The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy
by Anne De Courcy
St. Martin's Press, 2018
According to Anne de Courcy in her fascinating new book The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy, there was a “real invasion, and recognised as such” that took place from 1870 to 1914, when 454 American girls crossed the ocean to marry titled Europeans, including 100 who married into the British aristocracy – six to dukes. As de Courcy notes with deadpan frankness, “By any standards, this was a staggering number.”
Husband Hunters tells some of the most famous stories from that invasion, from Cuban-American heiress Consuelo Yznaga, who was the first American girl in this period to marry a British duke, the Duke of Manchester, to Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 9th Duke of Marlborough, to, most famously, Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and was the mother of Winston Churchill.
De Courcy is a very practiced hand at this sort of thing; her earlier books, including The Viceroy's Daughters and Debs at War, likewise sort through piles of secondary sources in order to produce a string of perfect evocative anecdotes and a solid backdrop of an era. It's perhaps unsurprising how few of those hundreds of matches produced anything like happy marriages; in every case, both sides were driven by unhealthy motives toward unhealthy goals. The parents of the Americans wanted a veneer of old-world respectability for their families, and the parents of their targets wanted the enormous American dowries these young women would provide – dowries sufficient to rescue spendthrift heirs from poverty or renovate collapsing roofs on stately homes that hadn't seen an infusion of cash in generations. A few of the matches de Courcy mentions in these pages managed by fluke luck to develop into love, but the far greater majority were disasters of one duration or another. Sheltered and sometimes shockingly stupid British aristocrats discovered too late how willful those strange girls from the colonies could be, and the young women found themselves in a corseted world very different from the more rough-and-tumble big cities of Edwardian America.
De Courcy quotes Consuelo Vanderbilt, for instance, ruefully reminiscing about becoming a duchess:
“I gathered that an English lady was hedged around with what seemed to me to be boring restrictions … It appeared that one should not walk alone in Piccadilly or in Bond Street, nor sit in Hyde Park unless accompanied; that one should not be seen in a hansom cab and that one should always travel in a reserved compartment; that it was better to occupy a box than a stall at the theatre and that a visit to a music hall was out of the question.”
Of course the most famous British aristocrat of the period de Courcy covers is the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria's heir, who had himself married a foreign bride in 1863 and who's singled out by de Courcy as an unlikely agent of change. The future Edward VII, she writes, “looked favourably on anyone capable of entertaining him. It was this that allowed the borders of British society to become more porous than those of American.” The prince's tastes were simple, she tells her readers: “He liked good food, comfortable surroundings, staying in house parties of congenial company and pretty women, exquisitely gowned, who could amuse him, frequently with gossip about the love affairs of themselves or their friends, in which he took a keen interest.”
This might be a cotillion too far; Edward's rather louche personal standards were as much a scandal as they were a softening of societal boundaries, after all, and snobbery would have dissolved just as quickly in any case in the face of all those overdue landscaping bills. And in any case, the whole over-extended Gilded Age extravagance of it all was brought to an abrupt end by a combination of bad press and sudden carnage: not only were horror stories about these matches beginning to circulate widely at the start of the 20th century, but the First World War and the subsequent economic upheavals helped bring the era of the husband-hunters to a close. De Courcy captures a great deal of the sad romance and sharp wit of that era in these pages.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.