The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York by Anne de Courcy

Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley

Anne de Courcy is a best-selling writer, journalist and book reviewer who has received critical acclaim for her works depicting the rich social history of past eras. Her well-received, serialised for TV, biographies discuss the impact of prevailing financial and social conditions, contemporary attitudes and moral codes on her subjects’ lives. In this latest book she examines the invasion of the ‘husband-hunters’ from the US into the British peerage. This phenomenon occurred in the latter end of the nineteenth century in to the first years of the twentieth century and describes the girls, rich American heiresses and often more fittingly their mothers, who desired marriage with gentlemen from the British aristocracy. Popularly known as cash-for-coronets, the marriages the wives brought extensive and well-needed funds from the US, in return for a place in upper class society. These unions were often considered highly undesirable by many Americans who felt that life in England ‘once the first glamour has worn off, with its wretched climate, its lack of home comforts, the isolation of country life and a husband who spent the new wife’s money … resulted in disillusionment, misery, and a determination somehow to escape’.

De Courcy reports that the clash between matriarchal American society and patriarchal English society often came as a great shock to the young women involved who found themselves far from their familiar US home and its attendant comforts. The notion that the main motivation for the marriages was money is considered by the author to be too simplistic. She considers that the role of the mother of an American ‘marriageable girl’ was key to the trend with the mother being the ‘true husband-hunter’. The reasons she puts forward for this, which result from her extensive research on the matter, are concerned with the idea that whilst love was desirable, more important factors included ‘family, background, money and probity’ which provided an entry into society for the mother as well as the daughter.

Nonetheless, we are told that it was not all doom and gloom for these transcontinental partnerships and some of the marriages were of course successful and ‘extremely happy’, particularly those where the bride was in her mid-twenties rather than her teens and where love, as opposed to ambition had been the reason for the marriage. Still, adapting to life in a country where climate, attitudes, behaviour and general habits and traditions were so different to the ones they had left behind was a challenge for all American girls who married into the peerage.

In late 2017 there has been a great deal of interest in this book and it has been extensively referred to in the popular press. The reason being the recent announcement of an American fiancée for Prince Harry. De Courcy reveals that Meghan Markle is far from the first American connection in his family tree. She tells us that Harry’s great-great grandmother Frances (‘Fannie’) Ellen Work, whose life reads like a Downton Abbey storyline, was described as a ‘Dollar Princess’. Born in 1857 and married in 1880 to the English-born James (‘Jim’) Boothby Burke Roche, the son of Irish politician Edmund Burke Roche, 1st Baron Fermoy Fannie was said to have ‘spent lavishly, enjoying parties and the excitement of being admired in beautiful clothes … she was very well read, spoke French fluently, and took a great interest in paintings and furniture’. However, despite her apparent social mobility into the aristocracy her father – the self-made millionaire Frank Work – was not impressed and quoted as saying ‘I have only contempt for these helpless, hopeless, lifeless men that cross the ocean to carry off the very flower of our womanhood … if I had anything to say about the matter I’d make international marriage a hanging offence’. In reality as Frank knew Fannie’s husband ‘led a life far beyond that which he could actually afford’ and the marriage ended in divorce in 1891 following the birth of four children and Fannie returned to the USA. One of her children Edmund Maurice Burke Roche was Princess Diana’s grandfather.

Society, albeit slowly, does change and barriers are brought down alongside changes in attitudes and traditions. As time progressed entry into ‘society’ in either country did not require marriage and ‘new’ money conferred its own acknowledgements on its offspring. As different ways of life emerged ideas of female emancipation, education and freedom changed the consciousness of both nations.   The current Royal Family’s approval of Harry’s engagement is a sign of how far British social attitudes have progressed in recent years and hopefully precludes Frank’s recommendations being implemented for Meghan!

De Courcy describes the aim of this book as ‘to examine the reasons behind the social phenomenon and its lasting impact on British life’. This is admirably achieved by the author who traces the stories and histories of girls, their mothers and the important figures in their backgrounds. Her descriptions of what she calls these Gilded Age brides are rich in historical detail and manage to conjure up, for the reader, a fascinating insight into the domestic details of their lives and times.

The Husband Hunters: Social Climbing in London and New York


By Anne De Courcy

Weidenfeld & Nicolson

ISBN: 9781474601443

UK£20; 320 pages

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