Generally, I don’t leap at the chance of gawking at gowns worn by Nicole Kidman, Uma Thurman, or Kate Beckinsale, period costumes currently on view at the American Museum in Britain just outside Bath. Still, I was intrigued by the museum’s exhibition “Dollar Princesses” and, on a trip to the old spa town last Thursday, we trotted up to Claverton Manor (pictured) to have a look.
“Dollar Princesses” tells the story of what Oscar Wilde referred to as the “American Invasion”—the eastern migration of moneyed American women dead set on a title and deigning to take any destitute Englishman yet attached to it in the bargain. Take Jenny Jerome, for instance, who courted in record speed—a mere three days—to beat the moneyed crowds so as to become Lady Randolph Churchill. Her son Winston, incidentally, made his first political speech at Claverton Manor back in 1897.
As I looked at the artifacts and read the literate panels, I was reminded of the impression made by American heiress Isabel Boncassen on Lord Silverbridge, characters of The Duke’s Children (1879-80) by the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope:
Thrice within the next three weeks did Lord Silverbridge go forth to ask Mabel to be his wife, but thrice in vain [. . .]. It was no doubt true that he, during the last three weeks, had often been in Miss Boncassen’s company [. . .]. But Mabel had certainly no right to complain. Had he not thrice during the same period come there to lay the coronet at her feet;—and [. . .] was it not her fault that he was not going through the ceremony?
“I suppose,” she said, laughing, “that it is all settled.”
“What is all settled?”
“About you and the American beauty.”
“I am not aware that anything in particular has been settled.”
“Then it ought to be,—oughtn’t it? For her sake, I mean.”
“That is so like an English woman,” said Lord Silverbridge. “Because you cannot understand a manner of life a little different from your own you will impute evil.”
“I have imputed no evil, Lord Silverbridge, and you have no right to say so.”
“If you mean to assert,” said Miss Cass, “that the manners of American young ladies are freer than those of English young ladies, it is you that are taking away their characters.”
“I don’t say it would be at all bad,” continued Lady Mabel. “She is a beautiful girl, and very clever, and would make a charming Duchess. And then it would be such a delicious change to have an American Duchess.”
“She wouldn’t be a Duchess.”
“Well, Countess, with Duchessship before her in the remote future. Wouldn’t it be a change, Miss Cass?”
“Oh decidedly!” said Miss Cass.
“And very much for the better. Quite a case of new blood, you know. Pray don’t suppose that I mean to object. Everybody who talks about it approves. I haven’t heard a single dissentient voice. Only as it has gone so far, and English people are too stupid you know to understand all these new ways,—don’t you think perhaps—?”
“No, I don’t think. I don’t think anything except that you are very ill-natured.” Then he got up and, after making formal adieux to both the ladies, left the house.
As soon as he was gone Lady Mabel began to laugh, but the least apprehensive ears would have perceived that the laughter was affected. Miss Cassewary did not laugh at all, but sat bolt upright and looked very serious. “Upon my honour,” said the younger lady, “he is the most beautifully simple-minded human being I ever knew in my life.”
“Then I wouldn’t laugh at him.”
“How can one help it? But of course I do it with a purpose.”
“I think he is making a fool of himself. If somebody does not interfere he will go so far that he will not be able to draw back without misbehaving.”
“I thought,” said Miss Cassewary, in a very low voice, almost whispering. “I thought that he was looking for a wife elsewhere.”
“You need not think of it again,” said Lady Mab, jumping up from her seat. “I had thought of it too. But as I told you before, I spared him. He did not really mean it with me;—nor does he mean it with this American girl. Such young men seldom mean. They drift into matrimony. But she will not spare him. It would be a national triumph. All the States would sing a paean of glory. Fancy a New York belle having compassed a Duke!”
“I don’t think it possible. It would be too horrid.”
These days, titles are still a big draw in the United Kingdom; as the recently concluded “Cash for Honours” investigation drove home, they are as desirable as ever among those with a few thousand pounds to spare. The latter-day “Dollar Princess,” on the other hand, is not so eager to spend her precious ducats on a Duke. That kind of hustling went out with the bustle. Lords, after all, are a dime a dozen around here.