We seem to be in an Edwardian-Gilded Age Renaissance. The new season of Downton Abbey recently began in America, and Smithsonian has also launched its own series, Million Dollar American Princesses, with both featuring 19th c. American heiresses who went across the Atlantic to find husbands among the British aristocracy.
As the exhibition of costumes from Downton Abbey wound down its record-breaking run at Winterthur Museum (see my earlier post here), I attended an entertaining talk by Carol McD. Wallace, co-author (with Gail MacColl) of To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery. Originally published in 1989, To Marry has been reissued to appeal to the new surge in interest in the "buccaneers," as novelist Edith Wharton dubbed them: the American beauties who traded staggering fortunes for noble titles.
And this book is fun. Filled with illustrations and photographs, gossip and scandal, it's the kind of book readers can as easily browse as read cover to cover, and always find considerable entertainment. There's advice on everything from the costs (vast) of running a country estate with years of deferred maintenance, to choosing the proper wardrobe (also vast) for a Season in London. The niceties of calling cards, professional beauties, court presentations, the cut direct, and Newport cottages are also discussed. All the legendary American husband-hunters are here, from Astors to Vanderbilts, to the queens of Midwest commerce, and for the modern sight-seer, there's also a handy directory of which heiresses' homes in Britain are now open to the public.
I especially enjoyed the contemporary quotes that are liberally sprinkled through the books. For example, this from Oscar Wilde: "American youths are pale and precious, or sallow and supercilious, but American girls are pretty and charming – little oases of pretty unreasonableness in a vast desert of practical common-sense."
The fabulous couturier Charles Frederick Worth was more direct: "My Transatlantic friends are always welcome; they have what I call 'the three F's': figures, francs, and faith! That is why I like dressing the Americans."
Or, in the words of a popular musical-comedy song of the day: "The almighty dollar will buy, you bet/A superior class of coronet;/That's why I've come from New York City of U.S.A."
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.