In fact in 1895 alone, nine American heiresses married members of the English aristocracy.
But the concept of cash-strapped British aristocracy searching for beautiful daughters of very wealthy American families was not invented in late Victorian times. Jehanne Wake has shown that the custom of American money marrying British aristocracy has been going on much longer. Her book, Sisters of Fortune: The First American Heiresses to Take Europe by Storm 1788-1874, published by Chatto and Windus in 2010, goes back to the earliest part of the 19th century.
Marianne, Louisa, Bess and Emily Caton were the four sisters of fortune who were descended from the first settlers in Maryland. And not just any old family - this family was extra-special. The girls’ grandfather, Charles Carroll (1737–1832), was one of the signers of the USA’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, not a robber baron from the age of oil wells and steel mills. Carroll was one of the wealthiest men in Maryland, owning extensive agricultural estates that made their money from tobacco and slavery. He was the closest America was going to get to aristocracy, although he was Catholic.
I am not sure what would have been a bigger problem in Britain, once the girls sailed to London – that they were foreigners with allegiance to a foreign nation, or that they were Catholic. When Marianne, Bess and Louisa Caton first arrived in London in 1816, only Emily stayed in North America, consolidating the family estates and marrying a Canadian fur-trader.
At the very time that the news of the Battle of Waterloo (1815) was filling the gossip columns, the three charming and beautiful Caton sisters were still unknown in Britain. Yet that situation changed quickly. Sex and money were always the twin forces that drive so much of human endeavour, particularly apparent in the cauldron of the Regency period. The young women had the money and they were willing to negotiate with young men of status. The three of them exploded into the heart of Regency high society and the Prince Regent himself took an interest.
It could not have been easy in class-ridden Britain. That the siblings survived the many assaults on their reputations, and became bastions of a society at first intent on excluding them, is evidence of unusual strength of character. And evidence, I suppose, of beauty. The largest portrait below, of Marianne Caton, was painted by sublime society portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence.
Portraits of the four women on the cover of Wake's book: Sisters of Fortune.
In the end Marianne's charm and money must have worked their magic. She rose to become the first American-born marchioness and lady in waiting to Queen Adelaide. An extraordinary statement of acceptance for the grand-daughter of a slaver.
At the very same age (37), Louisa married Francis Marquis of Carmarthen who succeeded his father as the 7th Duke of Leeds in 1838. Safely ensconced as the Duchess of Leeds, Louisa apparently became a friend of young Queen Victoria.
Bess remained single for a very long time (till 49) and made her rather lucrative career in the international stock market, a very rare occupation or pastime for women. Bess looked after her own finances of course, but she was also well placed to deal with her sisters' investments - and did! Then she too married into the British aristocracy, becoming the wife of the 8th Baron Stafford of Costessey Hall Norfolk in 1836. He was a much older man with a very large family and no great wealth, but at least he was a devout Catholic.
Because the 3 British sisters were not young when they married, Emily was the only one of the four Catons to have children.
Wake showed how the three British Caton sisters managed investment portfolios, and were active and informed players in the national and international markets. She showed how they used their social connections to win political or diplomatic appointments for their husbands, and to gain information on investments. But there is one thing I don't understand. The Married Women's Property Act, British legislation that significantly altered English law regarding the property rights granted to married women, allowing them to own and control their own property, didn't come into law until 1882. Even financially savvy women could not have ignored the most powerful parliament in the world.
Duchess of Marlborough and her son
by Giovanni Boldini, 1906
Metropolitan Museum of Art NY
I will be interested to read a biography of Lily Hamersley, who in 1888 became the first American after Louisa Caton to become an English duchess. Lily, a very wealthy widow, married the 8th Duke of Marlborough and became chatelaine of Blenheim Palace, seat of the Churchill family. See Lily, Duchess of Marlborough (1854-1909): A Portrait with Husbands, by Sally Svenson.
The blog Edwardian Promenade warmly recommended To Marry an English Lord or, How Anglomania Really Got Started by Carol McD. Wallace and Gail MacColl, Workman Publishing Company, 1989.
An Exuberant Catalogue of Dreams by Clive Aslet (2013) is my favourite. In the difficult decades between the agricultural depression of the 1870s and the aftermath of WW2, Yankee heiresses crossed the Atlantic in droves. But Aslet's book brings something new to the topic - amazing images of the new arrivals and their impact on architecture, landscaping, farming and interior design.
There are many stunning portraits of the beautiful and wealthy American women who married into the British aristocracy. Consuelo Vanderbilt (above) married Charles Spencer-Churchill 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895, and moved into Blenheim Palace. The marriage was loveless but she gave birth to two adored sons, heirs to the dukedom.