Book Review – The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy

In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt, tired of the snubs from New York society, carefully planned a ball that would finally throw open the doors of the “400” to her and her husband William Kissam Vanderbilt. She decided on a costume ball, a type of event that had not been held for years, and her guest of honour would be her dear friend, Consuelo Drogo Montagu Viscountess Mandeville and future Duchess of Manchester. The viscountess was born Consuelo Yznaga, and Alva had known her since they were children growing up in the South during the heady days before the Civil War would shatter the world they knew.

For weeks people talked about nothing but the ball and it emerged that the doyenne of New York society Mrs William Backhouse (Caroline) Astor was not invited. The reason for this is because the two women had not been formally introduced and etiquette dictated that the more senior woman would call on her junior counterpart first then a reciprocal call would follow. After learning that her granddaughter was eager to be invited and had been hard at work on her dancing lessons, Mrs Astor made the first move followed by Mrs Vanderbilt and sure enough, an invitation to the ball appeared.

The farce above demonstrated how far the likes of Alva Vanderbilt were prepared to go to break into society, and having Mrs Astor call on her was a social triumph. But for the ambitious Alva, that wasn’t enough. She also began grooming her daughter Consuelo for a grand match: and that meant following in the footsteps of her godmother Lady Mandeville who finally became Duchess of Manchester in 1890.


Alva’s machinations are one of the many case studies chronicled by Anne de Courcy in her latest book, The Husband Hunters. Subtitled Social Climbing in London and New York, not only does it deal with the well-trodden path of analysing and chronicling the numerous American heiresses who traded dollars for a title and status, but also how their parents – especially the mothers – made it their life’s mission to break into the upper echelons of American and above all New York society.

By the 1870s America was experiencing an economic boom made possible by the end of the Civil War, industrialisation and population movement to the west in search of better work prospects especially in farming, mining, herding and railways among others. Many people rose from grinding poverty to wealth beyond their wildest dreams and soon began to acquire the trappings of wealth – mansions, yachts, trips abroad, jewellery, clothes, works of art and ostentatious entertaining. It was the period of the Gilded Age where luxury, vulgarity and ostentation were watchwords.

The old rich in places such as Boston, Philadelphia and especially New York City looked on these nouveau riche arrivistes in horror. To the old guard, wealth was not to be flaunted and should be balanced by good works and serving as a pillar to the community, but these newbies believed that social acceptance could be bought if the price was right, and de Courcy describes how this was all done.

New York society was especially difficult to penetrate and even more so under Caroline Astor, its self-styled doyenne. She was aided by Ward McAllister, a journalist who became her confidant and assisted her with planning her parties and balls. Through his journalism, he penned articles advising on behaviour, etiquette, dress and deportment but today he is best remembered for coining the myth of the “400” as a reference to the number of people who could fit into Mrs Astor’s famous ballroom and which became a byword for exclusivity. It became the goal for many a pushy social climber to break into its ranks because to be invited by Mrs Astor signalled social acceptance.

One roundabout way to secure that all important invitation was to marry off a daughter to an impoverished European aristocrat. The British were preferred –  not only because of a common language but also due to the exclusivity of British titles. Thanks to primogeniture the pool of titled men (both for the peerage and baronetage) was smaller than their continental counterparts and to aristocrats in need of money the nouveau was less important than the riche. And this is precisely what happened: from the 1870s to 1910, a large percentage of the peerage married American heiresses and not even Mrs Astor would dream of snubbing a titled aristocrat and his American heiress wife.

De Courcy makes a convincing case for the appeal of the American heiress to cash-poor peers. Not only were they treated equally under American inheritance laws but they were perceived as lacking the airs and graces that were the hallmark of aristocratic society. Thanks to their father’s money, they had the best money could buy in terms of clothes, jewels and experience. Many of them were also well educated and well-travelled thus being more sophisticated, confident and more at ease in conversing with people. Others had quirks and traits that allowed them to break down social barriers such as Consuelo Duchess of Manchester who could play the banjo which enlivened many a house party or dinner.

However not all American heiresses were beautiful or sophisticated or intelligent. Looking at some of the photographs in the book, it is hard to believe that they would have turned heads by virtue of their looks. In the end, one can argue (and de Courcy does not shy away from saying) that money was the main deciding factor for these matches. If the heiress was intelligent, beautiful and talented it was seen as a bonus and an asset but these marriages were a straightforward exchange of status and cash. Happiness and compatibility were also not major concerns and unsurprisingly a lot of these transatlantic marriages were unhappy, with some ending in divorce.

While the travails and tribulations of the American heiress turned British aristocrat has been well trodden, De Courcy also trains her eye on their mothers. American society was matriarchal, the men might have made the fortunes that raised the family’s economic status but it was the women who used the money in order to cement the social standing that they believed should go hand in hand with their newfound wealth. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” springs to mind as the women vied with each other to build bigger houses; acquire jewellery, works of art and paintings; wear the latest fashions and throw the most lavish balls of the season. The men were pretty much reduced to being human cash machines and had virtually no say when it came to family matters even with their daughters’ futures. It’s not surprising that many of these millionaires resorted to escaping from their own marriages metaphorically and literally.

The fierce competition and relentless ambition became too much but as the 1890s rolled along, the criticism became much more strident and as the United States became embroiled in an economic recession, the conspicuous consumption of these Gilded Age personalities left a bitter taste in the mouth. By the beginning of the twentieth century there was a backlash against these transatlantic marriages and as America increasingly began to play a role in international affairs, more and more people began to realise that they didn’t need aristocratic marriages for social validation.

De Courcy charts the rise and fall of the transatlantic marriage and social climbing phenomenon in thorough detail. In the end while the money the American heiresses brought into their marriages did save many a crumbling estate and some were the mothers to figures who made an impact in our history, in the long run their presence did not arrest the decline and fall of the British aristocracy. Instead they served as sticking plasters, delaying the inevitable but nonetheless nothing more than a short-lived social phenomenon.


Book Review: The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau by Julie Ferry

The transatlantic marriage phenomenon – whereby cash strapped British aristocrats married the daughters of American nouveau riche families –  has been the subject of novels (The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin to name a few), period drama (Downton Abbey) as well as academic and popular studies from the likes of Maureen E. Montgomery and Charles Jennings. Studies on the British aristocracy from the likes of David Cannadine have also touched on this occurrence. The latest comes from journalist Julie Ferry with The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau.

Transatlantic Marriage book

Subtitled “Husband Hunting during the Gilded Age”, Ferry examines the motivations and objectives of American heiresses and their families in crossing the Atlantic to find husbands. Her book focuses on the year 1895 which has been generally characterised as the apogee of the transatlantic marriage phenomenon. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s eventual marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough is the linchpin of this narrative and the main focus is on how this marriage came about. And a love match this wasn’t, it was arranged for all intents and purposes with a great deal of calculation, chutzpah, planning, even threats and bullying by Consuelo’s mother Alva Erskine Smith, herself from an old Southern family who lost their money in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, a member of a wealthy family who made their fortune in the railways, bought her wealth but not the social acceptance that she also craved. The Vanderbilts were shunned by New York society for making their money in trade and in order to be accepted by the so-called “400,” Alva planned her assault on society carefully. She persuaded her husband to build Marble Hall, which was to be their summer home in Newport; threw lavish dinners and balls; was seen at the right parties and public spaces and carefully cultivated friends and allies who could help her conquer society and secure the approval of the ultimate arbiter of New York society – Mrs Astor. Despite her efforts, she knew that the best way to secure this entrée to society was through her daughter Consuelo making a socially advantageous match. And not just any husband but a titled one – preferably British – and not just titled but a duke.

Alva turned to two friends to make this dream come true – Mrs Arthur Paget and the Duchess of Manchester who happened to be Consuelo’s godmother. Born Minnie Stevens and Consuelo Yznaga respectively, both women were part of the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy and through their beauty, charm and novelty managed to gain acceptance into society through their friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Being part of the Marlborough House set placed Minnie and Consuelo in a unique place. Ensconced firmly in the bosom of high society in Britain, they were in an ideal position to help Alva Vanderbilt and other pushy nouveaux riche mothers who were determined to marry off their daughters into the British aristocracy in the teeth of opposition from home grown heiresses and their match making mothers. The American heiresses and their mothers were advised on what to wear, where to rent a house for the season and how to navigate the complex etiquette and rules governing society. Minnie and Consuelo also hosted teas and dinners at their homes so that their fellow Americans could be introduced to eligible bachelors and their families.

