The Real Women Who Inspired Downton Abbey

by Anne de Courcy

Towards the end of the nineteenth century and for the first few years of the twentieth, a strange invasion took place in Britain. The citadel of power, privilege, and breeding in which the titled, land-owning governing class had barricaded itself for so long was breached. The incomers were a group of young women who, fifty years earlier, would have been looked on as the alien denizens of another world—the New World, to be precise. From 1874—the year that Jennie Jerome, the first known ‘Dollar Princess’, married Randolph Churchill—to 1905, dozens of young American heiresses married into the British peerage, bringing with them all the fabulous wealth, glamour and sophistication of the Gilded Age.

In her new book, The Husband Hunters: American Heiresses Who Married into the British Aristocracy, Anne de Courcy sets the stories of these young women and their families in the context of their times. Based on extensive first-hand research, drawing on diaries, memoirs and letters, this richly entertaining group biography reveals what they thought of their new lives in England – and what England thought of them. Keep reading for an excerpt of The Husband Hunters.

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Alva’s costume for the 1883 ball. Image is in the public domain via Wikipedia.

At the news of the ball, the society papers were agog. Who would come to it and who would stay away? What would happen when the different branches of the Vanderbilts met? Would the boycott of Alva still continue?

The Duke, as Alva had guessed, proved too much of a draw for anyone to resist, and her invitations were all eagerly accepted. Consuelo, seeing the inexorable approach of a fate she dreaded, was in despair. As Alva was determined that nothing would interfere with her plan—let alone the fact that her daughter was in love with someone else and did not wish to marry the man her mother had selected—Consuelo was kept a prisoner in the Marble House.

The porter was under orders not to let her out alone, her mother and her governess were always with her and when friends called they were told she was not home. She was unable to write a letter because she had no means of buying a stamp or posting it and all the letters that arrived for her were taken straight to Alva, who destroyed them. Equally powerful as a prison wall was the psychological factor that she had been brought up from babyhood with the habit of total subordination to someone whose will was the law.

It was not long before the Newport society, aware of Alva’s treatment of her daughter, echoed with the phrase: ‘A marble palace is the right place for a woman with a marble heart.’

Consuelo held out against the prospect before her as long as she could but, after five months without word from her lover, and unable to reach him, with her mother raging, screaming and shouting that either she would have a fatal heart attack or that she would ‘shoot Winthrop Rutherfurd’ and threatening that therefore she would be arrested, imprisoned and hanged, she cracked, and agreed to accept the Marlborough when he proposed. She was barely eighteen, completely isolated, utterly miserable and brought up to be subservient to her mother in all things.

When the Duke arrived in Newport as part of an American tour her was entertained by several of its notables, with others crowding to watch where possible. But the highlight was Alva’s ball, planned so that she would outdo any previous entertainment in both taste and lavishness.

Image via Library of Congress.

She succeeded. The grounds were lit by thousands of tiny lights, a host of servants wore livery in style of Louis XIV, there were nine French chefs, three orchestras and the tables were decorated with pink hollyhocks among which swarmed tiny hummingbirds. In the yellow marble hall, a bronze drinking fountain held pink lotus plants, above which hovered artificial butterflies.

Even the cotillion favors, previously chosen by Alva in Paris – Louis XIV fans, etchings, gold watch-cases—were so splendid that guests actually stole them from one another. Alva wore white satin with a court train and a dazzle of diamonds; beside her stood Consuelo in white satin and tulle. It was a triumph—except that there was no offer of marriage from the Duke. The parties and dinners went on…and on…and on—and still nothing. Finally, the evening before he was due to leave, the Duke proposed. Alva, determined to waste no time in clinching the matter, announced the engagement the following day, even ordering her servants to spread the good news with the words ‘Go out and tell everyone you know.’

Interested in more from The Husband Hunters? Listen to an excerpt of the audiobook:


Anne de Courcy is the author of thirteen widely acclaimed works of social history and biography, including MARGOT AT WAR, THE FISHING FLEET, THE VICEROY’S DAUGHTERS and DEBS AT WAR. She lives in London and Gloucestershire.

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