What to do when you’ve been brought up with voracious appetites and expensive habits yet find yourself short of cash? In “The Husband Hunters,” Anne de Courcy’s latest social history, such was the dilemma facing many a titled British man, however accustomed he might have been to indulging his every material whim.
With the economy lagging in the second half of the 19th century, these men lacked the ready funds to match their exalted status and maintain their grand estates — and since going into business simply was not done, it’s not as if they could go out and earn a fortune. To maintain their lifestyles, they needed to marry one.
Enter the Americans. The United States in the Gilded Age was awash in nouveau riche families eager for establishment recognition. Marry a daughter off to an earl, et voilà: instant cachet that even the most horrendous New York snobs could not deny, given their enchantment with nobility. The bride and her family ascend the social ladder, while the groom climbs, in reasonably dignified fashion, out of a financial hole. Like Lord and Lady Grantham of “Downton Abbey,” but in real life.
This is the dynamic at the center of “The Husband Hunters,” a book that in its opening line mentions Edith Wharton’s “The Buccaneers” — a novel about exactly that matrimonial trend, written from within that precise social milieu — but is never so coarse as to nod in the direction of a television fiction.
Similarly, while we might be quick to think of the most famous contemporary love match between a titled, though hardly cash-strapped, Briton and a well-off American, de Courcy never alludes to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (Harry’s parents do merit a brief mention, by way of his mother’s half-American grandfather. So does the tidbit that it was the Prince of Wales — not Harry’s dad, the current title holder, but rather Queen Victoria’s son — who “forced society to accept acting as a respectable profession.”)
These are echoes, though, that we can hear in de Courcy’s stories of the Astors and the Vanderbilts and the Jeromes, whose gorgeous and exquisitely dressed daughter, Jennie, would marry Lord Randolph Churchill and become Winston’s mom.
Anglophiles fascinated by the intricate tribal codes of the British upper classes will find plenty to feed their interest in this narrative, with the pleasure-seeking prince of Wales very much part of the scene. De Courcy is equally intrigued by the crashingly vulgar, publicity-seeking social climbers of rigidly stratified 1800s Manhattan. She describes their ornaments, activities, and infighting — including at their summer playground, Newport, where they were just then building its mammoth cottages — with a level of detail that sometimes verges on excruciating.
It is hard to see the social ambitions of the vapid rich as anything but pointless vanity, and the vicious pettiness of their machinations eclipses the alluring glamour of their trappings. Still, “The Husband Hunters” is a forthrightly feminist history. De Courcy takes seriously the lives of the women she writes about, who surprisingly include the brave and remarkably savvy American suffragist Victoria Woodhull. If de Courcy, who is British, is overly sunny in her estimation of the power women wielded in American marriages as opposed to British ones, she is also ever cognizant of the legal and cultural limits on women’s freedom.
And yet. Clearly, de Courcy has no ambition to be Howard Zinn; she does not mean “The Husband Hunters” to be a people’s history. But what she chooses not to say can be telling. In chapter 4, when she writes of a plantation-owning Southern family that goes husband hunting in Europe in the 1860s, she makes no mention of the Civil War or the source of the family’s wealth: the free labor of enslaved human beings.
Further on she notes that “with the defeat of the Confederate States most English felt that all that was civilised and gentlemanly in the US had also been defeated,” and when she describes a ball in 1890s New York where “an enormous papier-mâché watermelon was dragged in, out of which sprang a little Negro boy to distribute gold cigarette cases and enamel watches to the guests,” what strikes her as grotesque is the expense.
There is a disquieting tone, too, in any mention of Jewish people (“his real name, it later emerged, was Cohen,” de Courcy writes meaningfully of a husband who would be given the boot), while struggling immigrants — as opposed to the book’s many rich international transplants — and other members of the 19th-century underclass get little sympathy. It’s a manner that, for many readers, could get in the way, especially at a moment when we are all so sensitized to the divisions between us.
Even so, in the ostentatious frolics and aspirational scrambles that de Courcy describes, we can recognize something of the present day. If we’re looking to history to better understand our own time, “The Husband Hunters” has something to say about how we got here.
THE HUSBAND HUNTERS
American Heiresses Who Married Into the British Aristocracy
By Anne de Courcy
St. Martin’s, 320 pp., $27.99
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Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.