Both women were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was seen as vulgar to exchange cash outright but gifts, generous discounts and settled bills certainly eased any financial difficulties that Minnie and Consuelo encountered. Helping broker these marriages allowed Minnie Paget and Consuelo Manchester to live and entertain in the lifestyle they were accustomed to and that was expected of the class they married into.

While the book isn’t exactly large, it’s packed with loads of details. Ferry charts the history behind the growth of society in America especially after the Civil War and how a system developed in order to regulate the flow of newcomers who wanted to break into established society. The rules were rigid and those who were unable to penetrate the likes of the New York Four Hundred headed to Europe where the cash-strapped aristocracy, despite prejudices against Americans, were prepared to welcome these interlopers because of the wealth they could bring to shore up their bankrupt and dilapidated estates.

Ferry also delved into newspapers and magazines of the period to demonstrate how these new rich arrivistes became the celebrities in their day. Their activities, homes, clothes, jewels and even their scandals were reported and commented upon: which horrified the old guard and traditional society who believed in thrift, modesty and propriety. Then as now, the papers were not averse to sensationalising stories, while some were embellished in order provide a talking point, other stories were outright lies and fabrication.

The result of these transatlantic marriages was mixed. While there were some who found love and happiness, others simply jogged on for the sake of family and duty. There were couples however who couldn’t simply maintain appearances and in the end decided on a separation or heaven forbid a divorce. The Marlboroughs were an example, after providing her husband with two sons to secure the family line, Consuelo and “Sunny” Marlborough began to lead increasingly separate lives and affairs on both sides led to a formal separation in 1906 and finally divorce in 1921. By the early 1900s, it was clear also that the novelty of marrying American heiresses was wearing off and even in America itself there had long been a backlash against their citizens marrying into the British aristocracy.

The book contains no new or ground breaking research but it makes a good introductory read to an era in history where the British aristocracy attempted to arrest their decline by looking across the ocean for that injection of cash while the American new rich were hungry for social validation. In the end, it proved to be a chimera – the decline of the aristocracy was irreversible while growing influence abroad would make Americans realise that they didn’t need coronets and titles to be accepted.


Books to ease your Downton Abbey withdrawals (Part 1 – Non fiction)

Downton Abbey has come to an end both in the UK and the US but if you are interested in the era the programme is set (as we are) then these books hopefully will give you a greater insight into this period and what life was like in Britain in the late 19th to the early 20th century. Ignore all other lists; this is the one you need.


Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan – The Glitter and the Gold

the glttier and the gold

Published in 1953 when Consuelo was already in her seventies this autobiography dwells on her childhood, her unhappy marriage to and divorce from the 9th Duke of Marlborough to her work with the poor and support for women’s suffrage and finally her second marriage to French aviator Jacques Balsan. Of particular interest here is Consuelo’s account of life as a duchess and chatelaine of Blenheim Palace which depicts a way of life in its Indian summer before its eventual demise during the First World War.


Anne de Courcy – Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry, The Viceroy’s Daughters, 1939: The Last Season, Margot at War: Love and Betrayal at Downing Street 1912-1916

The-Viceroy-s-Daughters     margot at war

This quartet of books from Anne de Courcy explores the lives of Edith Londonderry, the daughters of Lord Curzon and Margot Asquith where she weaves their lives amidst the social and political realities of the times they live in where their privileged lives were simply a façade for the growing impotence of the class they belong to and which all would come to an end with Armageddon in 1939.


Catherine Bailey – Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty, The Secret Rooms

black diamonds     the secret rooms

Catherine Bailey’s well researched books on the Fitzwilliam family and the 9th Duke of Rutland has all the ingredients that make Downton Abbey pale in comparison. From missing documents to forbidden love to betrayal to subterfuge to mysterious births and deaths; the stories of the Fitzwilliams and the 9th Duke do lend credence to the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction


Mary Lovell – The Mitford Girls

mitford girls

The death of Deborah Dowager Duchess of Devonshire in 2014 marked the end of an era and Mary Lovell’s biography of the famous and infamous six Mitford sisters provides a snapshot of what it was like for an aristocratic family to be a casualty of the prolonged agricultural slump that has decimated the fortunes of many in the aristocracy. The sisters’ close relationship with one another make good reading – how it was tested time and again and in some cases unable to withstand the changing political and economic conditions that engulfed their class.


Loelia Duchess of Westminster – Grace and Favour

Mabell Countess of Airlie – Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie

Lady Cynthia Asquith – Remember and Be Glad, Haply I May Remember

What was it like to be an upper class woman where you had to be strictly chaperoned until you were married? Where your education was haphazard and anything that was deemed to be unladylike was actively discouraged? Where discussion of awkward and difficult subjects was avoided? Let Loelia Westminster, Mabell Airlie and Cynthia Asquith be your guides through a vanished world where strict morality, a sense of propriety prevailed and the shenanigans of a Lady Mary, Lady Edith or Lady Rose would have been commented upon and not tolerated.


Mollie Moran – Aprons and Silver Spoons

Flo Wadlow – Over a Hot Stove

Rosina Harrison – The Lady’s Maid

moran memoirsReaders might wonder why we do not have Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs but we believe that her account is only one side of the story and it’s easy to forget that she did not work for the aristocracy or even the untitled gentry. For those of you who are wondering how a real life Mrs Patmore or Miss O’Brien might have coped and what life could have been like in an aristocratic household then the reminiscences of Mollie Moran, Flo Wadlow and Rosina Harrison will present another side of the story overlooked by Margaret Powell.


Frances Osborne – The Bolter


This could be subtitled The Marriages of Idina Sackville, a woman who could “whistle a chap off a branch” and frequently did. From scandalising Edwardian London to organising wife swapping parties in Kenya, this is a highly entertaining account of an earl’s daughter who pushed the boundaries of behaviour to extremes. Fascinating and repelling at the same time.


Vera Brittain – Testament of Youth

testament of youth

One of the best memoirs of World War One – poignant, at times agonising and at all times deeply personal, although for me it sags after the end of the war when Brittain talks at great lengths about her political and social justice ambitions and interests. One comment that was made when this came out is that it’s written as if Brittain was the only woman to lose a fiancé during the war, and she’s certainly self-absorbed throughout, but a worthwhile read as a contemporary account of Britain from peace to war and back again.


Phyllida Barstow – The English Country House Party

A description of the golden age of the English country house party from the death of Prince Albert in 1861 to the outbreak of war in 1914. An intimate and entertaining account of a vanished world and a vanished class that uses diaries, fiction and personal memoirs to convey a world that was not just about enjoyment but served serious social and political purposes.


Gail McColl and Carol Wallace – To Marry an English Lord

marry an english lord

One of the inspirations for Downton Abbey was the career of the Buccaneers – young American heiresses who came to Britain with the intention of marrying into the peerage. 1895 was the peak year for this social phenomenon, and eventually more than 100 heiresses exchanged their fortunes for British titles. Why they came, what they found, how they were supposed to behave, what it was like to be a peeress and what happened when – as often was the case – these marriages foundered are all entertainingly catalogued, with plenty of contemporary drawings and photographs.


Jerry White – Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War

zeppelin nights

London in 1914 was the chief city of the British Empire and with the declaration of war became, in the words of one review, one of the greatest killing machines in human history…the war changes London for ever…yet despite daily casualty lists, food shortages and enemy bombings, Londoners are determined to get on with their lives… patriots and pacifists, clergymen and thieves, bluestockings and prostitutes…a struggling yet flourishing city. It’s four years in the city’s long history told by focusing on the daily lives of Londoners, whether they were rich or poor, high or low.


Juliet Nicholson – The Great Silence: 1918-1920, Life in the Shadow of the Great War

great silence

A book about the two years from the end of the Great War to the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, and a solid and often moving account of the devastation effects of war and grief on the British of all classes and as the title implies, stoically endured in a silence that had come to an awareness that after four years of war reality was too much for words to describe. Like water moving under ice, Nicholson shows that despite everything people survived and coped and tentatively at last began to hope for happiness again.


Virginia Nicholson – Singled Out

singled out

This is an exploration of the lives of a generation of women who were deprived of marriage and motherhood by the carnage of war and the lives they made for themselves as they challenged convention, coped with adversity and in the process proved to themselves and others that men, marriage and babies were not the only future for women.


