Saturday, June 23, 2007

Introduction and Consuelo Vanderbilt

(This painting of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her family was kindly provided by Natasha Wallace of the John Singer Sargent virtual gallery:

I am a big fan of the glamour and elegance of the Edwardian era. The debutante balls, country-house parties, gorgous but over-the-top fashions - all of these sound wonderful! This era (which I am going to define as being between 1880 and 1910 although I know that's cheating) also saw the rise of socialism, feminism, and many other new ideas which makes it very interesting.

There was a huge introduction between the rich and the poor and the aristocracy in England was still very powerful. The working-classes led hard and difficult lives in bad conditions and were often malnourished.

I originally published this article under the pen-name, Viola Ashford, at Suite 101.
It is for sale at


It is the late nineteenth century in America. Four young, beautiful American girls, rejected by society's elite, because their fathers, although wealthy, are in trade, find it difficult to meet suitable young men. An English governess of two of these girls decides that if American society rejects them as brides, she will take them to England so that they can marry 'the cream of the cream' - English noblemen. Together with her old friend the governess toasts the young women, christening them 'the buccaneers'.
This is, of course, the theme of Edith Wharton's famous and exquisitely written novel, of the same name. She based her novel on a common phenomen in the late nineteenth century - American heiresses marrying English noblemen. One of these young women was Consuelo Vanderbilt.

Beautiful and incredibly wealthy, Consuelo was the granddaughter of the famous Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune, and the daughter of his son, William K. and Alva Smith Vanderbilt. A domineering, manipulative and avaricous woman, Alva had high hopes for her daughter, who had been called 'the most beautiful woman in the world'. One of the nouveaux-riche, rejected by the old monied families of New York society, and more particularly by Mrs. Caroline Astor, whose '400' were the chosen ones, Alva sought revenge. She knew that English aristocrats, suffering from the Agricultural Depression, were finding it difficult to run their estates, and looking across the sea, to American wealth. America, unlike England, was in an economic boom,caused by rapid industrialization. The easiest way to gain some of this money, was, of course, to marry it! After all, young English noblemen, in those days, did not want to have to earn a living!

Alva decided on a very ambitious match for her daughter, no less than the Duke of Marlborough, master of Blenheim Palace. Unfortunately Consuelo, eighteen years old, was in love with someone else, handsome and wealthy Winthrop Rutherfurd, the son of distinguished astronomer, Lewis Rutherford. He would have been an eminently suitable husband, but Alva would have none of it. When told about this by Consuelo, she had a terrible temper tantrum, and threatened to have a heart attack. She locked Consuelo, an obedient daughter, in her room, to prevent her sneaking out to meet him, and took her overseas to separate the young lovers.

In an ignominous exchange of money for title, Consuelo obeyed her mother's wishes, marrying the Duke,whom she hardly knew, in St.Thomas, New York, in an extravagant ceremony. She spent the morning crying. William also was too weak to argue with Alva - his contribution was to pay the Duke 50,000 shares of one of his railroad companies, worth $2.5m as a marriage settlement.

Consuelo became the chatelaine of Blenheim Palace. She was very unhappy, disliking her husband's superior and condescing attitude. His family also treated her coldly. She found the English women not as well-educated and much less independent than American women. However, she undertook the duties expected of her, attending bazaars and flower shows, visiting her tenants, and holding lavish entertainments. Consuelo separated from her husband in 1906 and lived in London, where she devoted herself to social welfare and women's suffrage. She did much to help women in sweated industries, drawing attention to their plight in a function she held. She let the members of Society invited think that they would be attending a lavish do. Imagine their surprise when they were called on to help achieve better conditions for these women! Due to Consuelo trade boards were opened to about eight more sweated industries, in order to see that minimum wages were paid.
She also ran a home to assist the wives of first offenders in prison, and became a member of the London County Council, for a working class area, from 1917 to 1919.

Her second marriage to French air force officer and aviation pioneer, Jacques Balsan, was very happy. She found living in France more congenial than England, but after the Second World War, they moved back to America. She was awarded the Legion of Honour for her charity work in France, which included founding a children's hospital in Paris, and taking the children to safety in the South of France, when war broke out.

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