Society The Husband Hunters
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