The below quotes were found in Gail Maccoll and Carol McD. Wallace’s To Marry and English Lord, which discusses the spree of American heiresses marrying (often impoverished) English aristocrats during the second half of the 19th century. For Downton Abbey fans, Cora Countess of Grantham was one of these girls.
I know you can’t libel the dead, but I’d just like to make it clear that I am reporting what I found in this book. I have no idea how “good” or “bad” these characters really were, although I think the 19th-century press clippings speak for themselves about how people back then viewed these individuals.
So, Consuelo. She was a Vanderbilt. Crazy wealthy, but at the time considered “new money” and therefore vulgar. Pickings were slim in New York and her mother, Alva, was determined to gain a social position to match their wealth. Alva Vanderbilt is probably the villain of this story, and it’s easy to see why. She did well by her marriage and wanted her daughter to do better. She “trained her daughter, from the cradle, to be a duchess”, forcing Consuelo to do “her lessons wearing an iron brace to improve her posture . . . She also sent for the Oxford and Cambridge entrance examinations, and had them administered to Consuelo, who passed with flying colors.” (148). This was the kind of childhood that fostered so much pressure, it’s a miracle Consuelo didn’t have a nervous breakdown. It did, however, do excellent things for her obedience. Never was there a more malleable young lady. Seriously, Cinderella had NOTHING on Consuelo.
Consuelo grew up, as the book says, “exquisite” (153). She was beautiful, tall and graceful, rich, intelligent, with perfect manners and the gentlest spirit in the world. As you can see, she was pretty fabulous.
Enter Sunny (“so called for his childhood title, Lord Sunderland”), the 9th Duke of Marlborough. He was twenty-four, poor, proud, shy, and PIIIICKY. His father had also married an American heiress, Lily Hammersley, and though he had tried to restore their home, Blenheim Palace, to its former glory he ran out of money and left Sunny almost destitute. So Sunny needed an heiress who was dignified enough to be his Duchess. Consuelo didn’t stand a chance of escaping.
SUNNY: Hey, I’m a Duke and I need a rich wife.
ALVA: MY DAUGHTER. OMG, I HAVE A DAUGHTER. TAKE MY DAUGHTER.
SUNNY: You should probably know that I am an awful little man. Some might call me a nasty piece of work.
ALVA: I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of your dukedom.
SUNNY: Let’s check out this daughter, then.
ALVA: Here she is–her spirit is totally broken, I know you’ll probably like that. Also, I guarantee you’ll be attracted to her. She’s got a neck so long it will one day terrify someone who blogs about us. See?
SUNNY: Eh, she’ll do. I’ll take her!
CONSUELO: Uhh, mom? I’m kind of in love with this guy named Winthrop Rutherfurd and we’re engaged–
ALVA: SHUT YOUR FOOL MOUTH, CONSUELO, I WILL LITERALLY KILL YOU.
SUNNY: I’m the textbook definition of someone who blows hot and cold, and now I’m not sure that she’s perfect for me. I need Consuelo to come to my palace-house so I can visualize how she’ll look in it when she’s duchessing. I know it looks ramshackle now, but picture how nice it will be when this whole place is wallpapered with your money.
ALVA: Ooooh! Aaaaah!
SUNNY: Yep, Consuelo walks the halls of Blenheim Palace reaaaaal good. I guess I’m okay with this.
ALVA: So do we have a deal?
ALVA: I’m going to invite you to visit us in Newport. And if you come, it will be read as an implicit statement of your intentions.
ALVA: YOU CAME TO NEWPORT! I have already bought Consuelo’s wedding dress. So . . . are you engaged yet?
ALVA: . . . now?
ALVA: . . . now?
SUNNY: *SIGH*. So. Consuelo. Marriage, I guess?
CONSUELO: Oh, it’s cute that you’re asking me, but it’s not like I have a choice in this, do I?
SUNNY: Not in the least.
