Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Heiress on Auction

By Lisa Karon Richardson

In 1860 Prince Albert Edward, known as Bertie, made the first trip to America by an English royal since the revolutionary war. His visit sparked a sudden infatuation with all things English. By the same token, the notorious flirt became enamored of American girls.

At the time, the social epicenter of the US was New York, but the hidebound Knickerbockers, under the ruthless direction of “The” Mrs. Astor was set on keeping out parvenus. What was the newly-minted-millionaire’s daughter to do? Go to Europe of course, and find the kind of mate that would make the pedigree of the Old New Yorkers look as impressive as a laundry list.

With Bertie’s appreciative social sponsorship, dozens and dozens American heiresses crossed the pond. The first wave were received with initial trepidation. The English weren’t entirely sure that they wouldn’t show up decked out in Indian war paint.

And of course, English gentlemen made out on the transaction as well. At the time land prices had dropped, agriculture was in a slump and keeping up with the Jones’s was a major drain on the family finances. Throw in the upkeep on a monstrous pile of an old manor and the landed gentry was left short on cash. An English girl of the same class likely had a family in the same position, so her dowry wasn’t going to be enough to save the family seat from rack and ruin.

Jennie Jerome Churchill
Enter the American heiress whose papa can afford all new ensembles from Maison Worth each season and who doesn’t blink when his little princess wants new baubles from Tiffany and Co. In today’s dollars, literally billions of dollars crossed the ocean with the new brides.

Some of the marriages were more successful than others. Mary Leiter, fell in love with Lord Curzon on first sight. She waited patiently for him. More patiently than most would have been, but they eventually married in 1895. Ultimately she became Vicereine of India–the highest social and political position in the British Empire behind the Queen. A less successful match was that of Consuelo Vanderbilt, who was forced by her social-climbing mama to marry the Duke of Marlborough. There was a notoriously unhappy marriage that ended in divorce a few years later. Most of the heiress brides found things they didn’t like about their new country and things they did like. An English wife had more freedom than an American wife. Jennie Jerome Churchill was the driving force behind husband, Randolph’s, political rise and often credited with his success. Of course, one had to survive the freezing old manors that hadn’t yet been updated with the luxuries of hot water taps and central heating in order to attain that partnership, but it was possible at least!
Consuelo Vanderbilt

Today the marriages have a faint whiff of the mercenary about them, but at the time they weren’t really so far out of the ordinary. Marrying for love was still a pretty novel concept, especially for the wealthy. And it must be said that there was a lot of attraction there for many of those who participated in this particular transatlantic trade. The Englishmen were often captivated by pretty and vivacious young American girls who managed to convey a combination of naivete and daring boldness. While the Americans were impressed by English manners and culture.

I have seen numbers that range from 1/4 to 1/3 of the modern English aristocracy have an American heiress in their family tree. Winston Churchill’s mother was the same Jennie Jerome Churchill mentioned above. Princess Di had an American in her lineage too.

Do you find any romance in the idea of these unions or do you think they were more like transactions than marriages? 

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, LISA KARON RICHARDSON’S early stories were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now, even though she’s (mostly) grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Her published works include “Impressed by Love,” in the Colonial Courtships anthology. The Magistrate’s Folly was published by Heartsong Presents in February of 2013. Diamond in the Rough, (May, 2013) was co-authored with Jennifer AlLee, and is the first in the Charm and Deceit, series from Whitaker House. Finally she has another novella coming out September, 2013 from Barbour entitled “Midnight Clear,” part of the Mistletoe Memories collection.


  1. Fascinating post, Lisa. Well now, I don't know. They remind me of mail-order brides without the ordering part, but I may have misunderstood.

    Did the women go over to find husbands and then attended balls and functions? Or were the marriages arranged ahead of time before anyone stepped on a ship?

  2. I think it's interesting that the American girls had more freedoms in England than they had in the U.S.

  3. Anita, from what I understand the prospective brides and grooms would have met in advance. The fellows would come over for the summer social whirl in Newport then the ladies would go to England for their social season.

    As the millionaires grew more sophisticated they also tied up the money they settled on their daughters so that if they ever divorced they still kept it.

  4. You know Niki,m it was a very interesting dichotomy because in America, single young girls had more freedom than English girls of the same class. But once married, wives in England had a lot more freedom than American wives. The heiress who married an englishman got the best of both worlds, I guess!

  5. Fascinating as always. I would have had a hard time with no hot running water. :D

  6. You and me both, DeAnna. And central air. One of the heiresses refused to go to dinner parties given by the cream of England's society because their houses were too cold and she froze in her sleeveless evening gown.

  7. Thanks for explaining, Lisa. Yes, I can see how this would work.

    I think it's funny that after rebelling against English ways, the money makers of the new world would allow their daughters to breed back into the fold, so to speak.

  8. It was a slow process. Before Bertie's visit the general attitude toward Europe was that it was old-fashioned, outdated, outmoded. Relations were strained more than once, and in fact, just a few years before the prince's visit the U.S. and England had been on the cusp of war again.

    But as the new money became more sophisticated they found interest in the culture of the old world. It had been so shunned that it became new again and eventually became fashionable. Especially since the European society wasn't as closed to wealthy Americans as the upper crust of New York.

  9. Interesting post, Lisa. I hope Consuelo Vanderbilt was able to find happiness. She looks so sweet in her picture. I'm trying to remember if I read about her in the book about the history of Highclere.

  10. Suzie, I think she ultimately did find happiness. Her later life was definitely colorful. She did pen her own memoir about being a duchess and was pretty scathing about a lot of the pomp and privilege. Though I think she had her own measure of pride over being a duchess too.


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