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Review: To Marry An English Lord
By Gail MacColl and Carol Wallace
You wouldn’t think it, to judge from the flurry of snobbishness that greeted the marriage of middle-class Catherine Middleton to Prince William, but the British aristocracy is perfectly used to marrying pretty, lively, girls from well-to-do bourgeois families.
What could be more sensible than a match between a handsome peer with a great name and a magnificent pile, but no money to repair the leaking roof, and the delightful young daughter of a self-made millionaire?
In 1860 Albert Edward, the future King Edward VII, then a slender and vastly eligible 19-year-old, made a vist to New York and took a tremendous shine to the easygoing charm of American girls.
Not long afterwards, the first ripples of what soon became a positive tidal wave of American heiresses began to cross the Atlantic, bent on snapping up their very own English Lord.
Some, like Lady Cora, the American chatelaine of Downton Abbey - whose creator, Julian Fellowes, drew inspiration for his TV heroine from this colourful history - settled down and were relatively happy, despite the vagaries of primitive English plumbing and the unfamiliar ferocity of their English in-laws.
But others, like Consuelo Vanderbilt, the unfortunate wife of the unkind and unfaithful Duke of Marlborough, were utterly wretched.
Bitterly lonely, neglected by their horrible husbands, under intolerable pressure to produce male heirs, they often found that they were despised, not only by snobbish English aristocrats (who were patronisingly amazed that they didn’t cut up their food with tomahawks), but also by the servants, who were used to running their masters’ stately homes for their own convenience, rather than the comfort of the new mistress of the house.
But such dismal thoughts were far from the minds of the first wave of American heiresses, propelled across the Atlantic by pushy mothers who had decided to seek refuge in Europe from unsatisfactory husbands or the frigid snobberies of stuffy New York society.
Clara Jerome was one of these, fleeing an unfaithful (but vastly rich) husband accompanied by her three daughters, Clara, Leonie and Jennie (who would marry Lord Randolph Churchill and become the mother of Winston Churchill).
She was swiftly followed by Ellen Yznaga, with her girls Natica, Consuelo and Emily, and Marietta Stevens with her 18-year-old daughter, Minnie.
In New York these girls were outsiders. Neither their looks nor their fortunes could break down the social barriers erected by the fact that their parents simply weren’t accepted by the stuffy matrons of Old New York. But in London, it was another story.
Prevented from undertaking any kind of useful occupation by his censorious mother, Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales had nothing else to do but entertain himself. Dreading boredom, and with an eye for a pretty face, Edward had no intention of letting a girl’s breeding get in the way if he wished to make her acquaintance. As long as she looked seductive and kept him amused, a young woman could obtain the entrée into his circle. The entrancing Jerome girls, the luscious Yznagas and green-eyed Minnie Stevens were in.
Where Edward led, his courtiers avidly followed. Having a great name is all very well, but the cost of maintaining all the trappings of Noblesse Oblige -the great crumbling stately home with its retinue of household servants, horses, gamekeepers and tenantry, to say nothing of the costly retinue of ancient nannies, spinster sisters and assorted Dowagers, all eating their heads off in various far-flung corners of the Estate - was appalling.
Even if the American girls hadn’t been a breath of fresh air with their charmingly forthright manners and their lovely clothes from Worth, the fashionable Paris couturier - so unlike the dismal tweeds of English upper-class womanhood - the merry jingle of their dollars would have made them an enticing catch.
And so the American invasion began. Jennie Jerome may have met with stiff resistance from the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough when they discovered their son was engaged to her (the Duke wrote to Randoph that the Jeromes were a connection “which no man in his senses could think respectable”). But she married him anyway.
Meanwhile Consuelo Yznaga - whose party turn was playing a banjo and singing minstrel songs in the salons of Mayfair - bagged Viscount Mandeville, to the chagrin of his parents, the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. And Minnie Stevens, leaving it rather late, at 25, settled down with Prince Edward’s chum, Arthur Paget, grandson of the Marquess of Anglesey.
The floodgates were open. Among the 100 or so heiresses who eventually caught themselves a Lord (or at the least, an Honourable) was Frances Work, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy New York stockbroker. Frances married the Hon. James Burke-Roche, younger son of an Irish baron. The marriage was unhappy, but it produced twin sons, one of whom became the grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales.
It couldn’t last, of course. By the turn of the century, many of the artistocratic marriages undertaken - by the girls, at least - in a haze of romantic fantasy about the life that awaited them - had turned sour. The English Lord, with his boorish manners and freezing house, no longer looked quite such an attractive catch.
And then, in 1910, King Edward VII died and was succeeded by the dourly respectable George V. The party was over.
But what fun it was while it lasted. Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace’s history is diligently researched, but as amusuingly written as a novel, and it sparkles on every page with exactly the sort of detail you want to know - the clothes, the parties and the scandal -which is no less fascinating for being more than a century old. - Daily Mail