To Marry An English Lord
by Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace
While still a young girl, yet perfectly positioned upon the precipice of adolescence to revel in the romantic, my generous grandparents took me to Savannah, Georgia and the outlying barrier islands. Jekyll Island was once a playground for the American aristocracy of the Gilded Age, covered in the shells of mansions, clubs, gardens, and bathing resorts. The story-teller in me was captivated by the wealth and grandeur that had once been on display there, but my secret desire to know more of the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Morgans was not quite satiated until this year…until a series of events led me to read this captivating account of the many American heiresses that accomplished the ultimate American dream – to marry a prince (or a lord). This sequence of events began in February when my younger sister was appalled to learn that I had never seen, nay, was completely oblivious to the show Downton Abbey. Downloading the complete first season on Netflix, my husband and I were both hooked. A period drama beginning in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, the show continues to track the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants through the tumultuous years of World War I and beyond. Being completely obsessed, I began to watch interviews with the show’s writer, Julian Fellowes, who referenced a book that he had been reading when asked to write Downton Abbey. The book, To Marry An English Lord, inspired his character, Countess Cora, and influenced some of the story elements.
I was elated to find that this book contained detail upon detail of the daily lives and choices of some of America’s wealthiest citizens in one of its wealthiest eras. While taking American history, I waited anxiously to find snippets of detail about America’s elite from 1870-1910, but was left disheartened by random facts, the anti-trust laws, and profiles of presidents and political figures who had little to do with the society about which I longed to read. This book actually hints at why that might be. Money and politics were quite divided in that era (is that still the case? Ha!), a fact which shocked many of the British nobles who came to the New World seeking money…and a bride.
Beginning in 1860, with Albert Edward, Crown Prince of Wales’, tour of the United States and Canada, the book describes Albert’s (later Edward VII) fascination with American women, which the authors argue began during this tour while he stayed in New York. The balls and festivities were lavish, the women stunning and charming, and Albert was a most impressionable nineteen years old. The premise of this book hinges on the argument that Albert’s preference and predilection for American beauties led to their acceptance and welcome into the upper echelons of British society, which precipitated their ability to marry dukes, earls, and barons. One wonders if so many of the British aristocracy would have gone money-hunting in New York society had they not felt sure of their monarch’s endorsement of the potential match.
Following the description of Albert Edward’s tour of New York, the book launches into a detailed description of the societies of both New York and London in 1870. The contrasts are remarkable. New York was very solemn, very sober, very staid. Rows upon rows of stately brownstone homes lined the streets. One did not flaunt one’s abundant riches – everyone who was anyone simply knew how wealthy you were. Mrs. Astor reigned supreme and she devised (with the assistance of a Mr. Ward McAllister) an elaborate scheme to prevent upstart “new money” from tainting the established pool of “acceptable” society. Twenty-five families, called the Patriarchs, were chosen to be the core group, who could then invite four to five ladies or gentlemen to balls with them, vouching for their character. In short, New York society was exclusive, limited, and boring for those not included in the set. By contrast, London society under the patronage of Albert Edward was lavish, extravagant, and welcoming to all those with obscene amounts of money, no matter how “new” or from where it came. Because society in Britain is based on the Peerage, no one could be threatened by the addition of “new money”. You either were or you were not a Duke, Marquess, Earl, Viscount, or Baron. The book does a remarkable job of detailing the British Peerage, the differences between a Duke and an Earl (Duke is highest, only 27 of them, followed by Marquess, Earl, Viscount, and Baron), the precedence assigned to each, the London “season”, and the impetus that drove the initial exodus of women from New York first to Paris and on to London.
The Jerome family, with three daughters, were prime candidates for leaving New York for calmer, more welcoming seas. Clara Jerome was rightfully concerned that her three daughters would never make advantageous marriages in New York society since her husband, Leonard Jerome, was known as a philanderer, garnering the stigma of Mrs. Astor “not knowing” the family. Ellen Yznaga also had three daughters, and fearing for their futures, took them abroad. Her daughter, Consuelo, married the Duke of Manchester; while Jennie Jerome, the middle of the three Jerome sisters, married Lord Randolph Churchill, second son of the Duke of Marlborough. You may know their second son – his name is Winston. These early American “invaders” found an effusive welcome in London society, with most of them marrying into the ranks of the British nobility. Shock waves hit both British and American shores. In America, Great Britain was still viewed with wariness and disdain, as a grasping empire waiting to enfold the United States. In England, America was viewed as a backwater full of savages, reprobates, and forests. Within decades, America and Britain were intimate allies, Anglomania had struck American upper-class society, and impoverished British nobles were wife-trolling in the ample waters of American dollars.