Elisabeth Kehoe – Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters

fortunes daughters

The most famous of the Buccaneers could arguably be Jennie Jerome but her two sisters Leonie and Clara also married into the British aristocracy and gentry. Elisabeth Kehoe’s fascinating biography chronicles the social ambitions of their mother and how through her sheer force of will and the sisters’ beauty and charm they married into the aristocracy in the process establishing themselves into society and becoming confidantes to politicians, royals and other prominent people of their day.


Amanda Mackenzie Stuart – Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in the Gilded Age

A dual biography of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her mother Alva, Stuart charts the events that shaped Alva’s social climbing ambitions and how Consuelo was instrumental to that plan. What is fascinating is how both women turned to good causes as society lost it allure and their marriages floundered under stress and strain – with their work for the poor, sick and women’s rights. And it is through public service and their respective second marriages that both mother and daughter find fulfilment and happiness.


Pamela Horn – Country House Society, Life in a Victorian Household, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, Life in the Victorian Country House, Ladies of the Manor, Life Below Stairs: the real lives of servants the Edwardian era to 1939, Women in the 1920s, High Society: The English Social Elite 1880-1914

Pamela Horn was a lecturer on social history at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University) and is an acknowledged expert on British society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her books all draw from various primary sources such as letters, diary entries, newspaper and magazine articles and census reports to flesh out how men and women both high and low really lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Robert Wainwright – Sheila: The Australian Ingénue who Bewitched British Society


Once the novelty of marrying American heiresses wore off, British aristocrats began to look more into the daughters of home grown industrialists and those from the Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) for potential brides seeing them as preferable to Americans. Among these women from the Dominions who took British society by storm was Sheila Chisholm an Australian who married the heir to the earldom of Rosslyn and attracted a string of admirers among them the future George VI who fell passionately in love with her. Wainwright deftly places Sheila at the heart of a society outwardly moving on from the First World War but still reeling from its effects under the surface only to meet its demise during the Second World War.


Martin Pugh – We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars

Martin Pugh suggests in the title that it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Britain during the years following the First World War. While the interwar years was a period of strikes, economic decline and growing impotence on the global stage it was also an era of the rise of consumer society, greater choice, improvements in science and technology and greater democratisation of society.


The Duchess of Devonshire – Chatsworth: The House

Like her sisters Nancy, Diana and Jessica; Deborah also developed a career in writing on the side and this excellent coffee table book charts the history of Chatsworth House and the previous dukes and duchesses who have made it their home. It also serves as a guided tour of one of Britain’s leading visitor attractions and bringing to life how the house has adapted to the changing times and changing needs of those who live and work under its roof.


Lucy Lethbridge – Servants: A Downstairs View of 20th century Britain

Jeremy Musson – Up and Down Stairs

servants  up and downstairs

Tracing the rise, apogee and eventual decline of domestic service, both Lethbridge and Musson makes an excellent stab at portraying domestic service in all its diversity and complexity and that it wasn’t all black and white when it came to servants and employers but it was in varying shades of grey.


Mark Girouard – Life in the English Country House

An architectural historian, Giorouard traces the development of the country house over the last 500 years in respond to changing times, fashions, needs and attitudes.


Anita Leslie – Edwardians in Love

Contrary to what has been claimed by the Downton PR machine, the people of the past are not empathically like us. As LP Hartley wrote in The Go-Between, “the past is a different country, they do things differently there.” Leslie, a cousin of Winston Churchill describes in great detail the loves and passions of the Edwardian upper classes, the rules they had to strictly adhere to and their views on love, relationships, marriage and adultery which by the standards of today can be seen as hypocritical and even unpalatable.


Tessa Boase – The Housekeeper’s Tale

housekeepers tale

Charting the history of the housekeeper from the 19th century to the present by using case studies, Tessa Boase depicts that there is more to the housekeeper than Mrs Hughes. While the position comes with power and responsibility, it is also fraught with hidden danger where one false move and the housekeeper finds herself with no job, no place to stay and no reference. Oftentimes a footnote in history, Boase places the housekeeper central stage and traces the changes in domestic service through their eyes.


Roy Hattersley – The Edwardians

Andrew Marr – The Making of Modern Britain

edwardians  modern britain

The Edwardian era is oftentimes seen as a period of the Belle Epoque of balls, dances and dinners where men in white tie and tails mingled with women in sumptuous evening gowns and jewels. But underneath the glitter and glamour was a society on a cusp of change where royalty and aristocracy were being supplanted by the middle class while march of science and technology was rendering the old ways of doing things obsolete and a whole group of people both men and women were no longer content to be simply seen as subjects but were flexing their muscles and demanding to be heard and to be taken seriously by the powers that be. Both are a must read as an overview of British history from 1901 to 1939.


Jeremy Paxman – Great Britain’s Great War

Kate Adie – Fighting the Home Front

Terry Charman – The First World War on the Home Front

great war

One of the wasted potentials of Downton Abbey was to explore the First World War in any meaningful way and as befitting the first mechanised and total war in history how it even pervaded the home front. Paxman, Adie and Charman explore the effects of the war in Britain, how everyone rich and poor, high and low were affected and a hundred years later still resonate in the British psyche.


For part 2 – see here

TV Review: Million Dollar American Princesses (ITV3) Part 2

In a previous blog, I reviewed the first episode of Million Dollar American Princesses and was disappointed by the wasted potential of this documentary. Sadly the second and third episodes are no better.

ITV3 picture

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Actress Elizabeth McGovern attends The Downton Abbey Ball at The Savoy Hotel on April 30, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Episode 2 entitled “The Wedding of the Century” focused more on the doomed marriage between Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough. While much has been written and said about the Marlboroughs and the circumstances that led to the marriage and its inevitable demise, I take issue with the assertion that she would lose her money and title if she divorced her husband. This is patently not the case as William K. Vanderbilt made sure that Consuelo had her own money separate from the dowry which was for her to use as she saw fit and became her lifeline when the marriage collapsed. Another was the statement that after the divorce she lost her title which isn’t the case as divorced and widowed peeresses keep their titles until they remarry, they don’t lose it just because the marriage is over (as Sarah Duchess of York has).

Another example of ignoring inconvenient facts is that of Mary Leiter’s marriage to George Curzon (later Lord Curzon). There was also yet again another ham fisted shoehorning in of Downton Abbey when it was claimed that the Curzon marriage was the inspiration for the fictional Granthams. While indeed there is a similarity between the two, what the programme fails to mention is the main reason why the Curzon marriage was happy was because Curzon expected his wife to subordinate herself to him and his political career. Mary learned early on that her husband’s needs and career would come first, second and last: although to his credit, Curzon did acknowledge her support and encouragement.

The final episode entitled “Movers and Shakers” was the weakest of the three. The great era of the trans-Atlantic marriages ended around 1910 with the ascension of a new King, George V who had a xenophobic suspicion of anything foreign and this meant that American born peeresses were pushed to the margins. By this point as well, the supply of heiresses was thinning and not even the money the heiresses brought to their marriages could stem the tide of the aristocracy having to sell up, retrench and in many cases lose their homes and estates altogether.

What made the final episode the weakest was apart from the persistent errors in the usage of titles were yet again the inaccurate hyperbole and the clumsy shoehorning of Downton Abbey. The assertion that Emerald Lady Cunard (nee Maud Burke) wielded power and influence is a misnomer as David Cannadine observed that “exclusive, aristocratic society had been transformed so fundamentally that it was no longer clear that it existed in its traditional sense……[i]nstead of being an adjunct to political life, patrician society was increasingly being detached from it. And even functioning as a marriage market, it was by no means as exclusive as it had been thirty years before. As one of the most important institutions through which the traditional elite has exercised power as a class, London society was effectively dead by 1914.” By the 1920s, it simply became “society for society’s sake” echoing the words of the American-born MP Sir “Chips” Channon who once described himself, “In society I am a power. In Westminster I am a non-entity.” The same could be said of Lady Cunard, her entertaining might have brought together politicians, aristocrats, businessmen, journalists, artists, composers and authors but they were a far cry from the gatherings that Consuelo Manchester helped organised with her mother-in-law the famed “Double Duchess” where house parties and dinners were as important as cabinet meetings.

