Tuesday, January 20, 2015

From the NHG Bookshelf: A Gilded-Age Guidebook for Aspiring American Beauties

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Isabella reporting,

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."


Unknown said...

I found this book several years ago and was entranced. It inspired a historical romance series idea that I plan to start work on this year, and I still go back to it and enjoy it every time I do. Thanks for spotlighting it!

Calevey’s Closet said...

This is such a great book to read both for its content and the entertainment! I found it via an amazon recommendation and later purchased a copy. It's one of my go-to books that I recommend to people who want to know about the "back story" of Downton Abbey, so to speak.

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