Thursday, March 4, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne de Courcy

The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy by Anne De Courcy is an interesting look at the role of obscenely wealthy women (meaning women married to or daughters of obscenely wealthy men) in Gilded Age America. It provides mini-biographies of some of these daughters who used their dowries (or settlements) to catch titled husbands. The goal was not necessarily the title for its own sake, but the social cachet of the connection. For Americans whose fortunes were “new money,” the only sure way to scale the fortress of New York Society (ruled by old money knickerbockers) was to acquire a title. Often the dominant force was not the girl herself, but her mother, who used her daughter’s beauty and her husband’s money to force her way into the New York “in-crowd.”

The book does a wonderful job of fleshing out the intricacies of that New York Society. More interesting than the mini-biographies was the detailed explanation of how that society worked. Women ruled that world and used extravagant spending to advertise the success of the men. It was women’s duty to spend lavishly. The parties thrown, the mansions built, the jewels collected, and the Worth gowns worn are reported upon.

The lives of these women, seen from a historical distance, is shallow and sad. The majority of the daughters who bought titles and moved to England were desperately unhappy in their roles. Many of the marriages ended in estrangement or even divorce. 

The Husband Hunters is well researched, well organized, and easy to read. It shines a light on a very small segment of the population during the late eighteen hundreds that has been romanticized in popular culture. One would imagine that stories of fabulously wealthy young American women marrying earls and dukes would have fairy tale endings, but they do not. And a large part of this book left me rather appalled at all the energy invested and money wasted in the cause of snobbery and social climbing. 

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