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!

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall

This is a book of growing up in an enclosed community. It is a book of female friendship and what that may mean for the future. It is a novel of place, time, and essentially of love. Set in a lighthouse community in late nineteenth century Australia, it deals with a time when a woman was judged on her marriage prospects rather than what she actually felt, and the disastrous consequences that could mean for her.  I was sent this novel based on real events by Legend Press to review, and it is a stunning debut by an author who has actually thought about life in the circumstances which existed so long ago.

In a way the narrator, Kate, is confined by her father’s job. He is a lighthouse keeper on a cape in Australia, and Kate’s life experience is confined to the families of those who work on the lighthouse with her father. There are the native people who exist on the fringes, and a few fishermen who pick up a small living locally. The most important person in Kate’s life is Harriet Walker, who is slightly older but as an only child, dependent on Kate for company. They grow up together, though Kate takes more risks, leads Harriet into danger in the playground of cliffs, beaches and the natural world around them. As Harriet grows up, meets people, goes to Melbourne, Kate has only her imagination and the books she reads for company, and she makes mistakes.

The research into the period is beautifully incorporated into this novel, as the reader can follow the tiny community in its simple life of near self-sufficiency.  I really admired the graceful descriptions of the world enjoyed by Kate and Harriet, including the basic school and struggle to grow even a few vegetables. The descriptions never get in the way, but occasionally the feeling of sadness and even doom does tend to dominate the flow of the story. Otherwise, it is a beautiful story of maturing in a community and growing to appreciate feelings.

This is not a miserable book, but it reflects joy rather than humour. The narrator is honest if sometimes confused by her life, and I recommend it for the elegance of its descriptions and the truth of its feelings.

Today is Northernreader’s  “stop” on the blog tour, and I’m really pleased that I had the opportunity to read this book.  At the moment I’m having fun reading all sorts of books, having found some lovely bookshops (sadly, not local usually!). Over the next few days I’ll probably have a rest from posting while I finish them!!