In the National Portrait Gallery, in the room called Expansion and Empire, there is a small display: “Old Titles and New Money: American Heiresses and the British Aristocracy,” showing until August 1, 2015. (Copyright protected portraits can be seen on the Gallery link above.)
Now why, you might ask, would I hie me thither to look at portraits of rich American women, be they titled or no? Because of Sara Jeannette Duncan’s fascination with wealthy American women in at least two of her novels, Cousin Cinderella and the earlier An American Girl in London, and because of the references to these American types in the recently reviewed Modernist Voyages.
An American Girl in London is narrated by Mamie Wick, whose father made his fortune in baking powder, and who is now a Congressman. She introduces the reader immediately to the concept of the American girl, from her very first sentence, addressing English readers as “you”: “I am an American Girl. Therefore, perhaps, you will not be surprised at anything further I may have to say for myself. … I have noticed that you are pleased, over here, to bestow rather more attention upon the American Girl than upon any other kind of American that we produce. You have taken the trouble to form opinions about her – I have heard quantities of them. … I observe that she is almost the only frivolous subject that ever gets into your newspapers.” Mamie adds, given the number who come over for tourism and who marry and stay in England, that American girls “would have made you familiar with the kind of young women we are long ago; and to me it is very curious that you should go on talking about us. I can’t say that we object very much, besides, while you criticise us considerably as a class, you are very polite to us individually, and nobody minds being criticised as a noun of a multitude.” (AG 3-4)Her protestations are meant to be naive, as Mamie Wick reveals herself to be entirely innocent of the designs of such women as Lady Torquilin, who expects there to be a marriage between our American narrator and one aloof Mr Mafferton. To ensure we understand her innocence, Duncan has Mamie’s Bostonian shipmates refer to Henry James’s novel Daisy Miller.
The American girl in Cousin Cinderella, Evelyn Dicey, is more experienced, more knowing, than Mamie. Mary Trent describes her as “a set of attractive features in rather slight American connective tissue, a good temper, a sense of humour, and ten thousand pounds a year.” (CC 176) Evelyn has designs for herself, of gaining a title by marriage or at the very least not being escorted home by her father come February. To her friends Mary and Graham she says, “The American duchess is a deservedly popular institution – good for the Duke and improving for the American.” (CC 76) To that end she insinuates herself into high society and makes herself knowledgeable about the lords and ladies she meets (CC 86). And she knows how to win the English over to the Trents, mentioning their father’s timber holdings, that he is a Senator, that Graham is a Member of Parliament, and calling Graham a Maple Prince. Evelyn becomes, in the society papers, “that delightful American.” (CC 205)
Yet the delightful American is not always delighted by the English. Dining at the Trents at Christmas, she refers to an attributed misunderstanding (the English person said Americans call stuffing “insertion”) and says “I’m dead sick of the American myths they keep over here to take the place of wit and humour.” (CC 213) She also makes disparaging remarks about the English attitude to money, which they won’t talk about, and for a certain class: “They’ve never had to earn it; it’s always been there, like the air, to exist by, and they’ve got to have it – it’s a matter of self-preservation. When they absolutely haven’t got it and finally can’t get it, there’s no sort of way for them to live – they become extinguished.” (CC 182)
One way to avoid extinguishment, it turns out, was to marry an American with a big dowry or inheritance. This really happened, according to the exhibition in the Portrait Gallery. And to such biographies as Marion Fowler’s In a Gilded Cage: From Heiress to Duchess, on five of the 100 American women who married into English society between 1870 and 1914.
Sara Jeannette Duncan met one of these famous Americans: Mary Victoria Leiter, whose marriage to George Curzon in 1895 transformed her into Lady Curzon of Kelleston, and after his appointment as Viceroy of India, she became Vicereine of India, apparently the highest British title attained by an American. According to the museum’s write up, Mary was six feet tall, beautiful and intelligent. Duncan was in India when Curzon was Viceroy (1899-1905), and she and her husband joined the Vice-Regal party on a tour. In her introduction to Duncan’s Set in Authority, Germaine Warkentin points out that while Duncan liked Lady Curzon, she was critical of the Viceroy (22).
Mary’s sister Daisy visited her in India, coming for the 1903 Delhi Durbar celebration. There she met the Viceroy’s aide-de-camp, Henry Howard, the 19th Earl of Suffolk and the 12th Earl of Berkshire, whose estate, Charlton Park, was in Wiltshire. Their marriage was written up in the New York Times. And then, this fascinating bit, according to the museum placard, “In her final years, Daisy became a helicopter enthusiast, flying from her Cornish home to her suite at The Ritz via The Battersea heliport.”
One Minnie Stevens had several offers of marriage. She settled on Captain Arthur Paget in 1878. As Lady Paget she introduced Consuelo Vanderbilt, the richest of the American wives, to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. They married in 1895; Consuelo was only seventeen, and according to the Gallery, cried. Her dowry was spent on Blenheim Palace. Having produced the requisite number of children, she coined the phrase “an heir and a spare.” The marriage was annulled in 1926.
Another American’s marriage produced a son who rose to prominence during the Second World War. Jennie Jerome had her debut in 1872, where she met, and fell in love with, the second son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Although both sets of parents disapproved of the match, they married at the British Embassy in Paris, in 1874. The first child of Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill was Winston Churchill.
Surrounding this small exhibition were portraits from the Crimean War, the Siege of Lucknow, of famous explorers such as Richard Burton, and one of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, famed then for his war service in South Africa, especially Mafeking, famed now for publishing Scouting for Boys in 1908, which gave rise in 1910 to the Boy Scout Movement. Which puts Duncan’s interest in American heiresses smack in the heart of the Empire.
Something a little more contemporary to Duncan was the column “Americans in London” in the weekly society journal The Queen, which included a photo of a featured “girl” and a record of her social outings (Redney 188). I wonder if the column included one or two Canadians, on the basis that Canada is part of North America and therefore, in some eyes, American.
Sara Jeannette Duncan, Cousin Cinderella, introduction by Misao Dean, 1994 rpt. Tecumseh Press 2008, based on New York: MacMillan 1908 edition.
Sara Jeannette Duncan, An American Girl in London, New York: A.L. Burt, bound together with some Sketches, no date.
Sara Jeannette Duncan, Set in Authority, edited by Germaine Warkentin, Broadview Press 1996.
Marian Fowler, Redney: A Life of Sara Jeannette Duncan, Toronto: Anansi 1983.