Every gene pool and community needs an injection of hybrid vigour from time to time, and few more urgently than the nobility of Edwardian England. America stepped up, and into the ancestral bedchambers: between 1874 and 1914 scores of dollar princesses from the New World sailed over in luxurious, if seasick, comfort and married into the peerage. Many became Marquises or Contessas, but a hundred nabbed British titles: sixty got eldest sons, forty younger ones, six scored dukes and many hung out with that fat hedonist the Prince of Wales. Jennie Jerome went on to become Winston Churchill’s mother while Maud Gurnard ditched her gloomy husband, changed her name to Emerald and became a social legend and supporter of the opera. Vanderbilts, Leiters and Goelets roamed the social landscape: smartly dressed, liberated, chatty, rich. Peers were actively targeted; a New York quarterly called Titled Americans offered a list of eligible single noblemen. All it needed to add (but didn’t) was a note on the extent of each one’s vulnerability due to gambling debts or an estate half-ruined by agricultural depression. Impoverished British peeresses gave introductions in return for opera tickets or Paris frocks.
Anne de Courcy, in a tone of sometimes incredulous fascination, offers a group biography of the invaders. The Husband Hunters is sometimes tiringly dense, if you do not instinctively much care about the ramifications of “great” families whether from Debretts or Des Moines, but to both serious social historians and Downtonish aristo-fanciers it will be pure catnip. The book is well written and full of detail: of the insanely lavish Newport set, of May Goelet’s arrival at Floors Castle with bagpipes and a hundred torchbearers, and the fearful Vanderbilt-Marlborough wedding. On this occasion, the bride’s mother sent a feature on the bridal lingerie to Vogue – solid gold corset-clasps and pink lace drawers. It makes all that recent drivel about Pippa Middleton seem positively reticent.