You’ve waited all your life for your prince to come.
He’d be tall and handsome, smart and kind, with a smile only for you. Or maybe he’d just be an ordinary guy with a messy life who loved you fiercely. Either way, your prince would come ... or maybe, as in “The Husband Hunters” by Anne de Courcy, you just went out and found him yourself.
For good reason, they called it The Gilded Age: from roughly 1870 to 1914, everything was golden. Wealth increased, mansions were constructed seemingly by the dozens, it was easy to travel to France or England on a whim, and life was good — but only if you were a member of the highest echelon of society.
Few people were: just 400, according to Caroline Astor, who ultimately decided if someone was one of “the best people.” Even if your family was wealthy, even if Papa was a successful merchant, if you weren’t born with the right surname, you weren’t on Mrs. Astor’s “list.”
And if you weren’t on Mrs. Astor’s list, you were basically nobody.
For 474 Gilded-Age “girls” born outside Mrs. Astor’s “circle,” that was unacceptable. Instead, they traveled to Europe, charmingly finagled an introduction to a man with a title, and got married, thus becoming duchesses, marchionesses, or ladies, none of which Mrs. Astor could ignore. Short of being born with a proverbial silver spoon in one’s mouth, it was the surest way to gain entrance into society.
The problem was that many of those young American women wanted to live their own lives and pick their own husbands, but their mothers insisted on so-called “husband hunting.” In those cases, Mama was the real recipient of high-society benefits at home; meanwhile, the hapless daughters often received “a rude shock” to learn how different their new lives were: American women, as it turned out, enjoyed day-to-day freedoms and better rights. British wives then were more like possessions.
That’s a surprisingly sobering thing to remember as you’re reading “The Husband Hunters” — and it’s a surprise to learn that our three-times-great-grandmothers had such chutzpah. Who knew?
Author Anne de Courcy did, and in this lively book, she writes generally of the Gilded Age in splendor and squalor, and specifically of a handful of heiresses who married well, sometimes rather unwillingly. Part of the overall story is about the kind of pure snobbery that readers may liken to that of modern-day mean girls and those who do anything to curry favor with them; another facet is the chasm between haves and have-nots. While those subjects all sound dreadful, even depressing, what you’ll find instead, like any good fairy tale, turns out mostly Happily Ever After.
There are exceptions to that, of course. More than one will have you fist-pumping.
Ah, those wild Victorians.
Historians, of course, will enjoy this book but with its tidbits and truth, it should also intrigue feminist readers and those who love a good tale. If that’s you, then “The Husband Hunters” is worth bagging.