To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD.Wallace A History of American Heiresses

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This American book, reprinted in 2012, is a comprehensive history of rich American girls, heiresses sometimes known as ‘dollar princesses’, who came to England to marry into the British aristocracy. This practice, which mainly occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, has been immortalised in fiction several times, most notably (as mentioned on the cover) in television’s Downton Abbey. The girls, brought up in a strict American society which had more rules, customs and conventions than imaginable today, were the product of a relatively small number of families with great fortunes. Not all the money was expected to go to the male heirs as in Britain; if the daughters found an impecunious but titled man to marry, he got the use of her money, she got the title for life and her children. The book is subtitled “Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery”, but the delicately minded need not fear; there is little sex.

The format of this book, a large paperback, at first suggests that there will not be much detail as each page opening features pictures and information boxes. This is not the case as the layout allows a lot of information to be packed into this book, which begins in 1860 with the visit of Albert, Prince of Wales. The book describes the tightly organised Knickerbocker families before going on to list the attractions of the London Season and the lure of British society. The Buccaneers braved the rigid rules of Society and married the young men whose estates and houses were financially embarrassed but who had a title to offer. Well known brides like Jennie Churchill and Consuelo Marlborough are featured as their sometimes unhappy stories are recorded. The less well known brides, in Britain at least, are also included with their trials and tribulations. This book takes us from the first brides through to the mistresses of King Edward VII, the trials of providing a male heir and spare, illustrated with maps and handy guides to the ranks of the aristocracy.

The early part of the book was not quite so interesting to me, as there is a great deal about the intricacies of American society and the power struggles and jealousies of the powerful women of the day. Later there is a lot of information about the marriages I have heard of before, even the excessive parties which have become legendary. There is a huge amount of information to be found in this book, especially when the Directory or Register of American Heiresses is added at the end. A Walking Tour of London is also featured with a Bibliography and Index. An immense amount of research has obviously gone into this book, and it would form an invaluable resource for writers and some academics. By no means a quick read, this is an exhaustive study of the subject of the girls who were persuaded to marry a title, at literally any cost, whether from affection or arrangement.  Yet it is readable and always interesting with its unusual format.

This is quite an old book, but I picked it up in November 2016 at Knole. It is a lovely book, and if I was aiming to write a book or study of this period and Anglo American marriages, it would be a fantastic starting point. It shows I read a wide variety of books…eventually!

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2 thoughts on “To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD.Wallace A History of American Heiresses

  1. The story of Consuelo Marlborough is one I’ve read before and is remarkable for what her mother put her through to marry for a title. Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers also covers this subject. I wouldn’t have been happy about being “sold” to a rich husband!

    1. Yes, the fictional accounts of such marriages are not tempting! Persephone Books brought out an edition of “The Shuttle” by Frances Hodgson Burnett a few years ago, and that lingers in my mind as an example of where one of the marriages goes wrong. I do hope some of them were at least acceptable in reality…

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