Publication date: April 2021
Category: Biographical Historical Fiction
Review, short version: Three roses out of four.
Review, long version:
Shortly after I started reading Renée Rosen’s The Social Graces, I realized I needed to give myself a good, swift kick in the mindset.
“Ew, ick!” I’d been thinking.
“These women are SO trivial!”
And to my 21st-century eyes, they were.
So the mindset kick I required was to put myself back in the book’s time period, 1876-1908, and think about not just what these women were doing – but all the things women couldn’t do.
Back then, if a woman owned property when she married, the property became her husband’s. A married woman owned nothing, not the clothes she wore, the chair she sat on, or the glass she drank from. If she had children, they were her husband’s property. She couldn’t sign a contract. If she earned a wage, it belonged to her husband. A woman had only the money her husband chose to give to her.
It was almost unheard of for a married woman to pursue a divorce, and if she did, she was shunned by society forever. But for a married man, divorce was much easier and with little – if any – ostracizing. If a man divorced his wife, he got custody of the children – always.
A woman couldn’t get her own passport – it was issued jointly in her and her husband’s name. A woman couldn’t serve on a jury, or devise a will, or go shopping without an escort, and a woman couldn’t vote.
But a woman could be a leader of high society.
The leader of high society.
And that meant New York high society.
This female leader of New York high society could decide which people were worth knowing, which clothes worth wearing, which social customs worth practicing, which social events worth attending:
Enter one of the book’s female lead characters:
Caroline Astor (1830-1908):
Mrs. Astor was the undisputed leader of New York high society, and that society embraced her:
“Mrs. Astor says…Mrs. Astor thinks…Mrs. Astor wants…”
And Mrs. Astor remained the undisputed leader until we meet our other lead character:
Alva Vanderbilt (1853-1933):
Vanderbilt was born into wealth, her family lost everything, then she married wealth.
Astor was born into wealth and married wealth.
They were what today we’d call “socialites.”
Socialite: a person who is well-known in fashionable society and is fond of social activities and entertainment.
Astor was the leader of New York society.
Vanderbilt aimed to replace her.
If The Social Graces was simply a book about two rich women doing battle over who’s hosting the most expensive parties, wearing the most extravagant clothes and owning the most ostentatious houses – it wouldn’t have held my interest.
But this story is based on real people and real events, and I enjoy that, especially when the author takes it a step further and suggests their motivations and thoughts.
Astor and Vanderbilt’s motivations were complex. As were their thoughts, sometimes straying into the realm of wondering if all their machinations to stay #1 or become #1 were worth the time, effort and massive amounts of money:
“Life was so fleeting, so fragile, and in the grand scheme of things, what difference did it make if someone used the wrong fork, or served the wrong wine? …In the end – did any of this matter?”
Good insights, and an all-around…