Last Castle (Kiernan) - Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions
1. Why do you think Denise Kiernan chose to title her book The Last Castle? In what ways does Biltmore function like a castle for George Vanderbilt and his family? How does it differ?

2. Edith Vanderbilt’s mother hailed from the Fish-LeRoy and Stuyvesant families. These families were "exceptionally well known in New York circles where names carried the weight of history and bore the shackles of expected romantic pairings" (p. 3). What expectations do Edith; her mother, Susan Fish LeRoy; and their peers face with regard to marriage? Do you think these expectations lead to some disastrous marital pairings among Edith’s peers? If so, give some examples.

3. Describe the origins of the name that George chooses for his Asheville estate. What does "Biltmore" signify? Why do you think it’s important for George to choose a name for his estate? The citizens of Asheville have mixed reactions to the name "Biltmore." Discuss them.

4. Kiernan describes William B. Osgood Field as being "like the Nick Carraway to George’s Gatsby: playing matchmaker, yet unable to keep up with his friend financially" (p. 99). Describe George’s friendship with Field. Do you think Kiernan’s comparison is apt? Why or why not? What other friendships are particularly important to George?

5. When Field accompanies George Vanderbilt to Europe, George’s sisters inform Field that "he should be more than George’s companion on this trip. He should seek to help George land his life’s companion" (p. 81). Why do George’s sisters think that Edith is a good match for him? Do you agree? What considerations must someone of George’s social class take into account when looking for a spouse?

6. During the Gilded Age, being "a son of the Vanderbilt dynasty was to have your every move, dalliance, chance encounter, and passing venture watched and analyzed" (p. 7-8). Why do you think the public is so interested in the lives of the Vanderbilt family? Discuss the impact the constant public scrutiny has on the behavior of members of the Vanderbilt family. Can you think of any modern equivalents that are scrutinized in the same way the Vanderbilt family was in their time? Who are they?

7. In letters, George’s niece, Adele, describes herself as "Biltmore homesick" (p. 46). What does she mean by this expression? Why does Adele enjoy herself so much during her visits to Biltmore? How is life better for women of Adele’s social class on country estates? What freedoms are afforded to them that they do not have while they are in cities?

8. One of Edith’s great strengths was that she "strode deftly between . . . two worlds, one of Victorian elegance, the other of rugged mountain simplicity" (p. 156). How is Edith able to move between these two vastly different realms? What about her upbringing may have prepared her for this balance? In what ways is Edith able to make herself an integral part of the greater community in Asheville?

9. When Cornelia is born, the locals honor her by "conferring the ‘tar heel’ moniker upon [her]" (p. 134). How does Cornelia’s birth connect George and Edith with the community in Asheville? Why do the residents feel a sense of ownership over her? Describe Cornelia’s connection to her birthplace as an adult. Were you surprised by it?

10. In 1873, Mark Twain and coauthor Charles Dudley Warner wrote a book about the age of excess in which they lived titled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Do you think "Gilded Age" is an appropriate title for the time? If so, why? Would you have liked to live during the Gilded Age? Why or why not?

11. Why does George Vanderbilt elect to build Biltmore in Asheville, NC? What is the effect that Biltmore has on the region socially, economically, and in terms of infrastructure? If you could build an estate anywhere, where would you do so? Explain your answer.

12. Kiernan writes that Biltmore "may not have been in New York or Newport, but if this house didn’t make an impression on the Four Hundred, nothing would, acorns or no." (p. 66). Explain this statement. What kind of impression did Biltmore make on visitors? Was there anything you found particularly impressive about the house? If there was, discuss it with your book club, explaining why you were so taken with that particular feature.

13. When President McKinley expresses a desire to visit Biltmore, E. J. Harding, the auditor of Biltmore Estate, specifies that McKinley, his wife, and any cabinet members are welcome to the estate, but the media is not. Why does Harding object to the presence of the press? Is he right in doing so? How does the press interact with members of the Four Hundred and with the president? Why do you think McKinley might want to have press during his visit?

14. Lillian Exum Clement, who became the first female legislator in North Carolina, said, "I know that years from now there will be many other women in politics, but you have to start a thing" (p. 245). Discuss the role that women played in politics prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In what ways were women active before they were granted the right to vote?

15. As a young man, George Vanderbilt tells Field that he wants to see the world before getting married, and that when he does get married, "he imagined she would perhaps be ten years his junior" (p. 85). Contrast George’s philosophy with regard to finding a life partner with Field’s. Do you agree with either of the men? Which one and why? Given the men’s philosophies, were you surprised by the choices they made in choosing their spouses?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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