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Postcard Ten - Oxford University

Last night when I uploaded my daily mileage I found I had passed through Oxford and of course, the postcard was sent was from the university. I visited Oxford a number of years ago when my eldest son was doing a project on the Victorians and we took him on a tour of hundreds (at least it felt like that) of places associated with the Victorians. We visited Oxford because his project had a section on literature and he was writing a little piece on Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. Walking around the college dining hall was fascinating and seeing all the little details that had inspired the different elements of the Alice books was inspiring for me.

However, on this particular journey through the county, it's not the university that I've been interested in, but another spectacular building about ten miles north of the city. Blenheim Palace was built between 1705 and 1722 and is home to the Dukes of Marlborough. The history of both the building and the family is fascinating and the theme of being highly in favour with the Monarch followed by a spectacular fall from grace is one that is repeated through the centuries (the Aylesford affair is less well-known than Sarah Churchill's falling out with Queen Anne, thanks to the recent film, but is just as interesting in my opinion).

Despite their title, it is not the Dukes, but another of the house's famous residents who I want to focus on in this post. Consuelo Vandebilt married the 9th Duke in 1892 and was so distraught at the thought of the marriage that she was half an hour late arriving at the church because they had been trying to disguise the fact she had spent all morning weeping. Daughter of an incredibly wealthy American, Consuelo's marriage - loveless on both sides - was arranged by her mother who wanted an entrée into the highest society, something which had been denied to her in New York by the established families of the Four Hundred. Although not the first, along with Jennie Jerome (later Lady Randolph Churchill), Consuelo Vandebilt is probably one of the most well-known of the American women who married into the English aristocracy and collectively became known as 'Million Dollar American Princesses' or 'The Buccaneers' and this influx of over forty American brides formed the basis for Edith Wharton's novel 'The Buccaneers'. Indeed, Wharton herself was part of the Gilded Age Society and got caught up in one of its scandals when her engagement to Harry Stevens, son of hotelier Paran Stevens and his wife, Marietta Reed-Stevens (herself the daughter of a greengrocer) was broken, probably at the instigation of his mother, who wanted to retain control of the Stevens money. Stevens' sister, Minnie was herself one of the Dollar Princesses, marrying Arthur Paget, grandson of the 1st Marquess of Anglesey.

The story of her marriage aside, it is the relationship of Consuelo to her father that caught my attention. The novel I'm currently writing involves one of these 'Cash for Class' brides and I read Consuelo's autobiography The Glitter and the Gold as part of my research and what struck me was that throughout all her mother's appalling (at least by modern standards) behaviour - she withheld letters to and from the man to whom Consuelo had become engaged without her consent and locked her daughter in her room until she agreed to marry the 9th Duke of Marlborough - her father was nowhere to be seen. The elder Vandebilts had divorced some time earlier and Alva had been awarded full custody of her children. However, Willie K was still on the scene. Consuelo wrote that she had not involved her father in what was going on because it would only provoke another argument between her parents and she knew that nothing could stop her mother's crusade for a title for her daughter.

Throughout her account of her life, Consuelo seems to place the blame for the divorce very squarely with her mother and it is only in later life that her relationship with her mother becomes more cordial. Naturally, when I read this, my sympathies also tended towards her father, who appeared to have been steamrollered by his wife's ambition just as surely as their daughter had.

However, I have been listening to Anne de Courcy's The Husband Hunters as I've been walking over the last week or so and that paints a rather different picture. Far from being the weak, ineffectual man I had got the impression of from Consuelo's book, her father, Willie K, was a renowned philanderer who, along with many other wealthy men of the time, took mistresses and chorus girls on cruises on his yacht, while his wife stayed at home with their children. The difference was that whereas the likes of Mrs Astor were prepared to turn a blind eye to the infidelities (because divorce was unheard of and getting a divorce would have meant the end to any social ambitions because divorcées were not acknowledged by society) Alva Vandebilt was not. She had affairs of her own and in the end wanted to be free of the husband she did not love.

This revelation reminded me that it's very easy to be persuaded by what we're reading if the narrator truly believes what they are telling their reader and there is always another side to the story. This is something that will become even more relevant to me as I progress onto the third section of the novel I'm currently working on. It also provided more food for thought about Faith and her quest for her father, as although she is very much on hold at the moment, I am still researching and considering how her story might turn out.

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