Another inconvenient fact that the programme skates over is that by this time the few Americans who married into the peerage were not heiresses but upper middle class women who were a far cry from the so-called Dollar Princesses at the turn of the 20th century. The likes of Catherine Wendell (later Countess of Carnarvon) and Nancy Langhorne (later Viscountess Astor) only brought modest sums with them upon their marriages. One is struck at the irony of Elizabeth McGovern narrating what happened to the aristocracy after the First World War with the increase in income tax and death duties when Downton Abbey shows the Crawleys in complete denial about the whole financial situation facing their class and the economic and political situation outside the Abbey gates might as well not be happening.

The biggest disappointment however was concluding the documentary with Wallis Simpson and the Abdication crisis. If the whole point of the documentary was about wealthy American heiresses then Wallis Simpson certainly does not fit the bill. I suspect she was included as another way to shoehorn how another American interloper made her way into the British Royal Family (a previous episode mentioned that Frances Work was an ancestor of the Duke of Cambridge and his son). In my opinion, the documentary should have ended with a woman who I believe to be the ultimate Million Dollar American Princess – Kathleen Kennedy, one of the daughters of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy and sister of a future President of the United States. Like Consuelo Vanderbilt and Mary Leiter, she was part of a nouveau riche family and snubbed by the American elite – a snub which was compounded by their religion. However she succeeded where the likes of the Dollar Princesses failed – to bag the heir of a first rank peer and unlike the Marlborough or Curzon marriage, Kathleen’s marriage to the Marquess of Hartington was clearly a love match in the face of some opposition owing to their different faiths.

Kathleen Hartington

Crucially ending the episode with the Kennedy-Hartington marriage would have brought the documentary full circle. If the first episode was all about the financial decline of the British aristocracy then Kathleen’s wedding which took place during the Second World War and its tragic twist foreshadowed the fall of the aristocracy after 1945. Instead, what we have is a documentary that, much like Downton Abbey itself, ignored its material and the ability and potential to tell the viewer anything new or informative in favour of saccharine recounting of transatlantic “romances.”

Money and Entails – A Critical View of Downton Abbey Series 1 Episode 1

Disclaimer: I am neither a lawyer nor a legal historian and the points I express here are based on research and my knowledge as an amateur historian gleaned from studies on real life people and historical events. I am open to corrections, clarifications and additional information from people who are experts or those who know better. That, after all, is how one learns. I apologise as well for any wild assumptions I have made about how Lord and Lady Grantham came together.

As Downton Abbey is preparing for its sixth and last series, it has been an interesting observation for me how such a programme, once feted and praised especially in its first two series, has reached the point where it’s not just critics but casual viewers who have been noticing the flaws in the writing, structure and logic of the story lines. Add in persistent errors of assumption, the ahistorical bent, lapses in production and camera work as well as bad acting and I have seen essentially a programme that has squandered the enormous potential it had in the beginning.

I am of the opinion however that the lapses in logic are already present as early as the first series, when the Crawley family is thrown into a crisis over aristocratic inheritance and succession. In this blog, I intend to show what these lapses are and how what happened in the programme is not how it would have happened in real life.

The programme opens with one of the worst maritime disasters in history -the sinking of the Titanic – and we learn early on that the Crawleys are affected, with the Earl of Grantham’s cousin and heir James Crawley and his son Patrick two of the passengers who did not survive. This news becomes the focal point of the first main story line of series 1, which is about the entail and aristocratic inheritance.

Before I go any further, it’s important to bear in mind what an entail is and how serves as the bedrock of aristocratic inheritance in Britain. You can find out about the definition of an entail here and in the past, it required an Act of Parliament to have it broken and then only under exceptional circumstances. Despite the passage of a law (passed in 1925) that makes the process easier, many aristocratic estates are still governed by entails and this is one of the reasons why estates in Britain have remained intact as opposed to the Continent where many have fragmented or disappeared altogether.

Another factor as to British estates still being relatively intact is due to the law that governs aristocratic succession; that of primogeniture. The title is passed on through males and only via males until there is no legitimate male left to inherit the title, and so it becomes extinct upon the death of the last incumbent. Along with the inheritance of the title comes the lion’s share of the estate; the crucial part being the entailed bit. Contrary to popular belief, younger sons and daughters are not left destitute, their inheritance comes from the unentailed part of the estate which can be in the form of property, objets d’ art, jewels and money, but the main part of the estate which is entailed is always inherited by whoever succeeds to the title; it’s a mechanism to stop the incumbent from squandering the money and estate and that there will be always some form of capital come what may.

Downton series 1 Downton series 1 (2)

Once news is received initially that James and Patrick Crawley are among the passengers and might be missing or presumed dead, the stage is set for the future of the earldom and the estate to be discussed, as that the earl and countess have three daughters. Certainly Cora, Countess of Grantham thinks that it’s a topic worth discussing as soon as she’s learned what happened to the Titanic.

Cora: Of course this alters everything. You won’t try to deny it? You’ll challenge the entail now? Surely?

Robert: Can’t we at least wait until we know they’re dead before we discuss it?

Cora: Don’t talk as if I’m not brokenhearted, because I am. Of course I never understood why this estate has to go to whomever inherits your title –

Robert: My dear, I don’t make the law

Cora: But even if I did, why on earth was my money made part of it?

Robert: I cannot go over this again. My father was anxious to secure Downton’s future and –

Cora: Your father was anxious to secure my cash! He didn’t wait a month before he made me sign it over!

Which then is followed by a scene between Cora and her mother-in-law Violet the dowager countess who informs her that there is an heir to the earldom and her plan which mirrors what Cora wants her husband to do:

Cora: Of course, if I hadn’t been forced to sign that absurd act of legal theft by your husband!

Violet: My dear, I haven’t come here for a fight. Lord Grantham wanted to protect the estate. It never occurred to him that you wouldn’t have a son.

Cora: Well, I didn’t.

Violet: No. You did not. But when Patrick had married Mary and your grandson been hailed as master, honour would have been satisfied. Unfortunately now –

Cora: Now a complete unknown has the right to pocket my money along with the rest of the swag!

Violet: What does Robert say?

Cora: Nothing yet. He’s too upset.

Violet: Good. Don’t let him come to a decision until we can be sure it’s the correct one. The problem is saving your dowry would break up the estate. It’d be the ruin of everything Robert’s given his life to.

Cora: And he knows this?

Violet: If he doesn’t, he will.

Cora: Then there’s no answer.

Violet: Yes there is, and it’s a simple one. The entail must be smashed in its entirety and Mary recognised as the heiress of all.

Cora: There’s nothing we can do about the title.

Violet: No, she can’t have the title. But she can have your money. And the estate. I didn’t run Downton for thirty years to see it go, lock, stock and barrel, to a stranger from God knows where.

This exchange between Robert and Cora and Cora and the Dowager Countess already highlights the first two red flags in the programme – Cora’s constant reference to the money as hers (and subsequently calling the money “Cora’s fortune”) and conniving to have the entail broken despite the existence of an heir. The first is a red herring as the dowry is essentially from Cora’s father, not her. She could have possibly conflated her inheritance with the dowry which is understandable as Jessica Fellowes writes in The World of Downton Abbey that “On marriage, Cora’s sizeable dowry and later inheritance (my emphasis) have been wrapped up tightly within the estate.” In real life, one would be hard pressed to find sources referring to Consuelo Vanderbilt’s money or Mary Leiter’s fortune, it was always described as “the Vanderbilt millions” or Levi Leiter’s fortune; indicating that it was the fathers who made the money and it was from them that the money came for their daughters to secure the socially advantageous marriages that were expected of them.

Another point that leaps out of the exchange between Robert and Cora is that this business with the entail is not a new one for them. The lack of a male heir is the unspoken elephant in the room and it strikes me that Cora has never understood the mechanism of British inheritance law and that the money is no longer hers, so I won’t be surprised if Cora nagging Robert after the Titanic went down is the 999,999th time he’s had to put up with her whining about “my” money going to whoever is the heir. I believe that Cora has so internalised the idea that’s it’s her money that she thinks she has the right to decide what happens and Robert doesn’t. I brought it into the family; I decide what happens to it, not you is what she seems to be implying as she urges him to look into breaking the entail again.

There is of course the part that no-one ever raises, the unspoken bargain, you give me the money, I give you title and status and the other bit of the bargain is the heir you will produce. It has never been clear how the Granthams have reacted to their situation – was Robert philosophical about having three girls? He does have two male cousins. That’s not the same as an heir of his body but still good enough. Presumably the money is tied up in whoever inherits regardless of whether he is a son or not, hence the sense that Cora nagging Robert to break the entail is an old debate. However when the series opens there is some indication that he had long accepted the situation because there are two heirs and thanks to the injection of Levinson cash, at least the estate is secure.

