Monday, February 3, 2014

The Book that Inspired Downton Abbey

by Elani Sakellis)

To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace is a well-written, gossipy book (originally printed in 1989, reprinted in 2012) recounting the social phenomenon of the Gilded Age when over one hundred American heiresses crossed the pond and married English aristocrats in a dollars for titles scheme that saved many a cash-strapped peer of the British realm from financial ruin.

Fans of Downton Abbey will immediately recognize this phenomenon. Cora, the current Lady Grantham, is after all the American heiress wife of Lord Grantham, who saved the estate years ago with an infusion of American dollars. Though genuine love and affection characterize their relationship, we learn early on that he did indeed marry her for her money. Theirs is a best case scenario. Others did not fare so well.

To Marry an English Lord brings the Gilded Age to life by examining the marriages, the scandals and divorces, and the often mystifying etiquette of the time. The book details the times and traditions, culture and class that gave rise to so many land rich but cash poor British peers desperately seeking plucky American heiresses to bail them out. It is difficult to judge who got the better end of the deal.

The book seems to lean towards the British peers who were able to maintain their lifestyle for generations longer than they could have without American financial aid. Americans reinvigorated society, renovated those drafty, old mansions, and achieved a level of social climbing that would have been impossible if they had stayed at home. And of course, without American heiress Jennie Jerome, there would be no Winston Churchill.

Famous names like Astor, Vanderbilt and Whitney, as well as lesser known wealthy Americans made the transatlantic crossing. Their stories run the gamut from farce to true romance to tragedy. Chock full of photographs and entertaining asides, the book is well worth the read for history buffs and Downton fans alike.

Those planning a visit to Britain inspired by Downton Abbey will love the “Walking Tour of the American Heiresses’ London” section. An excellent bibliography highlights both the fiction and nonfiction sources for further reading. Henry James and Edith Wharton are cited as well as Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan’s memoir The Glitter and the Gold, among many other historical and contemporary works.