Monday, June 20, 2011

Three American sisters in Regency England (and one who stayed home)

Sisters of Fortune, Jehanne Wake

I came across this in the "new books" bins at my local public library, though it was published last year.  The cover, with a beautiful Regency portrait and three miniatures, caught my eye, as did the subtitle, "America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad."  From the dust jacket copy I learned that the sisters of the title were the granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the first Roman Catholic elected to Congress.  This one book combines three of my interests: women's history, the English Regency, and American Catholic history.

Jehanne Wake was researching women of means in the 19th century, and their interest and involvement in finance and the stock market, when she came across the Caton sisters of Maryland.  From their grandfather, one of the richest men in early America, they received personal fortunes, both in cash and in land and slaves, in addition to what they would inherit from his estate.  They were all actively involved in managing their own finances, and all invested in banks and stocks.  One sister, Bess, played the market as if she had been born in 1970 rather than 1790.

Though, as Wake discovered, many more women than anyone knew were involved in the market, the scope of the sisters' activities, and the financial resources they commanded, would have set them apart.  But they were also among the first American women to travel to England in the early years of the 19th century, long before the "Dollar Princesses" like Consuelo Vanderbilt, and they took Regency London by storm.  Three of the sisters arrived in London in 1816, with all-important letters of introduction to the Wellesley family, and the interest that its most famous member, the Duke of Wellington, took in them guaranteed their social success. One sister became a marchioness, another a baroness, and the third a duchess, and this in spite of prejudices against them both as Americans and as Catholics, including hostility from the families they married into.  The youngest sister, the only one to have children, stayed in America, raising a family and managing the Carroll family's interests.  In another important point of difference, all four sisters retained control of their own fortunes as married women.  This gave them a freedom that most women lost at marriage.

This book makes fascinating reading, as it moves from colonial Maryland to the early days of the new American government, and then to Regency England and France.  In later chapters, the story moves back and forth between the U.S. and England, tracking the different lives of the sisters.  I was reminded of so much history, both American and English, that I have managed to forget since college.  I also learned much that I never knew, especially about the Wellesley family and about Catholicism in the United Kingdom.

One of the jacket blurbs says that the book "sounds like plot of an Edwardian novel..."  It reminded me again of The Shuttle, especially with one husband who seemed like a real-life Sir Nigel.  But the Caton sisters were all Bettinas.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!