So­ci­ety The Hus­band Hunters

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Anne de Courcy (Wei­den­feld & Nicolson, £20)

In re­cent years, Anne de courcy’s books have tended to fo­cus on groups of priv­i­leged young women in ex­otic or oth­er­wise alien cir­cum­stances: cos­set­ted debu­tantes find­ing their feet in the tur­moil of the Sec­ond World War, the un­at­tached fe­males of the ‘Fish­ing Fleet’ tout­ing for mates in the raj. In her lat­est book, she trav­els fur­ther back in time to as­sess ter­rain no less chal­leng­ing for those who in­hab­ited it.

the late-vic­to­rian and ed­war­dian phe­nom­e­non of the Dol­lar Princesses has been end­lessly dis­sected, but sel­dom more suc­cinctly or more en­ter­tain­ingly than here. What was it that com­pelled hun­dreds of Amer­i­can heiresses—some barely out of their teens—to flood across the At­lantic in the decades af­ter 1865 to set­tle in the damp and draughty cas­tles and coun­try houses of the Bri­tish aris­toc­racy? How did they rec­on­cile their ori­gins in a proud repub­lic with im­mer­sion in a so­ci­ety riven by the most ar­cane of class dis­tinc­tions?

there is no ‘one size fits all’ an­swer to ei­ther of these ques­tions, which is per­haps the source of the sub­ject’s lim­it­less fas­ci­na­tion. As the au­thor makes clear from the out­set, it was as of­ten as not the girls’ am­bi­tious ma­mas who, ex­cluded from the ‘first cir­cles’ at home in new York and chicago, sought to en­hance their own ques­tion­able cre­den­tials by mar­ry­ing their hap­less daugh­ters into the cash­strapped peer­age.

the re­sults of these mat­ri­mo­nial ex­per­i­ments ran the gamut from the ex­tremely grat­i­fy­ing (Mary Leiter, who wor­shipped her spouse, Ge­orge curzon, and tri­umphed as the Vicere­ine of In­dia) to the leg­en­dar­ily dis­as­trous (con­suelo Van­der­bilt, who was ruth­lessly bul­lied into mar­riage with the 9th Duke of Marl­bor­ough by her mother, the re­doubtable Alva, and lived to rue the day she ca­pit­u­lated).

In­ter­wo­ven with these oft­told tales are others less well known: those of Vir­ginia Bonynge, who wed the earl of coven­try’s heir Lord Deer­hurst and wound up‘ ide­ally happy ’; and of ten­nessee claflin, a con­fi­dencetrick­ster’ s child out of the Mid­west, who be­came Lady cook and a staunch ad­vo­cate of wom­ens’ rights.

From the rack­ety to the re­spectable, from the mis­er­able fail­ures to the tri­umphant suc­cesses, each story is told with the same wit and dex­ter­ity that make the au­thor one of the most read­able so­cial his­to­ri­ans writ­ing to­day. Martin Wil­liams

Lady Ran­dolph Churchill with her sons John (left) and Win­ston

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