I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan was my hypothetical first historical fiction subject, and before I went anywhere I thought I’d best read what she herself wrote about her life. After all, there are only gaps to fill if the actual woman herself didn’t write about every last detail, and the best source for someone’s life is themselves. Luckily, I found lots of gaps to fill, but I also was pleased to discover that Consuelo is as fascinating as I’d hoped.
Married off at just eighteen to the duke of Marlborough, Consuelo left everything she knew behind to join the British aristocracy – her American money funding the upkeep of Blenheim Palace and the lifestyle of the wealthy. In exchange, however, Consuelo was desperately unhappy, as her mother had forced her to leave behind the man she loved in order to make her daughter a duchess. A fascinating account of turn-of-the-century life, Consuelo’s struggle to find the happiness she deserved is inspiring and well-worth reading.
While there are certainly emotional gaps here – the author shares very very little about either of her marriages, surely topics she didn’t really want to share, nor does she discuss her children – this is a full picture of a life. Consuelo makes reference to the many famous people she met and hosted, some which are recognizable and others which are not, and gives us a really full account of life that people of her social class lived at the time. The first part of the book, when she is forced to leave New York even though she has an agreement with a certain Mr. X, is by far the most moving and interesting – afterwards she gets swept up in a social swirl and there is much less drama mentioned. I suspect she didn’t want to dwell on an unhappy marriage, so instead moves smoothly past to a world in which she has more control, even if it’s a bit less interesting.
One of my favorite aspects of this book, as with many others set around this time, is the fact that it’s set in an essentially dying world. After World War I, English aristocracy starts to crumble apart, and World War II changed Europe forever. Consuelo lived through both of these and it’s just fascinating to read about the divide in time. Cultures are eternally in flux, but those moments which we can later pick out as defining – a before and an after – are always those which make for the best reading. That is certainly the case here; the book ends just at the start of World War II, so we’re witnessing many changes.
As I expected, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan was a fascinating woman, and her story – so aptly titled The Glitter and the Gold – is one which should certainly be read more widely. Highly recommended.
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