Publisher: Workman Publishing
Publication date: 3/15/2012
What is peerage and why did nine American heiresses seek to buy it with their nouveau riche fathers’ fortunes in 1895?
Purchasing peerage is part of the backstory of Downton Abbey’s Lady Cora, American wife of the Earl of Grantham. While literate audiences wait for the third season to air next year, Workman Publishing has re-released one of the books Lord Julian Fellowes read as inspiration for the hit PBS series.
Originally published in 1989, To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace has a redesigned cover with stories, photos and sidebars that document the glitter and grandeur of American heiress adventures into British peerage.
In the land of opportunity, where nobody’s past was held against him, where hard work was the norm and the vast scale of the country produced similar-size profits, there were innumerable ways to get rich. And portions of some of these fortunes subsidized the aristocratic leisure of a daughter’s English husband.
According to MacColl and Wallace, Mary Astor and most of the Knickerbocker elite worked tirelessly to keep upstarts out of New York society. The rich and resourceful instead sought respectability by heading to London with their banking, railroad, real estate and industrial fortunes.
More “ancient and noble” than Mary Astor’s ambition, British peerage kept titles intact through primogeniture as well as entail, a policy tying up estates in trust to prevent splintering into smaller plots of land from one generation to the next.
Only 27 titled dukes were allowed at one time. Marrying a duke would change an heiress into a duchess, referred to formally as “Your Grace.” The wife of a marquess was a marchioness, addressed as “Lady So-and-So.”
There were also earls, viscounts, barons, and mere sirs (baronets and knights) who passed down titles, land, houses, paintings and family jewels to eldest sons.
English aristocrats had one problem. Earning their income from land holdings, they began to experience a decline in farming rents with the advent of industrialization. The only acceptable profession was politics and even campaigns required considerable financing.
Newcomers from America with dowries were more than welcomed; they would be feted by London society. Pretty, flirtatious, well-dressed American heiresses became favorites of Queen Victoria’s eldest son and heir, Edward Albert. The English aristocracy took their cues from “Bertie,” who was entranced by the charm of “La Belle Américaine.”
Lucky for the husband seeker, the activity of the London season was essentially designed for chaperoned flirting and brokered marriage proposals. Jeanette Jerome would become Lady Randolph Churchill. Consuelo Vanderbilt became Duchess of Marlborough and Mary Leiter, Baroness Curzon of Kedleston.
The ninth Duke of Roxburghe told reporters on the occasion of his marriage to Mary Goelet, “I am no fortune hunter. I am merely an Englishman who thoroughly believes in American institutions.”
After the romance, dowry negotiations and lavish wedding, the freshly titled young wife set about becoming useful in her adopted homeland… without plumbing, electricity or central heating.
MacColl and Wallace write that having been provided with the best of everything, she would naturally be unnerved to find the crude condition of her newly acquired properties.
The crusty drains and musty closets, drafty passages and leaking ceilings, frayed upholstery, bare floors, discolored damask, the faded, tarnished, blemished, warped and wobbling decrepitude dismayed her—and testified all too clearly to why she and her bags of American money were there.
The American heiress would find the resources to adjust to rural life, beget male heirs, get along with eccentric relatives and domineering in-laws, tolerate mistresses and manage a large household of servants.
MacColl and Wallace provide a register of American heiresses along with photos and anecdotes of these transatlantic matches. The most illustrious would produce heirs and descendants, such as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales. Others would provide no guarantee of happiness with some resulting in divorce, scandal or backlash.
To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace is a highly worthwhile read... a history of the remarkable influence of the American heiress in the court of Edward VII and in the lives of her aristocratic husband and heirs.
Category: Nonfiction, History