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To Heiress Hew Man: a Review of ‘The American Heiress’

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin – St. Martin’s Press

In his amusing book about American snobbery, Joseph Epstein finds a compelling association between the spread of democracy and an emerging desire for social deference. Until the nineteenth century, aristocratic privilege had been the widely accepted assumption of any given society. However, as the middle class grew economically and in number, so did the social aspirations of those stirred by the “spirit behind democracy—that no one really believes that, apart from innate talent, anyone is intrinsically better than anyone else and especially is no one better than oneself.” Within this new social order, any inequity of status between citizens adds up to an injustice “that can be remedied and rectified by careful plans.”

And who planned more ambitiously than Mrs. Nancy Cash? Daughter of a vanquished Confederate colonel—a woman who married into a flour fortune and scaled Newport, Rhode Island’s high society to become its prevailing figure, circa 1893; a type Henry James described in “Daisy Miller” as one of those “vigilant matrons who massed themselves in the forefront of social intercourse…”. Tirelessly she groomed daughter Cora for greater ascendance, guiding the defiant heiress through the straits and narrows of climbing among the elite on either side of the Atlantic.

The prize? British writer Daisy Goodwin is blunt about Mrs. Cash’s motivation early on in her debut novel The American Heiress—that being a coronet for Cora.

Its smooth, quickly-paced prose comprises a book that is more romance than historical novel. Yet, in the prologue the author refers to several nonfiction titles that her own book appears to be compounded of. A newspaper notice dated August 2, 1901 announcing the homecoming arrival of Duchess of Marlborough (née Consuelo Vanderbilt) to Newport, Rhode Island confirms American Heiress’ cultural veracity; especially given how prominent a mention the announcement makes of the duchess’ mother, Mrs. Oliver H. P. Belmont.

No matter Mrs. Cash’s maternal altruism, as a classic snob she succumbs to its worst impulses—sucking up to the likes of Mrs. Wyndham for an introduction into English society and on another occasion scoffing at the idea of sharing a carriage ride with her daughter’s maid. “We hold these truths to be self- evident…” most certainly. In a moment of self reflection Mrs. Cash admitted her own long-term ambition as she gazed at the portrait of the 2nd Duke of Wareham, ancestor to her future son-in-law:

[T]he man in the picture had a look she knew well: the complete indifference of inherited position. It was something she saw rarely in New York but she recognised it instantly; it was the quality she herself most aspired to….not something that could be acquired or even reproduced. It had to develop over time…. [It] meant that you had no doubts at all about your place in the world or concern about the world’s perception of you…. She wondered if Cora’s children would ever gaze at the world with such serene lack of interest.

Which is a puzzling sentiment for Mrs. Cash: feeling offended by the living duke’s indifference to his own family history and put off that he dismissed her reverence for pedigree as a “colonial pretension.”

The brunt of the novel treats Cora’s development from an over-indulged Yankee princess who marries Ivo Maltravers, 9th Duke of Wareham, to a hard-knocks duchess rudely awakened by the internecine strife among English blue bloods. As engaging a drama Goodwin stages, she overlooks the task of conveying the cloistered quality of social strictures in the Edwardian Age. The novel lacks the weight and girth of a world constructed by Henry James or Edith Wharton. Near the book’s conclusion, Goodwin gestures toward the smoldering Gothic genre, but winds down Cora’s story to a hard-earned happy ending.

For all her scheming theatrics, Mrs. Cash stands as a perplexing figure—representing an axis between a catastrophic past and an aristocratic future; one she’s hell-bent on grafting her family’s lineage into. Her blistering initiative invites easy caricature, yet one possibly loses sight of a deeply felt national regret.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Book Reviews, Coming of Age, Contemporary Fiction