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March 14, 2011updated 10 Jan 2016 3:55pm

Sisters of Fortune

By Spear's

The First American Heiresses to Take Europe by Storm
Jehanne Wake
Chatto & Windus, 416pp

Review by Peter York

After Downton Abbey I was expecting a sort of Sargent-fest from Jehanne Wake’s Sisters of Fortune. I thought it’d be a Gilded Age re-hash for a generation too young to have read Hesketh Pearson’s Pilgrim Daughters and the cottage industry of Dollar Princess publishing that followed. Books that showed how late-19th-century American heiresses bought up half of Europe’s titles.

The Countess of Grantham character in Downton Abbey —first episode set in 1912 — is a Pilgrim Daughter, a composite character created by Julian Fellowes from Consuelo Vandebilt and Jennie Jerome, Churchill’s American mother. The marriage, as they admitted in one key scene, was originally a transaction — his title for her father’s money (rather sweetly, they’ve come to love each other). So it sets all those Henry James and Edith Wharton via Merchant Ivory associations going. And you’re expecting art direction by John Singer Sargent.

But Sisters of Fortune is actually two generations earlier. So we’ve not even talking Winterhalter. This story starts in the late 18th century and the world the Caton sisters, Marianne, Louisa and Bess, first conquered in 1816, was Regency London, so the society portrait painter of choice is Lawrence. And here are Marianne and Louisa by Sir Thomas Lawrence (and Bess by Thomas Phillips in a just-right-for-the-Royal-Pavilion turban). Work back a fair bit and you’ve got the Caton sisters’ grandfather, Charles Carroll of Carrollton in Maryland, by Reynolds — painted in London in 1763. It’s nearly a century and a world away from the rich tide of brand-name manufacturers and traders’ daughter, mostly from the East Coast, especially New York.

The Caton girls were Old Money by American standards, ‘landed’ rather than entrepreneurial, Catholic rather than Episcopalian or Jewish. Carroll of Carrollton was, as a signatory of the American Declaration of Independence — and the longest survivor of The Signers — was National Treasure and Living History in one.

And their money didn’t work in the same way, either. The Caton girls were certainly rich — though not in the OTT Gilded Age way — but, crucially, the money was their own to dispose — very New World. So it underwrote their independence, rather than bought them into aristocratic Human Bondage. The Caton girls’ pilgrimage to London was anything but a husband-hunt: Louisa  and Marianne already had husbands, and Bess just didn’t seem interested. It was more like a rather classy Gap Year.

They came with some good introductions, particularly from Sir Charles Bagot, a Westmorland toff who was married to Mary Wellesley-Pole, niece of the Duke of Wellington. Wellington, as hero of the hour, a future (Tory) Prime Minister (1828-1830 and also in 1834), was a crucial introduction. And Wellington was struck, pole-axed instantly and forever, with Marianne. She was reckoned a great beauty, and a great charmer. The Lawrence portrait, commissioned by the Duke, is as unreliable evidence as this kind of stylised society portraiture always is.

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But Jehanne Wake has a mass of witnesses testifying to Marianne’s astonishing attractiveness. Wellington had the companion portrait of himself painted for Marianne — Mrs Patterson as she then was, married to her boring Maryland husband — in 1817. Wellington’s endorsement made the Caton sisters. Their appeals, money and an assiduous campaign of what we’d call networking did the rest. Within a few years Marianne was a Republican at Court — a Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Adelaide — and thoroughly, easily, assimilated.

The money helped, it bought nice clothes and nice addresses, but aristocratic families weren’t as desperate for cash injections as in the 1890s. The smart view of Americans was largely condescending — they were gauche, borderline rough, provincial. But the Caton sisters, self-evidently clever and sophisticated, were disarming, exceptional. They fitted in.

They fitted in so well that all three married English aristocrats, in their own time, making their own choices. After Marianne’s husband died, she married Wellington’s brother Richard Wellesley. Louisa, also widowed, married the heir to the Duke of Leeds and Bess, in middle age, married Lord Stafford, a Baron Hardup in his sixties with ten children. According to Jehanne Wake, these were all love matches, certainly not transactions (the Leeds marriage was fiercely opposed by the family because Marianne was Catholic).

This definitely isn’t Chick Lit History. Jehanne Wake, a former banker who’s written the Kleinwort Benson story, originally found the Catons in Barings’ archives when she was researching 19th century rich women and their financial literacy. There was a letter from Bess Caton ‘so intelligent and authoritative’ on the subject of investments and speculations. There she was, using the 21st-century jargon of global financial markets in the early 19th century.

The chapter on Lady Speculators is fascinating. Bess bought and sold to some effect for her sisters and herself. I hadn’t realised, for instance, just how important upper-class women had been among the South Sea Bubble shareholders. Similarly there’s a key chapter on the Reform Bill. The Caton girls, with their Court and Wellington connections, were deeply involved.

Sisters of Fortune is a thoroughly odd book, as varied as its chapters — there are 37, mostly very short. The longest, showing the author’s own interests, is the one on Lady Speculators. On a whole range of other questions Wake is deeply uncurious. Although the scholarship on display — 13 pages of bibliography alone — is impressive, some key questions for a modern readership go practically unremarked, let alone examined.

The charming girls’ family fortune is partly built on slavery and they lived squarely in the Wilberforce era, but we don’t really hear what they think about it. Their beloved sister, Emily, back in Maryland, marries a Scots-Canadian big in the fur trade, and we don’t hear about that, either. Of course you can’t impose 21st-century concerns on 19th-century lives, but you’d think even an American-trained former City girl might think to ask.

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