In the late Victorian and Edwardian eras (1870 to 1914), a number of American girls wed British nobles. This is the tale of five heiresses of the time who each married a British duke.
Consuelo Yznaga, a woman so free-spirited that she attended a dance without a corset on, was the first. At 18, she caught the attention of George Victor Drogo Montagu, always called Kim, the future Duke of Manchester, then 23 years old. Their engagement was scandalously short (the usual length was a year), and after the newspapers had finished their frenzied coverage of the wedding, they sailed for England. His parents were less than pleased with their new daughter-in-law. Soon, Consuelo was less than pleased with Kim. He came from a culture that prized the veneer of respectability over actual monogamy, whereas she was utterly shocked at his philandering. Unable to depend upon her new husband and in-laws for emotional support or faithfulness, she turned her burbling laugh and prankster spirit to high society. Soon, she had New York Society in the palm of her hand, and shortly after became King Edward's close friend. She took lovers for herself, inherited even more money, and (despite her husband and son's problems) seems to have ended her life having spent it with sparkling talk, hearty humor, and a great deal of fun. She was the model for Conchita Closson in Edith Wharton's The Buccaneers.
Lilian Price was born into the middle class, not particularly well educated or cultured. She married the wealthy Louis Hammersley at twenty five, and four years later was left a very wealthy widow. Then she married George Charles Spencer-Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. They were utterly unlike--she was kind but not in the least intellectual, while he knew Urdu, higher mathematics, was a great believer in Edison and spent his time in chemical and metallurgic experiments. And love affairs. Lily quickly realized that no matter how much money or affection she showered on her ducal groom, he would never love her back. He was dead within four years of their wedding, too, and Lily was left once more a widow. Her kindly, maternal nature is clear in that her step-children and in-laws looked on her as a member of the family ever after. (Her step-nephew, btw, was Winston Churchill!) Last of all she married Lord William de la Poer Beresford, who loved her passionately, used her fortune to buy race-horses, and abruptly died five years into their marriage. Lily died a few years later. Not a particularly entrancing heroine.
Consuelo Yznaga's goddaughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt, was raised in strict seclusion by her mother Alva Vanderbilt, who intended to use her to get into high society. She fell in love with Winthrop Rutherfurd, but was forced to marry Sunny Spencer-Churchill (Lilian Price's late husband's son). The young Duke of Marlborough was soft and frail, more interested in clothes than women, but most of all interested in maintaining Blenheim and his pomp and image as Duke. It was a loveless marriage, made worse when Consuelo became deaf at age 25 from an ear infection. She separated from Sunny, increased her travels, and then became a committed social worker, philanthropist, and feminist. She spent the rest of her life using her title and riches to fight for the well-being of the poor and women's suffrage. Eventually she married again, this time for love, and wrote an autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold.
Helena Zimmerman was a physically fit, mentally stubborn heiress who pressured her father into letting her marry Consuelo Yznaga's son Kim, then the Duke of Manchester. Kim spent wildly and was always in debt; at one point his housekeeper at Tandragee Castle (herself owed weeks of back wages) was buying canned food and whiskey for his guests out of her own pocket. He tried to marry every heiress he could lay hands on, but Helena was the one who wanted him. Unfortunately, he was lazy, self-aggrandizing, and hungry for any kind of fame he could get. She eventually separated from him and lived as quietly as she was able, while his reputation (and debt) plunged ever further. They divorced, and while he married an actress, tried to pawn his mother's jewels, and was repeatedly arrested for bankruptcy, she married Lord Arthur George Keith-Falconer and lived a quiet, happy life in Scotland.
May Goelet was the only heiress whose marriage went well. Unlike the others, she came from Old Money, and unlike the others, she was already well-entrenched in British Society. She spent six seasons as a much-admired, sought-after beauty, and then chose the handsome Sir Henry John Innes-Ker, the Duke of Roxburghe. Unlike the other marriages, the families of the bride and groom were pleased with the match. The newlyweds were deeply happy together. They sent soppy letters to each other when they were apart ("Lots of love and kisses. I hate being very cold and lonely in that big bed all by myself but promise to be good," wrote the fully grown Duke). They were each ridiculously rich and perfectly happy with their place in Society. They were terribly, horribly, utterly boring.
Overall, a great little collection of biographies. Fowler is good at winnowing out each woman's personality, and provides quick but comprehensive sketches of the cultural expectations and historical events each woman dealt with. Enjoyably gossipy without being fluff.