To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace – A Review

Image of book cover of To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace (2012)From the desk of Laura A. Wallace. 

Originally published in 1989, this 2012 re-issue of To Marry and English Lord is an attractive trade paperback edition by Workman Publishing. Promoted as “an inspiration for Downton Abbey,” Julian Fellowes, the screenplay writer who created the series, has been quoted as saying that he was reading this book when approached about writing the series, and that the first character he conceived for it was Cora, Countess of Grantham, an American heiress.

This book has long been on my “to acquire and read” list so I was really looking forward to finally reading it. I found it to be fairly light reading. The chapters are divided up into short sub-headings, sprinkled with lots of side-bar quotations and tid-bits (at least one on every page), and interspersed with little mini-articles on every third or fourth page. Illustrations are copious; decorations are Victorian and Edwardian. Overall it presents a great deal of factual information in a very digestible way.

This is the sort of book that serves as an introduction to a topic, and a launching pad for further research. (It is the type of book that novelists unfortunately use as a primary source, but that is a rant for another time.) It has no footnotes or endnotes, but does have a good selective bibliography which includes a list of period fictional works. The index is good (if imperfect) and there are excellent appendices, including a “Register of American Heiresses” and a “Walking Tour of the American Heiresses’ London” which are handy references.

The text is organized in a loosely chronological way. It begins with the origins of Anglomania (the 1860 U. S. visit of the young Prince of Wales) and the beyond-Almack’s-despotic exclusivity of Old New York “Knickerbocker” society which ruthlessly excluded new money. So the first set of snubbed wives and daughters left New York for Paris and then London in the 1870s, where they scored aristocratic English husbands, got themselves into the Prince of Wales’s social set, and rarely bothered to cross the Atlantic again.

This first set was comparatively small, comprising only about half a dozen women, and it is they who earned the sobriquet “The Buccaneers.” The most famous girl in this first wave was Jennie Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and became the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.

But that was just the tip of the spear of the “American Invasion.” The ranks grew steadily and kept up the pace until the death of Edward VII in 1910, after which it trickled off and ended with World War I. I had not realized, until reading this book, that the invasion was so extensive. There were at least two dozen who married into the peerage itself, and dozens more who married younger sons, baronets, M.P.s, and gentry. The “Register” at the back of the book lists about 115 of them, and this list, of course, cannot be exhaustive.

It was not just their pots of money that made these women so attractive to Englishmen.  Their manners were free, easy, and confident, the complete opposite of those of demure, shy English girls. They were well-educated and very well-dressed, usually by Worth.  They were pretty, too, their very lack of “breeding” apparently considered a bonus by their targets, if not by their mamas (appealing at a genetic level, perhaps?). The Prince of Wales loved them, and where he led, everyone followed.

I did find a few factual errors, an occasional absurd assertion, and a couple of errors in titles usage (of course), but overall the information presented seems solid. I encourage readers to use this book as a spring platform to explore other works, whether Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough’s memoirs, the novels of Wharton, James, and Hardy, or perhaps some of the lesser-known novels of the day. (The latter are featured in a mini-article, but not listed in the bibliography.) The book nicely provides the most general background material to improve enjoyment of the portraits of Sargent (there are hundreds on Wikimedia Commons) or of the costume dramas to which we are all highly addicted.

4 out of 5 Stars

To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace
Workman Publishing (2012)
Trade paperback (403) pages
ISBN: 978-0761171959

Cover image courtesy © Workman Publishing Group; text © 2012 Laura A. Wallace

4 thoughts on “To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace – A Review

  1. I bought this book a couple of months ago, and though it IS “light”, it’s a totally fascinating read! Daughters of American industrialists who’d amassed unimaginable fortunes from the Civil War – billions by today’s standards – were nonetheless shunned by blueblood New York Society. When the first of the mamas took them off to Europe where the size of one’s bank account was more important that one’s bloodline, the daughters were welcomed into Society there with open arms. English lords in particular found American heiresses a breath of fresh air compared to the daughters of the English aristocracy who’d been raised to never express an opinion. Rich American girls were also an anomaly in a culture where – as the Dowager Lady Grantham pointed out in an episode of this season’s Downton Abbey – there was no such thing as an “English Heiress” because family wealth passed to the sons, never to the daughters. Also, many English lords were lords in name only with very little or no money to support the title and the lifestyle required. So the trading of untitled fortunes for bankrupt titles began.

    After the first wave, however, American papas realized they were sending their daughters into personal financial poverty, that under English law, the husband controlled every penny. So the papas set up trusts that only the daughters had access to. Trusts that in effect were “getaway money”…in case the lord turned out to be abusive or a philanderer or otherwise unsuitable, the daughters weren’t “stuck” for life. They had the means to support themseves if they sought a separation or divorce, after birthing the requisite heir and spare, of course.

    I, too, didn’t realize how many heiresses invaded European Society but, like you, I did find the book a delightful stepping off point for more research via biographies of the heiresses named, one of which was former Duchess of Marlborough Consuelo Vanderbilt’s “The Glitter and The Gold”. Even so, I did have a hard time getting my head around the obscene amounts of money spent for just one ball or entertaining the Prince of Wales for a weekend at a country house. It also helps to have copies of the bios of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and “old” families like Princess Diana’s Spencers to consult as to where the new American blood fits on those extensive family trees!

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  2. I read this last year. I agree it is light but very readable. It is a good overview of a fascinating subject. The “Dollar Princesses” is a very interesting historical period.

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  3. Thanks for reviewing! I had this on my ‘to-read’ list, but on ordering it from the library, found out that I was holding the 1989 edition. This will sound totally shallow, but I ended up not finishing it–I just couldn’t get into the old edition/printing style! (See, didn’t I say I’d sound shallow?!) The content looked so interesting though. I’ll just have to try again with the newer edition since you liked it!

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