The second red flag is the Dowager Countess’ reasoning for wanting the entail broken; which is the fact that the new heir is a third cousin once removed and to her a stranger; forgetting that even if Mary inherits, the money will eventually go to a stranger – her husband – as part of her dowry. I found it odd that the family are not aware of this third cousin’s existence, as the aristocracy kept tabs on even distant family members to determine the succession. It’s fair enough that the family do not know him personally but at least they should be aware of him; if real life families such as the Hamiltons, Howards and Cecils with their large number of descendants are able to keep tabs on their clan then a family as small as the Crawleys should have found this easy.

Part of the conversation between the Dowager Countess and Cora is what if Mary had married James’ son Patrick. Again, this is another point that puzzled me; if they were indeed dead serious about Mary marrying Patrick her parents would have let her enjoy her first Season on the understanding that she was already engaged then marry her off as soon as possible. If a family had decided a girl was going to marry then she’d do her season and marry. Perhaps Cora persuaded Robert that Mary and Patrick needn’t marry yet in the hopes someone else would come along for either or both; Mary’s comment about something better implies she isn’t being hurried into marriage in spite of having had several seasons; so perhaps Cora is really confident she can persuade Robert to break the entail and rather implies that after three seasons Mary’s only hope of marriage is if she’s an heiress.

Once Mary and Patrick are married, she can get on with the business of providing at the bare minimum an heir and a spare in order to cement the money staying in the family. This leads me to conclude that perhaps it was Cora’s plan for Mary not to marry Patrick after all. Break the entail, Mary gets the money and the estate and Patrick gets the title. By being in line to inherit the estate and money, Mary could have a far grander marriage than to the heir of a mere earl. Of course by adopting the dowager’s suggestion of breaking the entail in its entirety Cora would drive the earldom and estate back to being in need of financial rescue again, reducing the holder of the title to an impoverished peer in need of someone who can bring him lands and money. It would probably also provoke a huge rift between the two branches of the Crawley family, whereas if Mary married Patrick and had a son at least the money stays in the family; but after five series it’s clear that thinking ahead to possible consequences – or indeed, thinking of any sort –  isn’t something Cora ever does.

The Dowager is no more intelligent; she goes to consult Matthew of all people, in the hopes she can persuade him to give it up without saying what it is. Obviously it can’t be the title (there was no mechanism then to disclaim peerages) but most likely it’s the claim to the estate; which goes to show how she like Cora, hasn’t the faintest idea of what they are getting into and that she has neither delicacy nor tact; and to me, it was an early sign of Fellowes making his storylines both unbelievable and too complicated. Its not at all clear what it is that Fellowes is trying to say here; his characters don’t know what the hell they it is are supposed to be doing and the audience certainly don’t.

(Incidentally, for all their concern over Mary it’s clear that for the dowager at least her chief concern is  money; a characteristic of hers that we see several times.  When it appears that they can’t break the entail and Mary’s reputation is in danger because of her romp with Pamuk her loving grandmother is quite prepared to bundle her granddaughter off to marry a not too fussy foreign aristocrat and Mary’s mother makes no objection – obviously when push comes to shove they regard Mary as something to be manipulated as a means to their ends rather than a human being with feelings. She doesn’t want to be married off just like that to Patrick but once she’s blotted her copybook her mother and grandmother can’t wait to get her married off as soon as possible to anyone who isn’t fussy – which just shows what a big deal Pamuk is. The way Violet talks about marrying Mary off to an Italian prince is positively chilling; as if she’s a piece of furniture with a dodgy provenance they have to get out of the house. For all their concern over her they aren’t bothered at all about who they marry her off to and what sort of life she’ll have, as long as there’s no scandal. And of course, had they succeeded with the entail the not too fussy foreign husband would cop the money and do what he likes with it as there’s nothing to stop him. I wonder what they thought Robert would say to that and the news that his beloved elder daughter is going to marry some foreign aristocrat? Might he not ask questions? So many angles and either way, Robert would go apoplectic).


One thing the writer doesn’t tell the viewers is that Cora and the Dowager can plot as much as they like for the entail to be broken, but without Robert’s agreement they can do nothing. Meddle and conspire as much as they like, the women are planning nothing less than the overturning of the laws of inheritance and the breaking of the entail on nothing more than Cora’s belief that Mary should have “her” money and the Dowager’s dislike of a “stranger” inheriting – it would have been amusing to see what the Parliament of 1912 thought of the sense of entitlement of three women as a reason for disinheriting the lawful heir and overturning the entire mechanism of aristocratic inheritance. I wonder if Cora and the dowager actually realised or were bothered about the likely consequences of their actions and their effect on other people but I know that the answer to that is of course no.

And if Robert did agree to break the entail, what would happen? As mentioned earlier, it would require an Act of Parliament to have an entail broken and one needed extremely good grounds in order to do so. A classic example was the 7th Duke of Marlborough, who in desperate need of money petitioned Parliament to have the entail broken on the grounds that the books comprising the Sunderland Library were deteriorating through age and he could no longer afford their maintenance. Finally in 1880, Parliament passed the Blenheim Settled Estates Act which effectively broke the entail that was created by the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s will in 1722. The result was the dispersal of the estate’s extensive collection of Old Master paintings as well as the most valuable contents of the Sunderland Library. In Robert’s case it would be highly unlikely to have been considered once Parliament knew there was an heir and in the highly unlikely event it was ever broken, Matthew as the heir would be entitled to mount a legal challenge which might drag on for years and all of which would take a great deal of money. Even if the women don’t know that we can be sure Robert does and the last thing he would want would be a protracted legal battle that could mean the family have to air their dirty laundry in public.

Of course what this is really about is Julian Fellowes’ own sense of entitlement; the entire Downton canon is one long howl of grievance that women – notably his wife – cannot inherit titles and that he can’t take his rightful place as a member of a real aristocratic family instead of being a mere political appointment. Just like Cora and the dowager he believes that because he wants it therefore it’s right and should be done without any regard for the law of unintended consequences; and just like Cora and the dowager, he doesn’t stop to think that just because he thinks something needs to change it doesn’t mean that change is needed. At best the story of the entail wasn’t thought through for plausibility or the historical accuracy Fellowes continually tells us is so important to him, and when Matthew Crawley comes on the scene it’s abandoned as a story line as quickly as it was introduced and the dowager plans instead that the “stranger” heir to whom she was so vehemently opposed should marry Mary – which makes you wonder why she didn’t come up with that idea in the first place. There are so many logical flaws in the plan to break the entail that I’m astonished that no-one has pointed out how nonsensical it is.


The next flaw in the entail storyline is about Robert’s guilt about his motives for marrying Cora as well as the indirect reference to himself as a fortune hunter:

Robert: If you must know, when I think of my motives for pursuing Cora, I’m ashamed. There is no need to remind me of them.

Violet: Don’t you care about Downton?

Robert: What do you think? I have given my life to Downton. I was born here and I hope to die here. I claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and fourth child. Do I care about it? Yes. I do care!

Cora: I try to understand. I just can’t.

Robert: Why should you? Downton is in my blood and in my bones. It’s not in yours. And I could no more be the cause of its destruction than I could betray my country. Besides, how was I to know he wouldn’t take her without the money?

Cora: Don’t pretend to be a child because it suits you.

Robert: Do you think she would’ve been happy with a fortune-hunter?

Cora: She might’ve been. I was.

As an amateur historian, I find this whole business with guilt baffling as is Robert using the word “fortune hunter” in the context of himself and Mary’s potential suitor, the Duke of Crowborough. One of the aspects of the programme that has been noticeable is Julian Fellowes constantly putting Robert in the wrong and the guilt over the money is where it all starts. This is also coupled with one of the recurring issues with Downton Abbey, that inability to present the values of the era in which the programme is set and show instead the wholly modern day sensibility that to marry for reasons other than love is unacceptable. Just as Cora over the years has convinced herself the money is really hers, Robert has reproached himself that his approach to his marriage was unacceptably mercenary.

