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.

 

Advertisements

Books to ease your Downton Abbey withdrawals (Part 2 – Fiction & Academic)

For part 1 – see here

FICTION:

Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

sassoon 1

The first in a trilogy, like The Shooting Party this is England before the Great War, but instead of the landed classes Sassoon writes an autobiographical portrait of English country life as it was for the minor gentry. Mellow, nostalgic and in the words of a contemporary review, bathed in a golden atmosphere of orchards, horse tack, linseed oil and leather bound, unopened books. Nostalgia at its finest.

 

Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

sassoon 2

The second part of the trilogy and a fictionalised story of Sassoon’s experiences on the Western Front that drove him to express his opposition to the war. Like Brittain, deeply personal and moving (but a great deal shorter).

 

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

gobetween

A apparent pastoral idyll hiding betrayal, love, deceit and desire and a young boy’s awakening to the realisation of how adults can use each other and even children to get what they want if they want it badly enough. Like so many of our choices, set just before World War One in the hot summer of 1900 and portraying a way of life that was within a decade to disappear for ever.

 

Isabel Colegate – The Shooting Party

shooting party

A short but flawless novel that is a snapshot of the Edwardian upper classes at play on the brink of war – confident, certain of their place in the world and the superiority of their class and country but with the first hairline cracks of uncertainty starting to appear.

 

C.S. Forester – The General

the general

Writing these comments it’s very noticeable that for our choices war or the imminence of war is a theme, and of course that’s inevitable if you are exploring the era when Downton is set – Julian Fellowes must be the only writer I’ve come across who writes about this period and apart from one series manages to pretty much ignore the very large historical fact of World War One and its effects on people decades after it ended. This is a superb novel about a decent, brave and wholly unimaginative man who is far from evil or wicked yet sends men to appalling slaughter. CS Forester has long been one of my favourite writers and he had a fascination for flawed, awkward people: and while the author recognises his hero’s flaws and failings are inevitable because of his lack of imagination, he also does him justice as a human being. One of the must reads on this list.

 

J.L Carr – A Month in the Country

month_carr

A damaged survivor of the Great War recalls the summer of 1920 he spent in Yorkshire: how the village and its people were a place of refuge, healing, love and friendship, and a precious memory he has carried with him for years. Lyrical and beautifully written.

 

Winifred Holtby – South Riding

south riding

Set slightly later than Downton Abbey, this is a novel about the lives, loves and politics of  a town in 1930s Yorkshire – blighted by the war and coming to terms with significant social change.

 

Vita Sackville-West – The Edwardians

edwardians 2

A thinly disguised account of Knole and members of the Sackville-West family, this novel published in 1930 explores dual themes such as tradition and change, duty and pleasure. While this can be seen as a critique of the emptiness and vacuity of the aristocracy and their way of life it also represents a labour of love for Vita in her description of Knole, its history and the symbiotic relationship of the house with everyone who depends on it for a living.

 

P.G. Wodehouse – Blandings novels

No mention of the post WW1 era would be complete without a mention of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings novels. Set at an indeterminate period between 1918 and 1939, they evoke a golden age of the middle and upper classes wholly unthreatened by punitive increases in taxation, social unrest, Bolshevism, socialism or any of the concerns of real life in the 20s and 30s. Like Downton Abbey they exist in an idealised bubble where the aristocracy are supreme  and everyone except his family defers to the earl while having their own (not necessarily flattering) opinions about him. Unlike Downton Abbey however they evoke the period with tiny but deft touches, are superbly written and very funny.

 

 

ACADEMIC:

 

David Cannadine – The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

cannadine

Before the 1870s, the British aristocracy was at the height of its power but in less than a decade later their long descent into impotence and irrelevance had begun. Cannadine’s magisterial study charts their decline and fall aided and abetted by a combination of new challenges from other socio-economic groups for long marginalised and were now challenging and battling the aristocracy for power and control, punitive taxation, and from industry and cheap imports from abroad. The First World War and its aftermath led to a huge blow from which the aristocracy has never recovered since. Highly recommended.

 

Diane Urquhart – The Ladies of Londonderry: Women and Political Patronage

Aristocratic women like their middle and working class counterparts might not have legal and political rights but they could make a difference through their charity work; patronage of the arts, sciences, religion and education and  entertaining. Using the Marchionesses of Londonderry as a case study, Urquhart examines how their work and efforts particularly in the field of charity, the war effort and political entertaining have had mixed results but all the time wholly consistent with the aristocratic notion of public service and duty.

 

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

It wasn’t only in Britain where transatlantic marriages between the aristocracy and American heiresses were unpopular but also in America where following a backlash, they were increasingly being seen as unpatriotic, a betrayal of the American Dream and the ideals of the Founding Fathers. At the risk of sounding like Samuel Huntington here, this was a “clash of civilisations” where the values of the New World in which egalitarianism and merit reigned supreme were being challenged by the desire for status and social acceptance.

 

Jose Harris – Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914

harris

Charting changes in British society in the forty odd years before WW1 around themes such as demography, family and household, property, work, religion, society and state; Harris presents a succinct and well-argued view that the notion of public virtue is what kept Britain relatively stable despite its own social and economic problems and how social policy was increasingly becoming the concern of the state thereby laying the foundations of the welfare state that came into being following the Second World War.

 

Dominic Lieven – The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914

A comparative study of the British, German and Russian aristocracies, Lieven charts how they met the challenges facing their class and their countries and deduces some common threads that were the factors for the decline and fall of the British, German and Russian aristocracies namely the rise of the middle class, industrialisation and professionalism in the military, civil service and the government.

 

Andrew Adonis – Making Aristocracy Work: The Peerage and the Political System in Britain, 1884-1914

While Cannadine’s study looks at a broader picture of the decline and fall of the aristocracy, Adonis’ work focus more on the aristocracy from a purely political aspect and argues that not only was their power steadily eroded by the growing number of middle and working class MPs but crucially the clash over the budgets in 1909 and 1910 paved the way for the Parliament Act on 1911 which signalled the end of the House of Lords’ power of veto and a blow from which they have never recovered.

 

Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds) Currents of Radicalism: Popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914

These collection of essays charts the rise of radicalism and the labour movement becoming a political force in Britain challenging both the aristocracy and the middle classes but at the same time working with these groups to ensure that grievances against pay, working conditions and being denied the vote were taken seriously and acted upon.

 

Bloggers’ Recommendations:

A.L. Carr                         A Month in the Country

Isobel Colegate            The Shooting Party

Vera Brittain                Testament of Youth

David Cannadine        The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

C.S. Forester                 The General

Catherine Bailey         Black Diamonds