Sunday, April 22, 2012

To Marry An English Lord

On November 6, 1895 at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in New York City, a groom waited at the altar for a bride who appeared to be delayed. The groom was no ordinary groom, but Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough; the bride he waited for was the American railroad heiress, Consuelo Vanderbilt. The wedding was considered a triumph for both families, since the Duke would be delivered from his debts by Consuelo's millions, while Consuelo would gain a noble title. It was all the work of Consuelo's mother Alva, who coerced her teenage daughter into agreeing to marry the Duke. Now there have been many arranged marriages between well-to-do people in the history of the world, but usually they were intended to form necessary political alliances. The Marlborough-Vanderbilt marriage had as its main purpose the exaltation of Alva's vanity by enhancing her social status. As for Consuelo, she kept her groom waiting at the altar for twenty minutes as she cried her eyes out in sheer misery.

In the re-release of their book To Marry An English Lord, Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace include the stories of many wealthy American girls who went to England in pursuit of a titled husband. Unlike Consuelo Vanderbilt, most were eager to marry into British high society and some, like Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill with whom she had fallen in love, were very eager indeed. The book traces the tendency of American heiresses to marry abroad to the rigidity of the old New York Knickerbocker aristocrats who would not tolerate new money families like the Vanderbilts, the Jeromes, the Leiters, the Iznagas to join the ranks of the established Four Hundred. All the money in the world could not force certain exclusive doors to open. However, the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, liked American girls; he appreciated their expensive clothes, their willingness to gamble, their pert innocence, and their spontaneous wit. His Royal Highness encouraged the marriages between his subjects and American millionaires' daughters; many a dilapidated country seat was restored to its former grandeur due to money made on Wall Street and in American industries.

The troubles which the heiresses had in adjusting to English life as ladies of the manor is described in detail ranging from the hilarious to the tragic. While some marriages, such as Mary Leiter Curzon's, were spectacular successes others, like Alice Thaw's, were disasters. Throughout the narrative, the Prince of Wales makes his appearance; reading the book is like being at a ball where he suddenly arrives. To Marry An English Lord was an inspiration for Julian Fellowes' Downton Abbey. I now have a great deal more insight into the marriage of Lady Cora and her earl as well as into the world of Downton Abbey in general. I also have a deeper understanding of Edith Wharton's and Henry James' novels. Everything from rules of etiquette to life in the servant's hall to the political highlights of the age are explored. Most interesting to me are some of the American heiresses, such as Jennie Jerome Churchill and Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough, who ultimately found fulfillment not in bearing a noble name but in political, cultural and charitable activities. As for Consuelo, she eventually walked away from it all, knowing, as she always knew inside, that money cannot buy a happy marriage or peace of soul.

(*NOTE: This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.)


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