Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review: TO MARRY AN ENGLISH LORD Tales of Wealth and Mariiage, Sex and Snobbery by Gail MacColl and Carol McD.Wallace

This is the sort of book you can and probably should read in bits and pieces. There are lots of photos and tons of gossip re: Victorian, and later Edwardian excesses. Also included are intriguing explanations of rank, title and society do's and dont's. It's all in the name of 19th and early 20th century American heiresses, marrying well and adding to the depleted coffers of the English aristocracy.

Always a fun thing to read about, especially for Americans. Think of the swooning popularity of DOWNTON ABBEY. (The author of which has a blurb on the cover.) And this is NON-fiction. Though it often reads as just the opposite.

I mean, we wouldn't have had Winston Churchill in one of England's (and the world's) darkest hours if beautiful American heiress Jennie Jerome hadn't gone abroad and married Lord Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough. The fact that he was a dissolute cad desperate for money AND suffering from syphilis was probably not discovered by Jenny and her family until AFTER the wedding. (Well, the money part was understood - he was only a mere 'second' son.) But despite all this, Jennie did give birth to a great man and for that history is eternally grateful.

From the back cover: In 1895 nine American girls, including a Vanderbilt (railroads), LaRoche (pharmaceuticals), Rogers (oil), and Whitney (New York trolleys), married peers of the English realm - among them, a duke, an earl, three barons, and a knight. It was the peak year of a social phenomenon that began in the Gilded Age...

In all, more than 100 American heiresses invaded Britain and swapped dollars for titles. Filled with a wealth of historical personalities, grand houses, gossipy anecdotes, and a feature called comme il faut - the very finest points of etiquette that ruled Victorian and Edwardian society - TO MARRY AN ENGLISH LORD is their story.

Best read, as I mentioned, in bits and pieces - at least that's how I'm doing it - this is a grand book to dip into when life gets you down. No, I mean it. Think of the sheer bloody-mindedness that was an entrenched part of the day to day drama of these 'poor little rich girls'. (It was a life where if a woman simply bent over to adjust the buckle of her shoe - it was seen as untoward behavior.) Oh yeah, they were indescribably rich in an era before taxes and they had titles (I mean, who wouldn't want to be a Duchess? or even a plain old Lady something or other?) and tons of servants to cater to their every whim and lived in glorious mansions and had gorgeous fashions to wear....hmmm.

Okay, so maybe I don't feel that sorry for them. But you have to admit that some of these bright young things were practically sold by their doting mamas into the kind of rigidly structured 'societal slavery' that did not augur well for happily ever after. (Not that it should have come as any surprise after having experienced the cold-blooded rigors of New York society.) Love appears to have been the first casualty in most instances - many of these marriages were a misery for both bride and groom. But hey, you can't have everything. (Not for lack of trying, though.)

An aside: it remains (for me, at least) hard to fathom how the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) was able to amass such a stable of lovely mistresses, given his homely looks and rather rotund appearance. (He had inherited his mother's baggy pop-eyes.) I know a liaison with a future King meant great influence and could be considered a social coup, but really...Maybe he had a great personality? You think?

My only quibble with the book is that it is confusing to follow one direct story straight through. Chapters are broken up by boxed 'asides,' photos and other intrusions containing info not always pertaining to what you're reading about.

But really, who cares? It's not rocket science. This is still a fun book to have on hand when DOWNTON ABBEY closes shop for the season.


  1. This is such a fun book! I have an older version of it, but it's such a fun and informative book -- almost like a scrapbook of the times with bits of gossip. I love it, and of course, I'm a big-time Downton Abbey fan. Nice highlight of the book. :)

  2. Hi, Yvette - Years ago I read Edward VII's biography (I recall it was subtitled "The Gay Monarch" when that had a different connotation), and it made fascinating reading. Among other things, he was a wild practical joker who went to great and expensive lengths for a good laugh.

  3. Thanks, Joanne. Yes, exactly, I should have thought of that myself: a scrapbook describes it perfectly. :)

  4. The problem with Edward as I see it (besides his physical resemblance to a somewhat urbane frog), is that his mother, the queen, would not give him any responsibilities. He simply had NOTHING to do.