Following the “pushy mammas” who dragged their daughters into more accepting society came the “self-made girls,” beautiful women with large fortunes but no family background. Hearing of their predecessors’ successes, they high-tailed it to the Continent, often dragging Mama and Papa in tow, as chaperones and money to pay the bills. Their hey-day was the 1880’s, and both the “buccaneers” above and the “Self-Made Girls” became characitures in many works of fiction, including works by Mark Twain (Innocents Abroad), Henry James (Portrait of a Lady and others), and Oscar Wilde. Their achievements culminated in the marriage of Mary Leiter to the Honorable George Curzon, the eldest son of the 4th Baron Scarsdale. His political aspirations took the couple to India, where his political prowess and intelligence secured him the position of viceroy of India, making Mary the second most powerful woman in the British Empire, after Princess Alexandra herself! Mary was the daughter of a very wealthy man, who contributed many millions of dollars (times 33 for inflation = ~66 million) in real estate and cash to the marriage, but the family had no established name, even in America. She was the quintessential “self-made girl”. Her love and devotion to George, coupled with her intelligence and loyalty, won over her rather mercenary husband, and they were one of the few indubitably happily married couples.
Such a move by the handsome, socially prominent George Curzon precipitated a landslide of impoverished British nobility sweeping across the Atlantic to New York. The year 1895 was the culmination of the American heiress, with nine being married to British peers. The most famous of these was the wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the 9th Duke of Marlborough, a position for which she had been groomed from infancy by her grasping mother, Alva Vanderbilt. Much is known of her upbringing, wedding, and marriage because she documented these events in her memoirs following her divorce from her husband “Sunny” and subsequent re-marriage. The splendor, pomp, and grandeur of these weddings makes the mind reel, even today.
Allow me to list many wonderful elements of this book: 1) it does not remain content with documenting the hundreds of ladies who moved abroad – it delves into the fashions of the time, detailing the work and craft of Mr. Worth, who outfitted almost all of these ladies in 80 dresses per woman per season. Again, the mind reels. This book discusses the work and influence of John Singer Sargent and Henry James, bosom friends and Americans who were also accepted into the inner circle of King Edward’s Marlborough House Set. 2) The layout is fascinating, with side-bars and intervening boxes filled with titles and information on such random things as “The Newport Schedule” (Newport Beach was the ultimate retreat of the ultra-wealthy), “Calling Card Protocol”, “The Louis Fixation”, profiles on various “Wall Street Fathers”, and much, much more. Indeed, all of these side-notes made it difficult to read with the Kindle version. I was quite confused about all of the jumping around until I purchased the print edition, and then I understood. 3) This book does not stop with the weddings, but continues on to the marriages, the children, the divorces, the re-marriages, the deaths. How the authors managed to pack so much interesting and diverse information into 320 pages is remarkable. 4) This book is brimming with photographs and maps, which make the stories come to life. It is fascinating to read about Mary Leiter Curzon and Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough while looking at their pictures, their husbands, and their homes.
While reading this, I was amazed time and again at the money spent by these people on parties, on clothes, on weddings, on marriages. It was not uncommon to drop $60 million (in today’s money) on a ball or $1-3 million twice a year on a winter and summer wardrobe. The judgmental nature within me struggled – “How could they throw so much money into such trivialities when labor wages were so awful, working conditions were atrocious, child labor was the norm? How could they care so little for others?” Then I checked mid-thought. How are they any different than we are today? Are we really child-labor and slave free? (To follow up on this, check out http://www.free2work.com and http://www.thea21campaign.org) Are we really more giving, more generous, less lavish, less selfish? No, when I know that human nature does not change – that we are messed up in our core, and only Jesus and His Holy Spirit can change that. No, when I know that corporations may spend millions to billions of dollars on P.R. campaigns or internal parties. No, when there are how many billionaires in the world?
Parting thrust – faced with the ultimate romance of all – marrying an English lord – I could not help but almost weep at the emptiness of these women’s (and men’s) lives. Their historical actions attest to this more loudly than ever their words could. More money, more lavishness, more grandeur, more novelty, greater titles, striving ever onward and “upward.” No contentment to be found anywhere within these covers. Very little love is displayed, no sacrifice, no honor or courage. Thus, the most valuable jewels in the world cannot be bought with worldly riches – love, contentment, wisdom, patience, selflessness. They only come from the bleeding hands of the Greatest Prince, Who gives them freely to His bride.
Rating: Fascinating read. Not fiction, but the true stories are almost stranger than fiction (cliche, I know). Excellent for those who only have snippets of time, as the book is divided into myriad little sections of information that you can read one page or 50 pages at a time.