Review of The American Heiress: Money May Not Buy You Love, but It Might Help You Land a Spouse

Money May Not Buy You Love, but It Might Help You Land a Spouse

Janet Maslin
The New York Times
Sunday, June 26, 2011
11:12 AM

What should Daisy Goodwin have called her novel about a Gilded Age Newport belle who heads for England to marry her way into a title? It was published in Britain as “My Last Duchess,” since it makes abundant reference to the chilling Robert Browning poem of that name. Now, for American readers, it has been given a forgettably bland name: “The American Heiress.” A hybrid of the two, “The American Duchess,” would have better described what Ms. Goodwin’s sly, glittery period piece is about.

Ms. Goodwin is brazen enough to name her moneybags heroine Cora Cash and to borrow from the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt in telling Cora’s tale. Thanks to the 1895 marriage to Charles Spencer-Churchill that turned Consuelo into the ninth Duchess of Marlborough, Ms. Goodwin need not strain to imagine what it was like for an American girl, from a family that had its own railroad, to catapult herself into the ranks of British royalty.

Not that Ms. Goodwin is unimaginative: she gives Cora distinct personality and allure. But when it comes to serving larks’ tongues in aspic or using live hummingbirds to amuse Newport partygoers, she describes wretched excesses that are matters of historical record, even if her book conflates, inflates or transposes real stories. As a general rule, she writes in an author’s note, “when it comes to the Gilded Age, the more fantastical the circumstance, the more likely it is to be true.”

As Cora is told by Teddy Van Der Leyden, her hapless American suitor, “The whole of America knows you are going to Europe, to find a suitable consort for the Cash millions.” But Cora wants Teddy. And Teddy wants Cora melodramatically. “Who was he to resist Cora Cash, the girl that every woman in Newport envied and every man desired?” Ms. Goodwin writes deliciously about Teddy’s situation. The Van Der Leydens may be an esteemed and snooty Knickerbocker family, but they don’t count for much in the eyes Cora’s frankly ambitious mother. And Cora’s mother runs her daughter’s life.

But when the Cash ladies get to England, something slightly unexpected happens. Cora has taken her own horse across the Atlantic and is in Dorset, riding to hounds with some of the aristocrats she plans to dazzle, when she is startled by the sounds of a tryst in the woods. This causes her to hit a branch, be knocked unconscious and wake up in what, to her American mind, is “a bed with a roof and curtains.” The bed is in Lulworth, a drafty pile that belongs to a bachelor duke.

“I expect he didn’t want to leave Miss Cash’s side,” says a gossipy servant about the ninth Duke of Wareham, also known as Maltravers and familiarly called Ivo by those wishing to flirt with or marry him. Ivo quickly excites the ambitions of Mrs. Cash, though Lulworth hardly lives up to her Newport tastes. “Really, Cora, sometimes I think you forget that I am mistress of a house quite the match of this one,” she tells her daughter.

“I am not sure the Duke would agree,” Cora says. “I don’t think he is in the habit of comparing himself with others.”

“Even dukes can count, Cora,” her mother tartly replies.

Ms. Goodwin has a flair for such dialogue: either that or an extensive familiarity with the works of Edith Wharton. In any case, she supplies Cora with reasonably sharp banter and gives her backbone. Cora is a better character than the spoiled, arrogant creature she could have been. To Ms. Goodwin’s credit, the book has enough sexual heat to make Cora’s inevitable marriage to Ivo seem like something beyond a cynical business transaction, though it has its cynical aspects. In one of the book’s best moments, Mrs. Cash gazes admiringly at a picture of one of Ivo’s supercilious ancestors. “She wondered if Cora’s children would ever gaze at the world with such serene lack of interest,” Ms. Goodwin writes.

Ms. Goodwin also gets some momentum from her story’s subplots, even when they rely on stock characters. Take Charlotte Beauchamp — and Ivo apparently has, leaving Charlotte with a nastily proprietary attitude toward him and a bitchy one toward Cora. As Charlotte looks appraisingly at Cora, she has her mouth “curved upwards in what might have been a smile.” Charlotte also has a husband who is handy with a hairbrush, whether he is using it to groom his wife’s long blond hair (and “pacify it into a golden sheet”) or spanking her.

“The American Heiress” also features Ivo’s feline mother, who made herself a double duchess by marrying a second duke after Ivo’s father had died and who is expertly dismissive in dealing with her new daughter-in-law’s flashy American tastes for, say, plumbing. “Perhaps I am just set in my ways but I cannot help but think there is more to life than hot water,” the duchess tells one of her many admirers, the Prince of Wales (whose royal visits are a royal pain). The novel’s best-drawn secondary character is Bertha, Cora’s American maid, who spends a lot of time lacing her mistress into corsets but even more time making astute social observations. During the course of the book, Bertha acquires direct experience of the differences between racial discrimination in America and class discrimination in England.

“The American Heiress” connects to Browning’s “My Last Duchess” when Cora is persuaded to have her portrait painted by an artist who is guaranteed to inflame Ivo’s dangerous side. But this is a book that seeks to beguile, not horrify. So Cora, unlike the doomed duchess in the poem, remains a vibrant character throughout Ms. Goodwin’s archly entertaining story. She has no intention of seeing herself relegated to a space on a castle wall.