For centuries the aristocracy have always married money – the alliances between great landowning families and the newly wealthy home grown industrialists or even with the Jewish banking and entrepreneurial clans was part and parcel of this, with the aim of maintaining and expanding the family’s wealth. The aristocrats who had to marry American heiresses during the late 19th century didn’t feel any guilt or shame over their motivations; what was paramount for them was to preserve their estate, their wealth and to carry on providing for those who depended on them. Nor would they see themselves as fortune hunters, they would most likely see themselves as doing their American wives and in-laws a favour

In light of this, Robert’s guilt and indirectly describing himself as a fortune hunter can only come from his feelings being manipulated over the years, and he so absorbs this way of thinking that it becomes the first thing that comes into his mind during the exchange between his mother and wife in that first episode. It seems to me that Cora has conveniently forgotten the reason why her parents brought her to Britain. As I have mentioned in a previous blog entry, American heiresses came in droves to the UK in order to make marriages that would give them the status and prestige denied to their families at home. Cora’s family would have been looked down in America as nouveau riche and marrying Robert would in her family’s eyes give them the prestige they craved back home.

What Cora and people who immediately assume that such marriages are mercenary forget that it was not all about what Cora or a woman like her brought to the table, it was also what she expected to get in return – and let’s face it, she came to Britain for precisely that reason. Her parents’ money, someone else’s title and lands. Marrying for money when you had something to put on the table in return – like a title and an estate – was acceptable. Proper fortune hunting – being poor and chasing heiresses when you were ordinary Mr Crawley –  wasn’t. In that sense Robert isn’t a fortune hunter – or if he is then he might equally riposte that Cora was title hunting. Throughout the entail story line, Fellowes does emphasise a lot Robert’s guilt over his motives for marrying Cora but not Cora or rather her family’s motives for pushing for their marriage, and it’s the start of the process of making Robert seem in the wrong even when he’s right


However the biggest flaw in my opinion is that the fact that Cora has no money she can call her own and this I believe must have played a part in her resentment of the dowry and later her inheritance being absorbed into the entail. Traditionally under English property law a woman’s dowry and whatever money she earned or received before marriage was absorbed into the estate which her husband controlled, and in turn she received an allowance or pin money as well as a settlement for her widowhood. In 1870, Parliament passed what is known as the Married Woman’s Property Act (amended further in 1882) which gave women the right to have their own money and property separate from any conjugal and familial estate as well as to dispose of her property as she saw fit.

By the time the marriage between Robert and Cora was being discussed by their respective parents and legal representatives (which would have been around 1889/1890), there had been more than enough trans-Atlantic marriages that were unhappy or had ended in divorce. A smart parent would have been made aware of the pitfalls of such a marriage and would have taken steps to protect his daughter by providing her with her own money separate from the dowry; especially as the law allowed for this and even if it didn’t, the shrewd parent could circumvent it by dressing up the money in the form of an “allowance”.

A prime example of this was the marriage settlement between the 9th Duke of Marlborough and Consuelo Vanderbilt. As powerless as he was to stand up to his wife who effectively bullied their daughter into the marriage, William K. Vanderbilt took steps to protect his daughter by providing her with her own money separate from the dowry. The settlement agreed upon was in the form of a dowry reported to be in the total of $10 million. In addition there was also of stocks and shares in the New York Central Railroad (the Vanderbilts derived their wealth from the railways) worth $2.5 million settled on the duke which gave him a guaranteed income of $100,000 a year for life even in the event of death or divorce, while Consuelo herself receive an annual income of her own of $100,000 a year. This in effect became Consuelo’s lifeline especially after her marriage to the 9th Duke floundered and collapsed.

Even home grown heiresses were also protected with their own settlement. Almina Wombwell, the illegitimate daughter of Sir Alfred de Rothschild who married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was guaranteed the annual amount of £12,000 separate from the dowry as well as provision for their children. Apart from this annual amount, Almina could ask at any time Sir Alfred for money which she used to fund her many charitable endeavours and her husband’s interest in archaeology.

In light of these examples, it was irresponsible of Isidore Levinson to hang his daughter out to dry financially and leave her at the mercy of her in-laws and her husband. Cora is fortunate that Robert is a kind and considerate man but what if he had turned out to be another Manchester or Fermoy who squandered the money on drink, gambling and other women or investing on ill-advised schemes? Or what if he had bolted leaving her with nothing? Being an entrepreneur who came from grinding poverty, Isidore Levinson would have learned early on that nothing in life is certain and would make sure that his daughter – off to be married, live in a different country and to learn its culture and rules – would be provided for should the worst happen. Anything might happen; it might not be divorce or desertion, but Robert’s a soldier and there’s the possibility that he’d be killed, die while out hunting, is the victim of a shooting accident or succumbs to some disease while serving overseas. By not providing her with her own money, her father gambled with his daughter’s future and it was only through pure luck that she did not end up with a cruel or wastrel husband.

Of course it might be that Isidore Levinson was hoodwinked by the Crawleys and their solicitors but given he was hard-nosed businessman who had made millions it’s unlikely he would allow himself to be railroaded by old Lord Grantham. There was no reason for him not to drive a hard bargain and take into account all eventualities as well as settling money on Cora independently of the dowry. Even if her inheritance was tied to the entail, it wouldn’t matter as she was provided for. Many people don’t take into account that it’s quite possible that the Crawleys were desperate for money and that Cora was the only heiress available or willing to marry Robert. She said in series 5 that she was engaged by the end of her first season, so very likely Robert’s father wasted no time in securing her for his son as a way out of his financial crisis and  the Levinsons were happy enough for their daughter to be a peeress that they didn’t negotiate over the dowry as hard as they might have.

In his notes to the series 1 script, Fellowes claims that the money has been incorporated into the estate partly to prevent Cora running off and taking the money with her. Which I believe is nonsense; had the marriage ended in disaster and divorce was the only way out, Isidore Levinson would most likely have done a deal similar to Frank Work; not bother to disentangle the money from the estate and offer Robert more money to ensure that the divorce was speeded up. A clever businessman knows when to simply cut his losses and leave, having a protracted wrangling over the dowry would have benefitted no-one so better just to forget about the money and move on.

Fellowes also seems to ignore the whole point of tying the money up, it’s so that the estate benefits; to stop Cora running off with it is an effect, not a cause and as I’ve pointed out that’s highly unlikely. I have no idea why he leaps to the conclusion that that’s why it’s been entailed unless it’s to make it more interesting and create drama when the reality behind these settlements and why they existed was prosaic and routine.

Crucially I have also come to the conclusion that Fellowes wilfully ignored the Married Woman’s Property Act for reasons of the plot. Had Cora been provided with her own annual income that she could leave to her daughters she would not have made such a big deal about the dowry and her inheritance being tied to the entail. But there are strong indications that she has no money of her own and hence why despite knowing well the inheritance isn’t hers any more, she’s refusing to accept it and wants the entail broken so that Mary can inherit. No wonder Robert resists their efforts so firmly – he at least has the foresight to see the likely results of their meddling and how unlikely it is to happen. It’s a pity that he isn’t given the chance of explaining exactly how damaging and downright silly their plans are, but I suppose that would mean Robert being in the right and the women wrong, and we can’t have that.

Further Reading:

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. The Glitter and the Gold (New York, 1953)

Elisabeth Kehoe. Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters (London, 2004)

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in the Gilded Age (London, 2005)

F.M.L. Thompson. English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1963)

Maureen E. Montgomery. ‘Gilded Prostitution’: Status, Money and transatlantic marriages, 1870-1914 (London, 1989)

Charles Jennings. Them and Us: The American Invasion of High Society (Stroud, 2007)

David Gilmour. Curzon (London, 1994)

Anne de Courcy. The Viceroy’s Daughters (London, 2000)

Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl. To Marry an English Lord (New York, 1989)

Titled Americans, 1890: a list of American ladies who have married foreigners of rank (with an introduction by Professor Eric Homberger) (Oxford, 2013)

Henrietta Spencer-Churchill and Alexandra Parsons. Blenheim & the Churchill family : a personal portrait (London, 2005)

Mary S. Lovell. The Churchills (London, 2011)

Carnarvon, Fiona. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)

Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Season 1 (London, 2012)

Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)

Secrets of the Manor House (PBS documentary, 2013)

Million Dollar American Princesses (Smithsonian Channel documentary, 2015)

An American At Kenwood – Transatlantic Marriages in the Gilded Age

Apart from the famous Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House is also home to another superb collection of portraits, mostly of courtiers from the seventeenth century, Stuart monarchs and ladies of their court and members of the Howard family who have borne the titles Earl and Countess of Suffolk since 1603.

