Downton Abbey's season finale is Sunday 17 February here in the States, and the next season will not arrive until January 2014. Carrie S. is here for you though – with some reviews of nonfiction that should more than tide you over until then, provided you read slowly and practice what you've learned!
To Marry an English Lord is a riveting look at the world of American heiresses who married, or attempted to marry, into the English aristocracy. It covers the middle and late Victorian Age through the Edwardian Age. The book covers the stories of individual people and had inserts with details about historical processes.
This means that you have the following (and much more) at your disposal:
How to deliver the cut direct. “Do not look back to revel in discomfiture. That would be rude“.
The ranks of English peerage and how to address them, as well as the pros and cons of marrying each level of the peerage.
The responsibilities of each servant. Do NOT ask the footman to bring you something. Turn to the butler; ask him to tell the footman (who will be standing right there) to bring you said item. The Butler will relay this message to the footman, who will comply.
How to have a socially sanctioned affair. Turns out the Americans were the conservative ones while the English were downright wild (in a discreet and proper way, of course). Some Americans learned to appreciate this cultural twist while others were horrified.
The typical income and expenditures involved in running a country estate (expect a deficit of what would be over one million dollars a year in today's dollars).
- What to wear throughout the day. If you are a woman, you will need separate outfits for early morning, late morning, luncheon, afternoon, dinner, and then of course you will need different kinds of outfits for receptions, balls, opera, and the theater.
Honestly, I can't begin to explain how much I loved this book. It is rife with the guilty pleasure of feeling both superior and envious. Honestly, how could anyone bring herself to spend $500,000 (in today's money) on a year's worth of dresses? And, having seen photos of the dresses, can I have some, please?
The gossip is juicy. The psychology is interesting, if mostly superficial – who lived to party all the time, and why, and what were the parties like and how much did they cost? Who dedicated themselves to Good Works, and why, and what did they do? Who took to their beds? What historical events were prompting all these American heiresses to marry overseas?
As far as historical personages, you can expect to learn a great deal about the social war between Caroline Astor and Alva Vanderbilt, and Alva's attempts to marry off her daughter, Consuela, to royalty. You'll hear all about Edward VII and a great deal about the endlessly fascinating Lady Jennie Churchill (mother of Winston). The authors Henry James and Edith Wharton show up, as does the artist John Singer Sargent. And we can't omit Charles Fredrick Worth, the designer of those pretty and pricey dresses. Many other American heiresses appear and marry, some happily, some not, but all in an interesting manner.
Brace yourselves, romance readers – it turns out that marrying an English Lord was not necessarily a ticket to a life of bliss. Country estates were icy cold and usually lacked indoor plumbing. The social rules of America and England were ferociously strict and not at all the same. These were marriages that were built on status and economics – love was expected to come later, in the form of affairs and second marriages. At least this was the English expectation, leading to a fairly shocking disillusionment for many American women with more romantic aspirations.
One issue that is barely addressed is the vast gap between the rich and the poor. The wealthy lived in such an isolated world, one that was untouched by the extreme suffering of the poor and the working class in both America and England. I would have liked to have heard more about this in the book, and more about what the rich thought about this gap, if in fact they thought about it at all. Some clearly thought about it a great deal. Daisy Warwick, for example, became an ardent socialist and philanthropist, losing her fortune in the process.
Although this book lacks in-depth historical context, it addresses pretty much everything you could possibly need or want to know about the daily lives of the wealthy of the time period. It is crammed with poignant life stories and the kinds of details that could come in quite handy if you fall through a portal and end up in Edwardian England:
If a gentleman goes riding in the carriage with his mistress, he is to place her on his left side, which indicates that she is not his wife.
King Edward VII always had lobster salad with his tea.
Up until the moment her first child actually emerged, poor Lady Florence Gordon Cumming expected the baby to come out through her navel.
- Never wear a pair of kid gloves more than once.
If these little factoids do not leave you hungry for more, then probably To Marry an English Lord will have no charms for you. For the rest of us, this is pure historical deliciousness!