To Marry an English Lord

As a writer of historical fiction, I have to admit that I am always being inspired by the history books that I read and am constantly adding to a massive list of possible subjects for future novels. I can’t actually understand writers who don’t read (to be honest, I can’t get to grips with ANYONE who doesn’t read much – I think they must be a bit creepy to only have their own boring thoughts rolling about in their heads like marbles) though but it can get a bit wearying to constantly have the ‘THIS WOULD MAKE AN AWESOME NOVEL’ klaxon going off.

To Marry an English Lord set off so many klaxons while I was reading it that I think my nerves were a mess by the time I’d finished it. What a great book though – it takes a look at the late 19th century phenomenon of disgustingly wealthy American heiresses marrying into the English (and other European) aristocracies and the various triumphs and travails that they encountered along the way.

Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough and her son Lord Ivor Spencer-Churchill, Boldini, 1906. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers is one of my all time favourite novels, I was always bound to enjoy reading about their real life counterparts but I didn’t expect to be quite so enthralled by the endless descriptions of lavish costume balls, houses decorated with genuine antiques ripped out of val de Loire chateaux and the stressful iniquity of entertaining royalty in draughty, inconvenient British mansions.

It was fabulous too to read about the development of the American heiress over just a few decades from the point that they were excluded by dint of being too ‘new’ and parvenu from snobbish New York well heeled society and so resolved to take their chances in Europe instead where there were copious amounts of cash strapped aristocrats crying out for an injection of American money to their final triumph as a new breed of ‘American Aristocrat’ – groomed, exquisitely dressed in Worth gowns, well educated and poised to take the world by storm.

Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph Churchill and one of the original American Buccaneers. Photo: Private Collection.

This was a fascinating book that provided a veritable feast of information about a remarkable and rather romantic social revolution. I’ll admit that I was really only in it for the descriptions of houses and dresses but I came away inspired and keen to learn more. Maybe I’ll even write about it one day!

Definitely recommended for anyone who likes their history on the opulently flouncy side. I’d really like to read Fortune’s Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters – Jennie Churchill, Clara Frewen and Leonie Leslie next but might wait and see if it comes out on Kindle as I hate reading books on anything else now! Have I become as bad and incomprehensible as people who don’t read at all now? Such hypocrisy – how I disgust myself.

(I’ve just realised that Winnaretta Singer, the most fabulously named of the American Buccaneers, who went on to marry Prince Edmond de Polignac was born on this day in 1865, which is quite fortuitous really.)

10 thoughts on “To Marry an English Lord

  • Lucy

    It’s all in the past, but still I find it sad that all that money was transferred from the US and the labor of terribly exploited immigrants and people who had no choice ended up burned away on the altar of dying European aristocracy. After all that money didn’t end up doing anyone much good in the end. We have some glamorous vestiges left, in buildings and paintings and the objects made for the elaborate lifestyle. I always find it fascinating when a glimpse is caught of those who made those things. In certain ways, they were much luckier than those who bought those things.

  • Caroline

    I generally don’t like non-fiction (I have the attention span of a gnat)but I read this one is just a couple of days last October. Like you, I had a bajillion writerly notions take flight. I was constantly Googling some of the lesser known ladies to see what happened to them, what they were like, etc. My only complaint was that the book focused on little too much on Consuelo Vanderbilt and Jeannie Jerome, both of whom have been done to death. I would have liked to have known more about some of the lesser known “Bucanneers”.

  • Holley Calmes

    I read this last year, and it was diverting, to say the least. I find it vastly entertaining to follow the determination of women who will not be stopped because someone else won’t allow them what they want. OK, they weren’t curing diseases, but to be honest, most weren’t allowed by the culture to do much beyond church work anyway. Admirable? Maybe not in some ways, but for pure preserverence and one-upsmanship, our own Buccaneers are enjoyable to read about.

  • Corinne

    Bought a copy of this for myself and my sister….Can’t wait to read it!! Read a book a few years back (now out of print and can’t recall the author) called “In a Gilded Cage.” It covered the same territory and I couldn’t put it down!! These books should come with a trip to Newport, Rhode Island. So much fun to read about these people when visiting their faux palaces, which are now aged just enough to pass for the real thing!! You really must go….So much fun to see these gigantic castles lined up on the street just like row houses!! Just love the place!!

  • Elisa

    I read this book last year too. I wish the authors had a preface/forward since this was a reissue and not just a new cover.

  • Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

    I bought this book when it first came out and I own the new edition with Consuelo on the cover. I would also recommend Marion Peacock’s book about the 5 or 6 American women who became duchesses. The Dukes of Manchester are a particularly bad lot!

  • Cassidy

    it can get a bit wearying to constantly have the ‘THIS WOULD MAKE AN AWESOME NOVEL’ klaxon going off.

    I know EXACTLY what you mean (although I’m in awe of you for always managing to actually turn these urges into novels). Whenever I read history non-fiction, I want to write about everything.

  • Angela Magnotti Andrews

    I love that you mostly read the book for the dresses and houses. I find that much of my time is spent looking in obscure books to find descriptions of dresses and jewelry.

    And you’re SO RIGHT about the problem of idea overload. I was just lamenting this particular malady yesterday. I started making outlines of some of the books I will write “one day” just to turn the “klaxon” off for a bit. Perhaps the non-reader writers have something going for them in terms of focus?!? Though, I agree, I don’t understand writers who don’t read.

  • Tara from Maryland

    I also own an earlier, pre-Downton edition of this book…and I’ve loved it too! But I really am commenting to say that this comment was PERFECT: (to be honest, I can’t get to grips with ANYONE who doesn’t read much – I think they must be a bit creepy to only have their own boring thoughts rolling about in their heads like marbles)

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