This group of paintings known as the Suffolk Collection was given to the nation by Margaret “Daisy” Leiter Howard, widow of the 19th Earl of Suffolk under the terms of her will in 1974 and were moved to Kenwood in 2001. Today they provide a fascinating glimpse into what clothes people wore especially during the early 17th century; as very few real examples survive, these portraits serve as a visual record of the fashions of the time and what they looked like when worn.

Among the other portraits is one of the 19th Countess herself, painted by the celebrated portrait painter of the fin de siècle, John Singer Sargent. It was commissioned by her parents and painted in 1898. The portrait has all the hallmarks of Sargent’s commissioned portraiture, such as the ethereal way he painted the women’s dresses, the absence of any distinct background that would detract from the subject and the paleness of the skin which is typical of his female portraiture. Dressed in a white and gold gown with the gold fabric billowing around her left arm, the future 19th Countess of Suffolk is every inch the personable young heiress and having her portrait painted by someone as feted as Sargent was a sign of the Leiter family’s wealth and growing status.


Daisy Leiter was one of the last wave of American women who married into the British peerage before the First World War, and even before her marriage to the Earl of Suffolk in 1904 was already connected to the aristocracy through marriage, as her older sister Mary had married George Curzon in 1895. Three years later he was raised to the peerage as Baron Curzon of Kedleston and appointed Viceroy of India. It was while visiting her sister in India that Daisy met Henry Molyneux Paget Howard, 19th Earl of Suffolk and a career army officer who was serving as an aide-de-camp to her brother-in-law. The press in both countries noted that Daisy’s wedding dowry would provide a much needed injection into the Suffolk estates and help restore Charlton Park to its former splendour.


By the time of the Leiter-Howard marriage, there had been several trans-Atlantic unions, with the first wave taking place in the 1870s when the likes of Jennie Jerome, Consuelo Yznaga and Minnie Stevens married into the British aristocracy and found themselves hobnobbing at the highest circles of society. It reached its height during the 1880s and 1890s, with the most famous marriages between that of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the 9th Duke of Marlborough and May Goelet to the 8th Duke of Roxburghe taking place.

One common theme running among majority of these trans-Atlantic alliances were what were popularly known as “cash for coronets” – young women from American nouveaux riches families marrying impoverished British aristocrats, a straightforward exchange between money and status. While some marriages were borne out of love matches such as the Jerome sisters and their respective husbands others were simply blatant business transactions; with some ending in the ultimate disgrace of divorce and lawsuits involving money and property.

To understand why such marriages took place, it is important to look at the circumstances that led to this mutually beneficial yet uneasy alliance between two worlds, two cultures and two very different outlooks. At the risk of using modern day geopolitical terms into this blog, in my view trans-Atlantic marriages can be seen as both a “clash of civilisations” (pace Samuel Huntington*) and as akin to a trading bloc – one has what the other wants and vice versa and they come together for the benefit of both sides.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the American economy grew at a spectacular rate unprecedented in the country’s history. This boom coincided with greater opportunities as America expanded further westward; the growth of cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Cincinnati and Denver and the discovery of natural and mineral resources such as silver, coal, ore and tin. Furthermore, business opportunities presented themselves in sectors such as transportation, communications, retail, service and engineering. The so-called American dream allowed men and their families who had grown up in grinding poverty to make spectacular fortunes and rise up the social ladder. Behind the backdrop of this spectacular rise which mirrored America’s own economic growth came questions about its own identity. As Charles Jennings observed:

“To any reasonably cultured European – and to any similarly cultured American – late nineteenth century America was writhing with internal contradictions. It was a great country, a mighty, progressive continent, inhabited by an unpredictable mixture of the rapacious, the suave, the backward and the crushingly unsophisticated. It was a monumental achievement littered with starkly provincial townlets and backwaters. It was also as twitchy about the questions of social status as any character in a Jane Austen novel. The Americans who were forging their New World had, inevitably, come from an Old World predispositions regarding status, culture, refinement. The United States may have been revolutionary in its origins; but it was in the nature of society, with all its evergreen social competitiveness, that its inhabitants couldn’t help but care what people thought of them and what the rest of the world thought of their nation as a whole.” (Them and Us pp. 2-3)

This clash came to a head as the social climbing newcomers tried to enter society and found its doors firmly shut. To the old guard such as the New York Knickerbockers, Boston Brahmins or the Philadelphia Main Line these new money families were a threat, they did not possess the qualities that were believed to be the hallmarks of membership – long standing ties to the city, respectability, philanthropy and frugality. If anything the old families were appalled by the conspicuous consumption displayed by the nouveau riche with their grandiose houses, their yachts and so-called summer cottages in Newport. The New York Four Hundred which supplanted the Knickerbockers was an attempt in some way to control the influx of these new rich families into the ranks of Society; with its leading members (most notably Mrs Astor) acting as arbiters of who could join or not. Those who could not secure entry into this circle turned to Europe – most notably Britain – for the status they craved.

Over in Britain, the aristocracy after being at the pinnacle of the social, political and economic pyramid for centuries found themselves slowly being challenged by twin assaults from the middle class with their wealth derived from other sources and the agricultural depression which began to seriously undermine the main source of aristocratic wealth. Politically they were also in decline; despite peers still occupying ministerial positions and having the power of veto in the House of Lords, by the dawn of the twentieth century they were fast becoming a spent force culminating with the removal of their power of veto over legislation in by the 1911 Parliament Act.

Keen to preserve what they could of their estates despite selling land and chattels, the aristocracy resorted to what they had done in the past – marrying for money. There were so few home grown heiresses – the richest of them was already off the marriage market in 1878 (Hannah Rothschild who married Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery), – so impoverished peers were forced to look across the Atlantic to seek potential wives.

Cash for Coronets – In the beginning

As mentioned earlier, those who were shunned by society in America headed to Europe where initially they found a more open and receptive society in Paris under the Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugenie. Under the Second Empire, building projects were undertaken in Paris, transforming it into the city that we know today as well as encouraging entrepreneurship and investment in technology and industry.

Paris also retained and enhanced its reputation for being the centre of arts, culture and fashion. Napoleon was drawn to self-made men and beautiful women and his court welcomed entrepreneurs and Americans, giving them the social recognition that would have been difficult to obtain in the past. The Jerome family were one of the early American families who were able to achieve the social success they desired in Paris that was denied to them in New York.

The Franco-Prussian War diverted the social traffic of Americans from Paris to London and although Paris regained its status as a cultural and fashion mecca during the Third Republic, the American plutocrats and parvenus began to increasingly prefer London – whose society (despite being ostensibly class obsessed and seemingly rigid) was easier to penetrate, was more receptive to wealth (despite claims to despise entrepreneurs and commerce) and above all was eager to marry their daughters. They also picked up quickly on the fact that among noble titles, British ones were the most desirable of all. Because of the principle of primogeniture, the title only passed to the oldest son or the nearest male relation which gave British aristocratic titles their exclusivity precisely because there were fewer than say French, Italian or German ones. Not to mention that even marrying a younger son was also a catch, not just for the family connections but if he had distinguished himself he could be raised to the peerage or baronetage and together with his wife, create a new dynasty thereby cementing their social status.

The American plutocrats’ entrée to London Society was made easier with the establishment by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) of an alternative social court which was centred on his London home Marlborough House. Thanks to him, formerly obscure events such as the Cowes Regatta became an important fixture of the Season. Maureen E. Montgomery observed in Gilded Prostitution that there were similarities between Napoleon III and the future Edward VII; the latter like the former liked the company of self-made men and pretty American women and his friendship or even just his acquaintance helped smooth out any social handicaps they might have. Just like the court of Napoleon III the Marlborough House set and the Edwardian court became a “focus for haute couture, conspicuous consumption, and plutocratic ambition.” (p. 22)

It was in the middle of the 1870s when the first wave of trans-Atlantic marriages took place; Lord Randolph Churchill and Jennie Jerome, Consuelo Yznaga to William Montagu 8th Duke of Manchester, Lillian Hammersley to the 8th Duke of Marlborough (it was a second marriage for both) and Minnie Stevens to Mr (later Sir) Arthur Paget. Jennie Churchill, Consuelo Manchester and Minnie Paget became social successes and could boast of close connections with the Marlborough House set; the latter two women would use their connections to great effect during the second wave of trans-Atlantic marriages.

