Despite that little disagreement known as the American Revolution, citizens of our republic have been possessed of a long-standing fascination with British royals. In 1860, less than 80 years after the U.S. cast off the shackles of the British crown, throngs of admirers lined the streets of New York to welcome 19-year old Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. New York society arranged a ball, and the prince left the U.S. with a very favorable impression of American girls as spirited and vivacious (but who can blame him?).
More recently, royal wedding parties are a ‘thing,’ inspiring Americans to wake up in the wee hours to don silly hats, brew a pot of tea, and gather together to catch the magic, LIVE! The U.S. media breathlessly covers the comings and going of princes and lords and earls and duchesses, with whom they are, apparently, on a first name basis. I guess times really have changed!
Masterpiece Theater’s popular series Downton Abbey—which follows the exploits of Lord Robert Crawley, his American wife Cora, and those who inhabit their circle—might just be another manifestation of our royal obsession. With the series’ third season now in production, devotees of the show may be feeling a void. Why not fill it by reading the book that inspired the series?
“To Marry and English Lord,” co-written by Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl, examines the trend of American heiresses marrying titled Englishmen, which lasted roughly from the post-civil war period to the outbreak of World War I. As those who follow the series know, Downton Abbey is set at the tail end of the practice.
It has an interesting history, as Wallace shared at her recent talk about the book at the Westport Public Library. While the book she and MacColl spent five years researching and writing offers an overview of the trend, it also offers a historical context for Downton Abbey. The Civil War and the rise of industry made millionaires of Americans throughout the territories. From their financial success followed the desire for social success. And that meant one city: New York, the acknowledged social capital of the U.S.
But the long-standing denizens of New York society were not impressed with the newcomers or their big spending ways. In pursuit of status to go along with those fat bank accounts, Americans looked across the Atlantic to English royalty, who were long on status but short on cash. Oh sure, now Europeans may make fun of us for our propensity for smiling and being cheerful, but back in the day, it was rather refreshing.
Series creator Julian Fellows declared “How to Marry an English Lord” ”marvelous and entertaining,” which doesn’t exactly come as a surprise since he was reading the book when he was approached to develop a show and took his inspiration from it. MacColl and Wallace include photos, diagrams, and fun facts along with an extended look at key heiresses and the marriages they (or, in some cases, their pushy mamas) made. Though the history MacColl and Wallace present is meticulously researched and rather serious, they write in an accessible and witty style that makes the book hard to put down. And this is coming from someone who hasn’t seen Downton Abbey yet. Though now that I’ve read their book and am suitably intrigued, I will be sure to tune in to the next season (Shirley MacLaine, who has been cast as Cora’s American mother, should be a hoot).
Masterpiece Theater might just owe MacColl and Wallace a second thank you!