ALVA: HURRAY! Here, Sunny. Take $2,500,000.
THE NEWSPAPERS: We love you people.
ALVA: You might think I’ve achieved my goal, but now the fun is really going to begin.
So the Vanderbilts returned to New York to get the wedding preparations underway. Now that Alva had succeeded in turning her daughter into a duchess, her work really started: she would wring every ounce of publicity she could out of Consuelo, totally commodifying the young girl. It wasn’t hard. New York society had already gone completely off their rocker about this marriage, since there was so much “will they, won’t they?” drama attached to the courtship.
Consuelo’s trousseau was described and illustrated in Vogue. Alva invited 4,000 people to the wedding. Most horrifyingly, Consuelo woke up one morning to discover that illustrations of herself in her underwear had been published in the Times; it seems that her mother had, without Consuelo’s permission, released the details of Consuelo’s bridal lingerie. “‘I read to my stupefaction that my garters had gold clasps studded with diamonds,” she [Consuelo] later wrote, “and wondered how I should live down such vulgarities”‘ (170). Then Alva bought a necklace belonging to Catherine the Great and presented it to Consuelo as a wedding present. This might be why the more traditional, old-money families of New York hated these upstarts. Vuuuulgar.
Sunny really didn’t help things. New York hated him as much as they loved his title. “His height . . . was a metaphor for the whole ugly phenomenon: an effete member of a dissolute family, coldly marrying a fresh, innocent American girl for her dollars rather than for her charm” (169). The fact that Consuelo was so beautiful, and yet he remained completely unmoved by her, was a giant slap in the face to the Americans, who thought there must be something wrong with Sunny.
Charles Dana Gibson, a cartoonist for Life magazine, drew the following:
That is Sunny and Consuelo at their wedding, kneeling on the coffin of Cupid. Sunny is not exactly a specimen of masculine virility in this illustration, nor was Alva viewed very favorably.
Consuelo was rushed away to England to start her life there. ‘” Your first duty is to have a child,” Consuelo Marlborough was told by the Duke’s grandmother, “and it must be a son, because it would be intolerable to have that little upstart Winston become Duke. Are you in the family way?”‘ (209). That was a reference, of course, to Winston Churchill, Sunny’s nephew. Winston’s mother was also an American heiress, though Jenny Churchill was too spirited and . . . well . . . awesome to be considered of as good breeding and dignity as Consuelo.
Consuelo gave birth to a son not too long after. And then another son. The Duke’s mother was so happy to have the “heir and the spare” that she called Consuelo ‘”you little brick!'”, an expression that has fallen out of use far too soon for my tastes. That and, “Wot wot!” and “Bully!”
After eleven years, Consuelo had had enough. I don’t know if Sunny was so horrible that she finally snapped, or if he didn’t keep as firm a hand on her as Alva and Consuelo’s spirit grew back, or if she just came into her own as a woman. There were rumors of her cheating on Sunny, which I read while screaming, “RUN, my darling girl! Go get your bit of rough and enjoy it with everything you possess!” although I don’t think you can call Lord Castlereagh a “bit of rough”. Finally, she and Sunny got their marriage annulled. Shockingly, Alva was very supportive. Alva even told the court that she had forced Consuelo to marry the duke. “The Marlborough union, which had resulted in two sons, was declared void because it had been entered into under duress [uhhh, no kidding]; the sons would not, however, have to suffer the taint of illegitimacy’ (312).
Both she and Sunny remarried, (each more happily, I believe). He died fairly young and their eldest son became the 10th Duke. The moral of the story, if there is a moral to be found, is: don’t marry someone named Sunny/Sonny. It never ends well. (Look at Sonny and Cher, Sonny from The Godfather, and Sunny von Bülow.)
ETA: I would like to correct the statement that Sunny’s second marriage was happier. If anything, it was worse. His second wife used to keep a gun by her bed to keep Sunny from entering her room. They separated, but he died before they officially divorced.