Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York

I met up with my brother Mark just before Thanksgiving, and he lent me a book saying "I know you have lots of books you're reading or planning to read, but drop everything and read this one next."

I took his advice and absolutely loved The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York, by Anne de Courcy, finishing it last week.

The Husband Hunters is a non-fiction account of the American invasion, when American heiresses stormed Britain in search of penniless aristocratic husbands willing to trade "coronets for cash." The stories of these young women, mostly beautiful, mostly clothed in Paris fashions (House of Worth gowns), mostly energetic, flirty, confident, and above all well-endowed with very rich fathers and socially-ambitious mothers were fascinating.

Sadly, it seems that most of the marriages were not a success--meaning that while the girls were able to use their married titles to crack the glass ceilings of New York society, they weren't all that happy and many ended up divorced and disillusioned.

This book greatly enhanced my understanding of the world of Edith Wharton novels (well, not Ethan Frome, but most of the others), from the stultifying world of the New York society dominated by Mrs. Astor and its extension to the summer resorts first in Saratoga and later in Newport, to the old world oppression of English society.

Having faithfully watched all the seasons of Downtown Abbey, it was interesting to read about Lady Grantham's backstory--she was an American heiress whose father's money kept Downton Abbey afloat. But, the Downton Abbey experience made me aware of a critical element that the The Husband Hunters didn't address, that of the children of the American/British marriages. While the book faithfully chronicled the wooing and wedding and some of the aftermath, it didn't touch much on the children, apart from Winston Churchill, and how they fit into the different worlds of their parents.

I suppose that topic requires a whole book in and of itself. I remember Lady Mary once explaining to her mother that she wouldn't understand a certain nuance because she was American and not English--I thought that an odd thing to say to one's mother...hence my curiosity.

But that quibble notwithstanding, The Husband Hunters was excellent and a great way to seque into my current book, the last and unfinished novel The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton.


  1. This sounds like a book I'd really like. And it does dovetail well with Edith Wharton's books, doesn't it? :)

  2. Sounds interesting. I think this was all part of a larger trend of the old aristocratics, whose wealth was diminishing, trying to marry into the new, capitalistic rich families. Anthony Trollope books delved not this. His novels, at least the ones that I read, explored the phenomenon as incurring within British society. He also wrote about an earlier time.

  3. This sounds very interesting. While reading your review, I was reminded of Portrait of a Lady and how her marriage didn't end well. I think it was kind of the same circumstance. I always thought that tragic. Definitely putting this on my list. Great review!

  4. Just bought this for my kindle (couldn't resist the deal)... sounds like an interesting read!

  5. I immediately thought of Winston Churchill and his American mother. I guess that kind of success story wasn't typical. It isn't too surprising that the marriages were often not successful, though I wonder too if changing society didn't have something to do with it as well. After all, arranged marriages among the upper classes was nothing new. Anyway, sounds like a fabulous book so thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  6. Gosh I dont know much about this American invasion but I surely like Edith Wharton novels, so it seems like it gives good insight into those books.