My Last Duchess, or The American Heiress in the US Edition, is the story of Cora Cash, an American heiress who marries an English duke at the end of the nineteenth century. Most of my characters are fictional but I have used a few real life characters such as the Prince of Wales.
My Last Duchess is set in the 1890’s, the decade that saw the rise of Sherlock Holmes, the trial sofa Oscar Wilde and the great bicycling craze. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for sixty years and her son the Prince of Wales was eating his way through three thirteen course meals a day.
Britain was going through an agricultural depression and its great landowning aristocracy were hit by declining incomes and the new inheritance tax ‘death duties’.
On the other side of the Atlantic fortunes were being made every day and the new American millionaires were coming East to buy themselves the best of what the Old World had to offer.
My heroine Cora Cash is loosely based on Consuelo Vanderbilt, the beautiful American heiress who married the 10th Duke of Marlborough in 1895.
Consuelo was forced into this marriage by her domineering mother Alva who longed for the social cachet that being the mother of a Duchess would bring her.
The marriage was not a happy one. On the honeymoon, Consuelo told her new husband that she was in love with somebody else, “So am I” he replied.
The Titled American
American heiresses on the look out for a title could consult a quarterly periodical called the Titled American which listed all the American women who had married titled foreigners and gave a list of eligible titled bachelors together with their address, the size of their estate and the size of their debts.
One of the most fascinating things I came across in my research was the fashion for tattoos among the aristocracy in the late nineteenth century. It started when the future George V and his brother went round the world by sea and came back with a rich assortment of tattoos. Their father the Prince of Wales followed suit and so did many of his friends.
There is a rumour that all the Prince’s ‘special’ lady friends had a snake tattooed around their wrist, a detail I used in my depiction of the Double Duchess, the Duke’s glamorous and manipulative mother.
Cora has a fabulous wardrobe courtesy of M.Worth in Paris.The House of Worth was the place to buy your clothes at the end of the nineteenth century. An heiress like Cora would go to Paris once or maybe twice a year and come back with sixty or seventy dresses – each one would be sent over in its own specially designed trunk.
Any socially ambitious woman would rather stay at home than be seen twice in the same dress. The 1890’s was the time of hugely exaggerated leg o’mutton sleeves and tiny waists. Some of the sleeves were so wide that women had to turn sideways to walk through doorways.
If you were an impoverished english aristocrat than marrying an American heiress was nice work if you could get it. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s dowry was worth $100 million dollars in today’s money, Mary Leiter brought a dowry worth $50 million to her marriage to George Curzon.
About a quarter of the British aristocracy married into American money. The endless summer of the Edwardian aristocracy was largely paid for by American money.
Cora Cash lives in New York and Newport. The houses she lives in are vast, grandiose piles with every modern convenience. But when she goes to live at Lulworth Castle she discovers to her horror that there are no bathrooms, let alone central heating. Life in the English country house for a rich American girl was seriously uncomfortable. One American heiress who married Lord Stonor refused all dinner invitations because she simply couldn’t face taking off her furs.
My heroine is horrified that every time she wants to have a bath, a housemaid has to carry several gallons of hot water up from the kitchen half a mile away. The Americans loved the look of the stately home but they weren’t prepared to adopt the stiff upper lip needed to live in them.