As a North Carolina native, Beaufort-based author Kristy Woodson Harvey has long been fascinated by the Biltmore House and the Vanderbilt family. But it wasn’t until she and her family evacuated to Asheville as Hurricane Florence made landfall in 2018 that her curiosity turned into the potential focus of a novel.
“I just became really interested in Edith Vanderbilt and how she had kind of taken on that burden or gift — depending on how you look at it — of maintaining not only George Vanderbilt’s legacy but also Biltmore,” Harvey says. “I started reading about her, and I was shocked that no one had written a novel about her. I kept saying, ‘Someone should write a novel about her,’ but I never thought it would be me because I write contemporary fiction.”
The following year, Harvey attended a family wedding where the bride wore the same wedding veil that Harvey had worn at her own nuptials. The beautiful heirloom from her husband’s family had become something that Harvey’s sister-in-law loaned out to important people in their lives, and while reflecting on how the item connected them with numerous women, some of whom they might never know, she envisioned her next book.
Harvey’s agent loved the idea but suggested that she write about a historical wedding veil. The author dismissed the thought, unconvinced that she could identify a woman intriguing enough to warrant a year’s research and writing about her and her bridal accessory.
“But one night, on a whim, I Googled ‘Edith Vanderbilt wedding veil,’ and the story popped up about the heirloom veil that had been worn by Edith’s mother and her three sisters and herself and her daughter, Cornelia [Vanderbilt] — and then it disappeared,” Harvey says. “And I thought, ‘What better entree into a contemporary historical novel?’”
However, starting the research for The Wedding Veil, which was released March 29, didn’t exactly go as planned. After a multiweek book tour for her novel The Southern Side of Paradise, Harvey returned to Beaufort on March 9, 2020 — mere days before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt. But like many people, she thought lockdown would only last a few weeks and began looking into buying an annual pass to Biltmore and planning how often she’d be in Asheville for research.
When travel became impractical, Harvey ordered every book she could find pertaining to Biltmore and the Vanderbilts, and consulted with librarians in Chapel Hill who’d provided her with background material prior to the pandemic. She also “wore out” her newspapers.com account, noting that if something has been written about Edith and Cornelia Vanderbilt in the online archive, she’s probably read it.
“Doing the research in that way and reading so much about them and feeling like I kind of had an idea of who they were before I got started helped to give me the framework for what their story would be,” Harvey says. “Obviously, this is not a biography. This is a fictionalized account of these two women brides, but I tried to stick to the facts as much as I could, when the facts were relevant.”
Setting The Wedding Veil from 1914-34 also helped hone Harvey’s focus, and by the time statewide restrictions were easing last spring, she’d completed a first draft. Armed with that working copy, the Biltmore visits, in-person library visits and interviews she’d intended to do the previous year transformed into fact-checking missions rather than initial steps. These follow-ups — especially conversations with Biltmore guides regarding the Vanderbilt women’s life in the bachelor’s quarters once George passed away — also allowed Harvey to bring the novel to life by adding bits of color that she couldn’t find in books or newspaper articles.
Along the way, Harvey discovered that Cornelia was an aspiring writer and a talented artist, many of whose paintings are in storage at Biltmore. Harvey’s appreciation for Edith likewise grew as she learned about her subject’s extreme generosity and selflessness, as well as some pleasant surprises from Edith’s personal life.
“I think I expected to find that George and Edith had a real marriage of convenience. It was that time when wealthy men from newer families married women who were not as wealthy but had those big family names,” Harvey says. “But I think that Edith and George had a really great marriage and really did love each other — especially seeing the way that she fought to maintain his legacy for so many years after his death.”
Complementing the Vanderbilts’ arc in The Wedding Veil is a modern-day narrative that begins with an Asheville wedding. Exploring the city — whose independent arts and culinary scenes remind her of Beaufort’s — helped further flesh out the novel’s realism and add to its relatability. That attention to detail is particularly important for Harvey as she interacts with Asheville-area readers on her latest book tour, which includes a stop at the Henderson County Public Library on Monday, April 11.
“One of the great things about being a writer is that you have this story, and it lives in your head for a certain amount of time. And then you start bringing it into the world, and it becomes something different because every person that reads it contributes their own experience and their own story to your story,” she says.
“To be able to share it with people who do actually live in the area and who have a lot of knowledge of the family and the house and all of the things that I got to know so much better these last couple of years — I’m really excited to hear what they think. I hope they love it, and I hope I do them proud.”
WHO: Kristy Woodson Harvey
WHERE: Henderson County Public Library, 301 N. Washington St., Hendersonville, avl.mx/bds
WHEN: Monday, April 11, 6-8 p.m. Free, but registration is required