Book Review: Heiresses

ThaGenre: Nonfiction – History
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Plot Summary From Goodreads: Heiresses: surely they are among the luckiest women on earth. Are they not to be envied, with their private jets and Chanel wardrobes and endless funds? Yet all too often those gilded lives have been beset with trauma and despair. Before the 20th century a wife’s inheritance was the property of her husband, making her vulnerable to kidnap, forced marriages, even confinement in an asylum. And in modern times, heiresses fell victim to fortune-hunters who squandered their millions.

Heiresses tells the stories of these million dollar babies: Mary Davies, who inherited London’s most valuable real estate, and was bartered from the age of twelve; Consuelo Vanderbilt, the original American “Dollar Heiress”, forced into a loveless marriage; Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress who married seven times and died almost penniless; and Patty Hearst, heiress to a newspaper fortune who was arrested for terrorism. However, there are also stories of independence and achievement: Angela Burdett-Coutts, who became one of the greatest philanthropists of Victorian England; Nancy Cunard, who lived off her mother’s fortune and became a pioneer of the civil rights movement; and Daisy Fellowes, elegant linchpin of interwar high society and noted fashion editor. Heiresses is about the lives of the rich, who—as F. Scott Fitzgerald said—are ‘different’. But it is also a bigger story about how all women fought their way to equality, and sometimes even found autonomy and fulfillment.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for this advance reader’s copy, provided in exchange for my unbiased review. (I reviewed the audiobook version of this title for this review.)

I found this book on Heiresses from the mid 17th century through the 20th to be an approachable, interesting book filled with solid research and loads of detail. I was pleasantly surprised that the author went back into the 17th century to begin tracing the history of young women who, in many cases, were handicapped by their inheritances. Certainly the three women who begin this book did not have good outcomes despite being of marriageable age and in possession of a certain level of fortune. I also thought I knew the stories about many of the American heiresses who wound up marrying British aristocracy in the late 1900s and into the early 20th century, but the author fleshed out their stories as well, providing an interesting look at changing morals, inheritance laws, and how the rich chose to spend that money as history moved into the 20th century. While many of the stories of these “poor little rich girls” are just that – sad tales about how things could have (or should have) been different for these women of priviledge, it was interesting to see the stories of the few heiresses who did not exhibit a lifetime self-destructive behavior told over and over again.

I therefore particularly appreciated the Epilogue, which focuses on Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, one of the few heiresses of the 19th century who appears to have had a good head on her shoulders. A friend of Charles Dickens, she funded a home for “fallen women”, at a time when a lady of quality supposedly should not have even been aware of such things. She focused on attempting to use her money to alleviate suffering and need in all parts of the world – from building two churches, to African missions, the education of the poor in Britain, to watering fountains and troughs for animals in London. (I am putting this lady on my short-list for interesting people in history to invite to dinner.)

My one criticism of the book is that there are a LOT of characters and I sometimes had trouble keeping up with the list, particularly since many in the 20th century had a given name of Lady So-and-So, and then went by a pet name that was completely different. I think I would have had an easier time keeping track if I had read the book in print, but did enjoy the author’s reading of her own work in the audiobook version I reviewed.

I found this a fascinating glimpse into a lifestyle that seems fairy-tale princess in many aspects, but which had a bleak and often sad ending for these women who inherited monetary wealth but not, it would seem, much in the way of personal self-worth or familial love and support. I am interested in picking up this author’s title on the Mitford Sisters (who are mentioned in this book as well) as I suspect she will do a wonderful job bringing them to life as well.

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