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Book Review: The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

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In his amusing book about American snobbery, Joseph Epstein notes that the desire for social deference blossoms best in open society — where social rank is loosely defined and unenforced. As aristocratic privilege began to wane in the nineteenth century the emerging middle class began asserting its social aspirations, no doubt stirred by the “spirit of 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 could plan 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 grooms 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.

The book’s smooth, quickly paced prose reads more as a romance than a historical novel. Yet, in the prologue the author refers to several nonfiction titles that her own book appears to draw generously upon. This newspaper notice  dated August 2, 1901 announcing the homecoming arrival of Duchess of Marlborough (née Consuelo Vanderbilt) to Newport confirms The American Heiress‘ cultural veracity; especially given how prominent a mention the announcement makes of the duchess’ mother, Mrs. H. P. Belmont.

No matter Mrs. Cash’s maternal altruism, as a classic snob she succumbs to its worst impulses — sucking up to 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: earlier feeling offended by the living duke’s indifference to his 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 the 9th Duke of Wareham, to a hard-knocks duchess rudely awakened by the internecine strife among English blue bloods.

Though Goodwin stages an engaging cross-cultural drama (even weaving in an interracial romance from the servants’ parallel world), the narration lacks the cloistering social strictures found in a Henry James or Edith Wharton story. Near the The American Heiress’ conclusion the narrative sounds off a few Gothic notes, but winds Cora’s journey down to a hard-earned happy ending.

For all her scheming theatrics, Mrs. Cash stands as a perplexing figure — the axis between a catastrophic past and an aristocratic future: hell-bent she is on grafting her offspring into England’s elite. The woman’s blistering initiative invites easy caricature, yet one overlooks the possibility that she represents a deeply felt national regret.

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