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While the Churchill-Jerome marriage was a love match and both Randolph and Jennie had a happy marriage based on shared interests and her support of his political career, the Yznaga-Montagu marriage was obviously for the money and became the template for any future “cash for coronets” unions. Consuelo Manchester, despite being devoted to her husband and assimilating wholeheartedly into British society, had an unhappy marriage and notwithstanding the money she poured into her husband’s estate, the 8th duke effectively abandoned her and their family and only communicated with her when he needed money. However the Manchesters did not divorce and Consuelo remained a fixture in London Society until her death in 1909. In the next few years, the number of trans-Atlantic marriages would grow; culminating in the 1890s with the ultimate “cash for coronets” union in the form of the marriage between Consuelo Vanderbilt (incidentally a goddaughter of Consuelo Manchester) and Charles “Sunny” Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough

A “Clash of Civilisations”

As more trans-Atlantic marriages followed, there was growing unease over them on both sides of the Atlantic. The British were concerned over the number of American born peeresses; there was sneering over their backgrounds and many people took the view that anything and everything American was brash and vulgar. In addition, the influx of Americans into British society coincided with the opening up of the aristocracy and society. Historians have observed that the aristocracy’s reaction to the growing change in their circumstances and the anxieties that went with it were projected on to the social climbers whether home grown or foreign. The home grown arrivistes could be assimilated into the aristocracy and in time be part of the elite but the Americans were foreign and were seen as a threat, a challenge to the British way of life, therefore, their women could only be tolerated as wives of British peers.

Trans-Atlantic marriages were viewed with growing antipathy in America as well. Initially the marriages were viewed in some circles with pride, demonstrating social acceptance and how American women could hold their own against their European counterparts. Newspaper coverage of the weddings could be gushing, with special attention paid to the American bride’s beauty and the splendour of her trousseau. But as several of these marriages unravelled with some ending acrimoniously through the divorce courts or in lawsuits over money and property; the American press and public turned against them. Attitudes became more cynical and such unions were denounced as “unpatriotic” and a “betrayal” of American values and the principles on which the United States was founded. It reached a point when trans-Atlantic marriages became so common that the press began to report home grown marriages as a novelty, seen more as a match between equals and one made out of love rather than a business transaction.

A lot of the criticism was centred on lavish expenditures for the wedding, trousseau and the most crucial thing, the bride’s dowry; especially as by the 1890s, the American economy was overheating with periodic cycles of boom and bust. Compared to the meagre wages received by their workers, the American plutocrats carried on spending lavishly. Several commentators pointed out that money being spent propping up tottering British estates was being diverted from American workers, industry and investment at a time when the economy was vulnerable to depression, strikes and banking crises. Such appeals to patriotism were futile as social climbing Americans continued to look to Europe for social validation; and would continue to fall on deaf ears until at least 1910

Cash for Coronets – the peak and the end of the dream

The apogee of the trans-Atlantic marriage phenomenon was the 1895 wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt, daughter of the railroad magnate William K. Vanderbilt, and Charles “Sunny” Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. The circumstances of their marriage and the events leading to their acrimonious separation and final divorce have been documented in contemporary news reports, magazine articles, books and documentaries. It was clear from the onset that this was a “marriage of convenience” (in Consuelo’s own words) and not even the American press were fooled; in the run up to the wedding, several newspapers published satirical cartoons poking fun at the mercenary nature of the marriage.

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Consuelo’s mother, Alva Smith Vanderbilt, had been so incensed by the snubs accorded to her and the rest of the family by the New York Four Hundred that she planned her assault on that society through lavish building projects (such as persuading William K to build Marble House, which became their summer home in Newport), entertaining and marrying her only daughter off to an aristocrat.

Alva Vanderbilt was no different from the other pushy social upstart mothers wanting status through their daughters marrying into the British aristocracy. Like these mothers, Alva declared that a Continental nobleman was not good enough for her daughter and going further than her fellow Americans, also stipulated that Consuelo should marry a duke. By coincidence, the impoverished 9th Duke of Marlborough was in search of a rich woman to save the Blenheim estates. After a lengthy negotiations concerning the dowry and Consuelo’s own financial arrangements as well as threats from Alva, the pair were duly married and left America to begin their married life in the forbidding environment of Blenheim Palace.

The Marlboroughs’ marriage, just like those of the Manchesters, Curzons, Suffolks and that of the fictional Granthams was indeed pursued with the motivation of securing money for their estates; as an aristocracy without money was scarcely worth the effort, keeping up appearances was important and despite having to marry for money, it was important for these families to continue with the façade that they were above all things financial. Despite most of the trans-Atlantic marriages being purely for financial reasons some were love matches while others such as the Curzons grew to love one another. There were also American women who were not as unwilling to marry as Consuelo Vanderbilt; there were some who welcomed marriage to a British aristocrat as an opportunity for them, as there was a stronger tradition of female involvement in philanthropy and public duty in Britain.  British women of all social classes did not have legal rights but marriage to an aristocrat provided the opportunity for the American heiress to escape pressures back home and make a fresh start. Crucially marriage to an aristocrat offered a sense of useful occupation, adventure, romance while others saw it as a way to broaden their horizons and learn something new

Looking at the marriages whether successful or unsuccessful, both parties did benefit – the American heiress was able to gain a title and status as well as purpose in life while the British aristocrat obtained the money needed to keep the estate going and an heir. The British aristocrat wasn’t a fortune hunter; he had the status and the property but not the money to keep it solvent and so quite naturally he went in search of what was missing.

By 1910, trans-Atlantic marriages were losing their novelty as the supply of heiresses was thinning and despite the money, the economic decline of the aristocracy could not effectively be arrested. Even the top ranks of the peerage were selling off property and works of art, and the tone set by the new King, George V with his insularity and xenophobic suspicion of anything not British (including the Empire) meant that American born peeresses were pushed to the margins of high society; while in the United States, the emerging self-confidence due to the acquisition of colonial possessions from Spain and the growing clout in world affairs after the First World War made Americans realise that they did not need coronets and titles for social validation. The great era of trans-Atlantic marriages was well and truly over.


* Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) is an American political scientist best known for developing the “clash of civilisastions”, a thesis of a post-Cold War world order. His ideas were first published in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993 then were later expanded into a book entitled The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996). His ideas were developed as a reaction to the ideas of a former student, Francis Fukuyama outlined in The End of History and the Last Man (1990). While Fukuyama argued that the end of the Cold War had resulted into the triumph of liberal democracy, human rights and the free market economy leading to the “end of history” in a Hegelian sense, Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to the state where conflict would be along cultural lines with his main argument that this conflict would be characterised by cultural and religious fault lines.

The phrase “clash of civilisations” itself was already used back in 1990 by Bernard Lewis in an article for the Atlantic Monthly and still earlier by Basil Mathews in a 1926 book entitled Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilizations.

Photographs taken from various sources such as Wikipedia and Photo of the portrait of the 19th countess was taken by author during a visit to Kenwood.

Photo of cartoon was taken from Blenheim & the Churchill family : a personal portrait by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill

Further Reading

David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)

David Cannadine. Aspects of the Aristocracy (London, 1994)

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan. The Glitter and the Gold (New York, 1953)

Elisabeth Kehoe. Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters (London, 2004)

Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Mother and Daughter in the Gilded Age (London, 2005)

F.M.L. Thompson. English Landed Society in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1963)

Maureen E. Montgomery. ‘Gilded Prostitution’: Status, Money and transatlantic marriages, 1870-1914 (London, 1989)

Charles Jennings. Them and Us: The American Invasion of High Society (Stroud, 2007)

David Gilmour. Curzon (London, 1994)

Anne de Courcy. The Viceroy’s Daughters (London, 2000)

Dominic Lieven. The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914 (New York, 1993)

Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl. To Marry an English Lord (New York, 1989)

Titled Americans, 1890: a list of American ladies who have married foreigners of rank (with an introduction by Professor Eric Homberger) (Oxford, 2013)

Henrietta Spencer-Churchill and Alexandra Parsons. Blenheim & the Churchill family : a personal portrait (London, 2005)

Mary S. Lovell. The Churchills (London, 2011)

Laura Houliston. The Suffolk Collection (London, 2012)

Secrets of the Manor House (PBS documentary, 2013)

Million Dollar American Princesses (Smithsonian Channel documentary, 2015)