THE AMERICAN HEIRESS
Published in the USA by St. Martins-Griffin/Macmillan
Macmillan Audio June 2011
Audio Run Time: 13:26
Hardcover 480 pages June 2011/Trade Paperback March 2012 496 pages/Mass Market Paperback August 2015
Published in the UK as MY LAST DUCHESS by Headline Publishing 2010
Maine Info.Net online library service download. No Remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own unless otherwise noted.
Be careful what you wish for. Traveling abroad with her mother at the turn of the twentieth century to seek a titled husband, beautiful, vivacious Cora Cash, whose family mansion in Newport dwarfs the Vanderbilts’, suddenly finds herself Duchess of Wareham, married to Ivo, the most eligible bachelor in England. Nothing is quite as it seems, however: Ivo is withdrawn and secretive, and the English social scene is full of traps and betrayals. Money, Cora soon learns, cannot buy everything, as she must decide what is truly worth the price in her life and her marriage.
Witty, moving, and brilliantly entertaining, Cora’s story marks the debut of a glorious storyteller who brings a fresh new spirit to the world of Edith Wharton and Henry James.
“For daughters of the new American billionaires of the 19th century, it was the ultimate deal: marriage to a cash-strapped British Aristocrat in return for a title and social status. But money didn’t always buy them happiness.” –Daisy Goodwin in The Daily Mail
The American Heiress was originally sold and distributed in the UK as My Last Duchess
Ms. Goodwin wrote an excellent article: Cash for Titles in the UK Daily Mail.
New money is new money anywhere in the world. And this was especially true in the age of the wealthy American industrialists. Not only these these men, and families make gobs of money, they often rose from “the masses” with ideas, inventions, drive and sheer will to move industry forward. This tended to hurt the the people with old money, especially in the UK where the aristocracy’s fortunes depended heavily on the old ways of agriculture and rent. Where factories bloomed, farms suffered, rents and crops did not come in.
This is certainly not the first book that explores the subject through fiction. But, it does tell the story in a way that I could easily grip. Instead of focusing on money, it focuses on the crossroads of the old and the new, tradition and new ways, and British and American culture. The past is often presented as an unwillingness to embrace change but no lack of passion to embrace the money change affords.
What an interesting period when marriage was negotiated and the bride was not part of the negotiation; Cora here has to depend on her father to watch her interests. Poor girl alone with a stoic and seemingly unfeeling man. The irony of the title not being important to her, but that she falls in love with the man with the title, is important, because we don’t really know if he was interested in her at all, or just her money.
There is also an adder in the garden, maybe more than one. But no one calls pest control until it is nearly too late. And not all the dangers are malicious. Some potential thwarts to happiness seem perfectly reasonable, kindly, even helpful. There is little exposed as black or white throughout.
Parental ambition is an important theme, especially for Cora’s mother who was, to some degree, impoverished Southern gentility married to an up and coming industrialist only to be spurned, somewhat, by polite society. Cora’s mother is willing to cast her offspring on the pyre to bask in the glow of the resultant fire.
Her father is a bit of a non-entity; although the source of all the money in question. Ivo’s mother is not much better. She would cast anyone and anything into the fire to maintain her youth and position. Both women cause irreversible damage to those around them. Both parents pay an awful lot of attention to title. We can see it in a woman raised to believe she was of a special class, but when she is adulterous, somehow she thinks it is okay. Then the American mother thinking there is something truly meaningful to a title; as if it confers a type of super humanity. Both women need a reality check. Who do they think they are?
This resonated with me because I used to work at a non-profit owned by a “heritage association.” This group ultimately was founded on the belief that their ancestry made them somehow more entitled than other people. Other people, like Cora’s mother, believe that their money makes them better, more important and entitled.
But, as my family has clawed our way up the social ladder, I can honestly confess that it’s hard to stay humble and not believe that “things” afford status, protection and, gasp!, entitlement. I try to think whence this arises and I think it is in staying at lovely hotels where one is treated as if one is entitled to deference. And, in hiring people to do stuff we don’t want to do and directing them in what one wants. On the other hand, one regains one’s humility by cleaning up cat poop and vomit. Mrs. Cash and the “Double Duchess” (Ivo’s Mother) need to do something humbling.
The distance and impersonal nature of relationship between Ivo and Cora is possibly an exaggeration for the type of relationship we expect to see for the social class and time period. They aren’t as caught up in the idea that title makes them somehow otherworldly, but they are cognizant of the position. They see it more as a responsibility than as a privilege. They hardly know each other and even with all her wealth, intelligence and beauty, Cora is frightfully young and unprepared to be thrown into a sea full of sharks with the scent of blood. I would say I was engaged in the outcome, but it is mostly dispassionate, with little interaction. There is a lot of internal monologue, or descriptions of events. Interactions all seem to be short. In one event, a shop girl who helps Cora with a hat, stands on the street near the church where Cora and Ivo get married and eventually makes her way onto a police officer’s shoulders. While it demonstrated the insanity of this early form of Kardashian-esque celebrity, it had no further mention in the story and the girl is not heard from again. There is another vignette like this at the start of the book. They feel like sketches inserted on a whim.
It is a story about disconnectedness, and tenuous they are when surrounded by mendacity encased in false manners. There are several interesting twists. But when someone looks for a second chance it’s hard to come by.
The recording itself was filled with American characters with boarding school accents, southern African-American accents, southern society accents, and British accents of the upper class. To be sure, it would have been a difficult piece to record. It felt a little shrill. But I was entertained and the phrasing and timing was well done.
Daisy Goodwin says her character was loosely based on Consuelo Vanderbilt (left) who married the Duke of Marlborough, divorced and married an aviator and textile heir, Jacques Balsan. I used several pictures of Consuelo in the banner. I enjoy the period of the story. It is time of change, when society, science, traditions, economy, medicine and more were progressing. colliding, clashing and changing in hundreds of ways. I found the work a little empty of emotional connections and plot. But, it doesn’t seem to move slowly or wallow. I enjoyed it but I did not rush to read the next story in the author’s repertoire. I think if I had read it rather than listened to it, I would have found it pretty difficult.
Aside: I happened to see this painting Saturday in Manhattan. And I noted the church both Consuelo and the fictional Cora were married in several times in walking around the City over the weekend.