Day 447: To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery

Cover for To Marry an English LordTo Marry an English Lord is entertaining enough, if certainly holding few surprises for those of us who read about this era. It is about the influx of wealthy American girls as brides into England beginning after the American Civil War and ending shortly after the end of the Edwardian era. First, girls were traveling with their mothers to Europe in search of a titled husband, followed by a flood of not-so-eligible young men over to the U.S. after the discovery of gold in them-thar hills (not the metallic kind, although some of the girls’ fathers’ fortunes were made that way).

The main portion of the text focuses on the fates of several girls—Consuelo Yznaga, who became the unhappily married Duchess of Manchester is one—who were among the first to travel to Europe in search of a suitable match. The book refers to them as the Buccaneers, a reference to Edith Wharton’s novel by the same name and on the same subject. The book covers some of the later marriages as well and explains how the trend changed over time. It provides snippets of details about life in a stately home or at court and about the stuffy societal structures in old New York.

The material is given an interesting presentation, with plenty of sidebars, inset photos, double-page spreads set in the flow of a chapter—more like a magazine or a textbook. This approach occasionally made me feel as if it was designed for someone with attention deficit disorder. It looks attractive but is hard to read coherently, and sometimes there is an unfortunate effect. For example, I had just finished reading about the death of Edward VII and its impact on society when I turned the page to read about his refusal to recognize the Marlboroughs after their divorce.

Although the book seems to take the position that girls went willingly into this search for and bagging of their titled husbands because of their own ambitions, Edith Wharton, in most of her novels that deal with this subject (with the exception of The Custom of the Country), rather regards them more as lambs to the slaughter.

I don’t think anyone will get a deep understanding of the period from this book, which is rife with generalizations, but if you’re looking for an entertaining presentation of a plethora of little details, it is a fun book to read. One big complaint for me is that many of the inset pictures are reduced to such a small size, in the interest of the layout, that it is impossible for me to tell what I’m looking at, particularly for interior shots of the various houses.

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