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!
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.