Wealth and Society; Continent: Europe, North America

How to Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace

  • Something to consider in case you need a new game plan for next Valentine’s Day
  • 403 pages (320 pages of content until Register of American Heiresses, Index, etc.)

As a Downton Abbey fan, I couldn’t pass up this title. In that show, the patriarch of the family with an expensive estate to run had married a wealthy American woman and sunk her considerable dowry into paying his bills and making investments. The show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, maintained a sharp sense of historical accuracy, and the nature of the marriage between these two important characters was no accident. Hers was among the last generation of American heiresses who sought an English title by marrying into the peerage.

Whose Court? Mrs. Astor v. Prince Edward

In 1860s New York, the Knickerbockers were the wealthy but rather somber “in” crowd, and Mrs. Caroline Astor ruled them all. Under the watchful eye of Mrs. Astor, all manner of petty little social rules needed to be observed regarding calling cards, dress codes and appropriate amusements. The queen of New York society didn’t tolerate gambling, for example, but she did maintain a box at the opera. If Mrs. Astor didn’t “know” you, then you didn’t exist in this clique of a few hundred rich New Yorkers, all of whom made their money with pure capitalism…no lawyers or physicians, no artists, and certainly no politicians or stage performers. Getting accepted into the clique meant toeing Mrs. Astor’s line, and getting married to a spouse of appropriate rank wasn’t going to happen if you couldn’t measure up.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, Queen Victoria was still in mourning for Prince Albert and seldom received guests. After a respectable period, however, her son Prince Edward was ready to get his party on. Fun-loving Edward became the center of the social scene for English nobility: hunting, gambling and drinking. If you were a young lady stranded in Knickerbocker New York, the Brits appeared to be having a much better time, never mind Mrs. Astor’s rules. The money was flowing for lavish parties to entertain Prince Edward during the social season in London. No one back home could complain that you were marrying beneath you if you landed an English count or a baron. Why not go husband hunting there instead? This book focuses on women who left New York society for the British peerage.

Getting a Dainty Foot in the Door

The first generation to leave the New York husband hunt needed to teach themselves the English ropes. Noble Englishwomen knew how to hunt, ride, draw and manage the manorial household. It was a lot to take in, especially if your own formal education had been focused elsewhere. Not only did they teach themselves these necessary skills, they also learned the expectations of the London social season: how to dress and how courting worked. Prince Edward was particularly charmed by the curious mixture of American innocence with forwardness: an American woman politely introduced herself and offered a hand to shake, while her English competition waited to be presented. American women had opinions and engaged in lively conversation, while English girls demurely kept their mouths shut – better upbringing, perhaps, but duller company for dinner or cocktails. Plus, American women had the beauty of the well-kept. They glowed with vigorous good health and sported more lavish clothing than noble English fathers could afford for their own daughters. For the more mercenary among the young men at the balls and parties, the last quality especially called to them.

The English peerage in those days had collectively fallen upon hard financial times. The price of grain traditionally produced on his lordship’s estate had plummeted, and upkeep on the estate had continued to rise. Renters were leaving the estate to pursue factory work instead of an agricultural lifestyle in the countryside. It was time to sell some of the family lands and treasures, unless more cash could be found. Fortunately, Americans found a certain caché in the pastoral English estate and were willing to subsidize it.

Wit and Readability

Authors MacColl and Wallace have organized their topic into short, accessible sections full of captioned photos and interesting sidebars. Don’t be put off by the page count of this book: the easy writing style and the interesting photos mean even the tired or distracted reader can breeze through it. Sections are short enough to pick up and put down easily. The authors make sure you get plenty of details about dress, manners, the social season, and interaction between the classes. With all the fun of these particulars, you’ll end up with a solid sense of why hanging with Prince Edward and his buddies was such an expensive proposition. Plus, you can easily look up who was who with the reference in the back, should you lose track.

Image: Consuelo Vanderbilt, c. 1910, photographer unknown. This public domain image has been cropped to fit the template for the blog: the original is larger. If you know the photographer, please let me know, and I’ll attribute the work properly.

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