    Men get into trouble and bad habits when they have nothing to do. :)

  5. Edward VII looked like an "urbane frog." Now that's another quotable remark from Yvette's Critics Corner.

    I don't know. I couldn't feel sorry for these women and certainly not these limpid aristocrats. I'd be frustrated in reading this that they didn't donate funds right here for homeless children and food and medical care for poor people. And then pitch in and help out and lead some kind of a useful life.

    If it were me in this situation, I'd be one of those "downstairs" people running around waiting on the idle rich.

    I do agree there's grounds for humor here.

  6. Kathy: yes, but....

    I still enjoyed/enjoy watching all the PBS Masterpiece costume dramas down through the years. Enjoy reading historical mysteries and novels.

    I made believe the bad societal stuff was happening someplace else - like in another universe. The mind has a wonderful way of compartmentalizing. (Is that a word?) Well, you know what I mean.

  7. And it's true that humor can be found in all sorts of situations; that is true.

    And enjoy whatever you enjoy in historical dramas, etc.

    I confess that I liked Downton Abbey, went through withdrawal after the season ended.

    But I mean who can resist Maggie Smith? One withering look, a one-liner delivered like no one else can do. Favorites include:
    This is an instrument of torture (phone) OR We can't have the Turkish ambassador assassinated, can we? (and many more)

    I see that Shirley Maclaine will play Dame Smith's nemesis, the U.S. mother-in-law.

    Someone could get hurt with all those daggers flying through the air. I cannot wait.

  8. Have you read Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers? A fictionalized account of a group of rich American girls (or, I should say, American girls with rich fathers) who travel to England and end up marrying into the British aristocracy--for better or for worse (in one particular case, supposedly based on Consuelo Vanderbilt, much much worse). If you haven't, I highly recommend it. It was made into a PBS series a few years ago (screenplay by Gore Vidal); that, I was less interested in.

  9. From this side of the pond, I can feel quite sorry for these American girls, virtually 'sold' into the British aristocracy - talk about a 'commodity'! Almost on a par with a prize heifer!

    And having been thrown into society many of them could not do right for doing wrong; the only common factor was that they spoke English! The culture and customs were alien on both sides and I'd like to think that many had kindly housekeepers and such, who would steer and advise them. However, I fear that was all too often not the case and the poor new wife-chatelaine would have no support from either the family she'd married into or the society that treated her with snobbish distrust!

    Yvette - if you are able to get it (or you may have already seen!) do try to watch Bertie and Elizabeth It's one of the best adaptations/portrayals of the years leading up to and beyond the abdication that I've ever seen - beautifully shot, too!

  10. Re Sue's comment: there's a great scene in The Buccaneers where the new American wife is either trying to write thank you cards or figure out seating arrangements and she has a list in front of her about how to address a duchess or marchioness or who would take precedence over who when entering a room and you can tell that not only is the American wife utterly baffled but she's bored and bewildered in equal measure. One if those small but telling scenes that make the book so good.

  11. Kathy, I hadn't heard the Shirley MacLaine news. THAT WILL BE FUN!

    I too love Maggie Smith. Did you see her in EVIL UNDER THE SUN? She was delightful!

  12. Deb, I did see the PBS show and really liked it. What those girls suffered!! Was there a scene near the end when one of the young marrieds ran from a tea party out in the open (in front of shocked society)and ran off with someone? I kind of remember it like that. Shocking! Ha!

    I should read the book. Maybe I'll a get a chance one of these days.

  13. Sue, never heard of it. Maybe they changed the name for American consumption? I'll see if I can find it nonetheless. Thanks for the tip. :)

  14. Okay, Deb, you've more than intrigued me. I'm putting THE BUCCANEERS on my 'must' list. The only Wharton I think I've ever read is ETHAN FROME, but it remains one of my favorite books ever.

  15. Lovely article on press conference for Season 3 of Downton Abbey.


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