book The Glitter and the Gold – written by Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan while there. It was written earlier than the book I had already read, so I decided to write reviews about both books as they cover the same content but from different perspectives.
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The story of a daughter and a mother in the gilded age
Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
2007, Harper Perennial
I was drawn to the Stuart book by curiosity and came away with a great deal of historical information concerning the woman’s suffrage movement. Both Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt were avid supporters of the National Woman’s Party. At first, it seemed odd to me that two of the wealthiest women in the world would involve themselves so thoroughly with women outside of their own social status. The book prompted me to further research the women’s movement in America and in England.
While I enjoyed the factual and historical narrative of the Vanderbilt’s, I found myself siding with Consuelo over the constant manipulation by her mother. While Consuelo seemed to lack a spine in some instances, she did manage to see outside of her gilded cage. This was apparent from the beginning of her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough when she felt trapped in opulence while others were starving. She could see that her mother had sold her to the highest bidder and now at 18 years of age she had been traded from one prison to another.
The photographs included within the book show the extent of the lifestyles of the fabulously wealthy and yet both women felt constrained by the rules of society in which they lived. Alva could hire the most expensive architect to create an opulent mansion but she could not vote. Alva’s involvement with the suffrage movement became more radical with time, while Consuelo focused on humanitarian purposes rather than radical feminism.
Most young girls dream of being fabulously wealthy and becoming a fairy princess but taking a closer look will definitely show that wealth and status are not always what it appears. By the end of the book, I felt compassion for both Alva and Consuelo in different ways. One was a toughened scrabbler – taking everything she could get her hands on – and yet there were no passages indicating that she was ever very happy or satisfied. The other appeared weak and spineless and yet, in the end, she chose the life she wished to live and seemed happy in doing so.
Overall, this is a good read and well documented. It does not read as a story but rather a documentary of facts about the lives of two fascinating women.
The Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess – in her own words
Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
2011, Hodder & Staughton (first published in the UK 1973)
I bought this book during a visit to Blenheim Palace. I wanted to read Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s perspective on her own life. When first published, The Glitter and the Gold, was not well received. Many said that Consuelo tried to please too many people and did not write in the strictest of truth, but hedged often. Others said that her treatment of the Duke of Marlborough was in bad taste. Research suggests that many writers had an influence on the eventual publication of this book.
Taken alone, The Glitter and the Gold, is a fascinating look at a very wealthy young woman who basically had no choices in her life. She was manipulated by her mother in her young years and then later “sold” to her husband, The Duke of Marlborough. Her money saved the magnificent Blenheim Palace or at least help to restore it to some portion of former glory. But throughout the book, the reader gets the idea that Consuelo sees herself as so much more than a wealthy pawn.
She is brutally honest about living in the upper English Society as a Duchess and the manner in which her mother struggled to get her in that position. One can’t help but feel compassion for her life of strict education and limited (controlled) exposure to others. As such, Consuelo faced the world with ideas of her own which could only surface as she matured and left the confines of others. She was intensely interested in helping women and children and supported many causes which focused on helping others.
In reading the book, one becomes convinced that Consuelo Vanderbilt was a very nice person who was interested in those outside of her social realm. She was highly educated and extremely curious to learn new things. Whether the book was written entirely by her or through suggestions given by others, Consuelo’s triumph from sheltered rich girl to wealthy philanthropist is a journey that is well worth reading.
Overall, the book jumps around some but is an interesting commentary, discussing people, places and things that most of us can only read about in history books. This gives the book an allure that is different from that of a fictionalized account.