The trans-Atlantic marriage or “cash for coronets” phenomenon during the 19th century has been subjected to scrutiny both on the academic and popular history front as well as being a fertile material for novels, plays, films and TV programmes and yet it continues to fascinate and repel in equal measure. These marriages are fascinating because they bring people back to a time of privilege, elegance and graciousness: yet they can be repellent because the mercenary nature of these marriages is unacceptable to a society where marrying for love is the norm.
One of the recent attempts to explain this phenomenon is Million Dollar American Princesses, a three part documentary produced and telecast in the US by the Smithsonian Channel and which is now currently being aired in the UK on ITV3. Perhaps as a way to cash in on the Downton Abbey phenomenon, the producers hired Elizabeth McGovern who plays Cora Countess of Grantham to present the documentary and with her at the helm highlights the first weakness of this documentary.
Acting and narrating are two different skills and McGovern’s voice is particularly an issue here. In his reviews of Downton Abbey for the Daily Mail, Jim Shelley has observed that she sounds like Elmer Fudd and this compounded with a breathy voice (which to me suggest poor breathing technique) proves to be very distracting as is the over-loud and badly chosen music that accompanies the documentary, along with crass sound effects such as the sound of doors slamming – thanks Smithsonian, very informative – when we are told why the Jeromes couldn’t break into society in New York and found the doors shut.
The first episode discusses the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy with case studies featuring Jennie Jerome (later Lady Randolph Churchill), Consuelo Yznaga (later Duchess of Manchester) and Frances Work (later the Hon Mrs James Burke Roche). All three women’s stories are fascinating especially those of Jennie and Consuelo due to their marriages bringing them both into playing an active role in the late 19th century British political and social scene.
However the women’s stories are given short shrift in favour of sensationalism, sex and irrelevant information and talking heads who bring nothing to the programme. The producers could have made more of an effort with Jennie’s active role in furthering her husband and son’s political careers and Consuelo straddling both the Marlborough House set and her mother-in-law (the “Double Duchess”) and stepfather-in-law’s (the 8th Duke of Devonshire) political circle but instead we get the current Countess of Carnarvon boasting of the family’s descent from Charlemagne (to which my reaction was “Bitch, please. Millions of people are descended from Charlemagne”) where perhaps we could have heard more from say a historian or a descendant of Jennie Jerome or the current Duke of Devonshire over the role played by both women in British political and social history.
Hyperbole is another weakness of this documentary with breathless pronouncements such as “guilty secret”, “breaking down the establishment”, “changing history forever” and “winner takes all”. I don’t understand why having to marry an American was a guilty secret – it was not as if the American wife was hidden and no-one knows that any children born of this trans-Atlantic marriage would have American blood. Perhaps it’s a “guilty secret” because having to marry an American heiress was to advertise that a family was so broke that they needed to be bailed out by foreign money. And no, these women did not “break down the establishment” they were hell bent on joining it, why else do you suppose their parents (especially the mothers) brought them over to Britain in the first place? It was to achieve the social advancement and good marriages denied to them by the closed society of New York.
Another hyperbole I take issue with is “winner takes all” as uttered by Jessica Fellowes. It’s clear to me that she has no clue what she’s talking about. The system of agnatic primogeniture means that the oldest son inherits the title and the lion’s share of the estate (which is entailed) but to say this is a system that divides into winners and losers is fundamentally misleading. Younger sons and daughters have and had their share of the inheritance and of course also received generous bequests from other members of the family and even friends. The system of inheritance as practised in Britain is designed to keep estates intact for as long as possible and is not meant to separate members of the family into winners and losers. Fellowes gave a neat potted explanation of primogeniture and thus why a sensible girl would go after the eldest son but a too brief explanation of why the peerage was in financial trouble beginning in the 1870s – and that it wasn’t just imports of American wheat.
The last hyperbole is with regards to “changing history forever” was used in terms of Frances Work. Through her marriage to the future Baron Fermoy, Frances is an ancestor of Diana Princess of Wales. Her story is fascinating but it degenerates into another way to insert Diana and the British royal family into the programme. Presumably it was to show that the women regarded by many as American upstarts managed to get their blood into the highest family of all? But in the grand scheme of British history I believe that accolade should be given to Jennie Jerome: as were it not for her son Winston Churchill, Britain might not have emerged from the Second World War victorious, and throughout the programme I was reminded that if Jennie Jerome and Randolph Churchill had not fallen in love and defied their families to marry, the 20th century history of many countries might be very different.
Million Dollar American Princesses is simply another long line of documentaries that has squandered its potential and simply pandered to the lowest common denominator. Another way to inform and educate the audience on how the past is different to the present shamefully wasted. The emphasis was very much on romance and how much the couples loved each other, but doesn’t make the point that all three in the programme ended unhappily; and a preview for the second episode says that later marriages exposed the swap of title for money in all its crudity. But that’s a 21st century view – people have been marrying like that for millennia. Marriage was quite distinct from love and that was universally recognised and accepted by the middle and upper classes.
I noticed that the American girls “fell in love” with titled peers just like that. Of course they did. We can’t have the impression that these are purely monetary transactions, can we? That’s being played down. What did come over in this documentary was that transatlantic marriages might have been for money but the couples were in love really so that made it all right, but what it doesn’t say is that women had one career and that was marriage and they didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not they were in love with the man who was going to be their husband. The message between the lines is the very modern message that marrying for anything but love is wrong.