The late-19th-century cultural phenomenon of American heiresses marrying into the English aristocracy has attracted literary attention from the moment it began: Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady was published in 1880, a mere six years after the foundational match between Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill. James worked this seam thoroughly, followed by Edith Wharton, most notably in her final, unfinished novel The Buccaneers. James and Wharton concentrated on the tension — both emotional and social — generated by these matches, but several of their contemporaries wrote escapist fiction on the same theme that focused more on the voyeuristic aspects of the situation. (Look for Gertrude Atherton’s 1898 American Wives and English Husbands, Constance Cary Harrison’s 1890 Anglomaniacs, or Mary E. Sherwood’s 1882 A Transplanted Rose.) The men’s castles, the women’s jewelry, the parties, the scandals, the love matches and the divorces — this was social climbing taken to the extreme and it entertained many people for a long time.
Apparently it still does. Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress (which was published in the UK as My Last Duchess) revisits the heiress/aristocrat marriage. I have to say, I am not the right audience for this book, because I have previously written about it myself. So by page 10, I could identify not only the models of the characters and settings, but also the author’s sources. That’s my problem, not Goodwin’s. I finished the book because I was curious to see what she would make of it. Her heiress is the usual headstrong beauty, here named Cora Cash. (The elbow-in-the-side name is an unusually blatant touch.) The tale opens with a set-piece of a Newport ball before Cora is whisked over to England where she and her dollars will be trailed before impecunious English suitors. She and the handsome enigmatic Duke of Wareham meet cute in Paradise Wood on his estate — so far, so Georgette Heyer.
The interesting part of the book is not the courtship but what happens afterward, as Duchess Cora and her aristocratic Ivo begin to negotiate a relationship. Goodwin is at her best imagining the obstacles presented by the Duke’s pride, Cora’s expectations, and their mutual misunderstanding. There were flickers of Wharton here: that sense you get in some of Wharton’s novels of appealing characters who can’t get out of their own way. Cora’s impetuous efforts to please her husband misfire repeatedly, understandably. (She’s slow on the uptake about how little he likes a surprise.) Her money is almost a character in its own right, and looms large in the marriage.
Ultimately, though, The American Heiress is not interested in exploring the finer emotional shades. Ivo’s habit of running hot and cold with Cora turns out to have a more mundane cause and we’re back in Georgette Heyer-land. Without, sadly, Heyer’s light touch.