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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Anne Sebba
Sisters of Fortune: The First American Heiresses to Take Europe by Storm
By Jehanne Wake (Chatto & Windus 394pp £25.00)

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'The Muses of Painting, Poetry and Music' by William E West, 1825. Louisa holds a palette and brush, Bess a quill and Marianne strums a guitar in this composition painted in West's studio in Paris.

In 1873, as Leonard Jerome argued with the Duke of Marlborough about the size of the financial settlement he was prepared to hand over to his future son-in-law, Lord Randolph Churchill, Jerome told his daughter Jennie that, in spite of the haggling, he was thrilled by her imminent marriage. It was 'the greatest match any American has made since the Dutchess (sic) of Leeds', he told her, referring to Louisa Hervey-Bathurst (née Caton) of Baltimore, who in 1828 married Francis Godolphin D'Arcy Osborne, Marquess of Carmarthen and in line to succeed his father as 7th Duke of Leeds.

The story of how Louisa, a 33-year-old childless widow, came to marry 'Car' (as he was called), who was five years younger than her, is arguably the high point of this enthralling book. Not only was Lord Carmarthen tall, handsome, fair-haired and engaging, he was heir to a great dukedom. Dukes were exalted beings, above the law and beyond arrest. No wonder Jerome was in awe.

However, the sixth duke and duchess were horrified by their son's choice and did all they could to prevent the marriage. Among their many objections was the fact that the Catons were Catholic: the idea of having a daughter-in-law who was not only American but Catholic - or worse, of having Catholic grandchildren subjected to an 'alien, foreign religion' - was profoundly disturbing to many English aristocrats at this time. One of the ways Car's parents were eventually brought round to countenance, if not welcome, the marriage was through help from Louisa's well-connected older sister, Marianne, then married to Lord Wellesley, older brother of the Duke of Wellington. Marianne persuaded Wellesley to write to the Duke of Leeds in support of Louisa.

When Marianne, Bess and Louisa Caton first arrived in London in 1816, in the wake of the Battle of Waterloo, they were unknown Americans, plantation girls with fortunes as well as educations behind them. Almost immediately the trio burst into the heart of Regency high society, the Prince Regent himself asking of Marianne: 'Is it possible there can exist so beautiful a woman?' At the time, Marianne was married to Robert Patterson, brother of Betsy, the Baltimore girl notorious for marrying and being abandoned by Napoleon's younger brother, Jérôme. As soon as he met her, the Duke of Wellington fell in love with Marianne and this unacknowledged (and possibly unfulfilled) love affair is one of the most poignant threads running through the book. Wellington always wore a miniature of Marianne and it was found on him when he died. After Patterson's death, Marianne married a second time, choosing - in haste - the charming but unreliable and impoverished Richard Wellesley, in spite of dire warnings from the duke, his estranged brother.

When that marriage came under intense strain - as Wellington had predicted - she survived thanks to support from her sisters and rose to become the first American marchioness and lady in waiting to Queen Adelaide - the first daughter of the American Republic to become a courtier. When, finally, both she and the Duke of Wellington were free to marry, it was too late.

The sisters' father, Richard, a protestant, was frequently 'overtaken by ruin' and eventually died insolvent. The prevailing influence, as well as the money in the girls' lives, came from their grandfather, known as Carroll of Carrollton, one of the original signatories to the Declaration of Independence. The sisters were, in spite of their Republican heritage, Maryland aristocracy and old money.

This transatlantic celebration of sisterhood is a most gripping and fascinating tale, both scholarly and a page turner. Jehanne Wake handles a vast amount of material with confidence and even-handedness; just when we may think we have heard too much about Marianne, whose beauty and glittering career at the heart of government might easily dominate the book, the story turns to Louisa's desperate attempts to conceive by taking the waters, and then back to Emily, the only one of the four sisters who remained behind in Baltimore, deeply - and happily - immersed in domesticity married to a Canadian/Scots fur entrepreneur. Emily was the only one of the sisters to have children but suffered appalling sadness over the premature deaths of two of them. And finally the spotlight turns on Bess, the sister who, having remained blessedly single and independent for so long, was best placed to deal with the sisters' investments and speculations. Their mother had given up all hope of her marrying, yet Bess decided in 1836 to marry the eighth Baron Stafford of Costessey Hall in Norfolk, a 64-year-old widower with ten children, a devout Catholic of ancient lineage but no great wealth. Even for Bess, who recognised that she was forfeiting an important measure of financial independence by marrying, romance won out. The sisters all married for love and knew they must live with the consequences.

Sisters of Fortune inevitably invites comparison with Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats, which similarly used intimate, unpublished family letters and documents to create a detailed excursion into an entire female world. Wake's book has an additional strength: the revelation of how these women invested their fortunes. Rich women in the Regency period are traditionally thought to have been content with a passive role managing their finances, either receiving rent from trustees or pin money from their husbands, before the Married Women's Property Act allowed them ownership. Wake shows how the Caton sisters managed investment portfolios and were active and informed players on the domestic and foreign markets. It is especially interesting to see how they constantly used their social connections not only to win political or diplomatic appointments for their husbands or relatives but also for information on investments.

After months of negotiation over a dowry, Jennie Jerome finally married Lord Randolph Churchill in Paris on 15 April 1874 and is often said to have been the first dollar princess - although she had few dollars and did not become a princess. Her marriage encouraged hundreds of pushy mothers, hoping an exchange of dollars could buy their daughters a titled - if unhappy - marriage. On 17 April 1874, two days after the Churchill wedding, the funeral was held of Louisa, the philanthropic Duchess of Leeds and the last of the Caton sisters. It's a coincidence not lost on Jehanne Wake, who, quoting Oscar Wilde, ends her fine book with a warning about the new band of American invaders: 'they adore titles and are a permanent blow to Republican principles.'

Anne Sebba is writing a biography of Wallis Simpson