Siblings of sweetness and steel


BIOGRAPHY: ROBERT O'BYRNEreviews Sisters of FortuneBy Jehanne Wake Chatto Windus, 394pp. £25

THE SO-CALLED Dollar Princesses, wealthy American heiresses who married into European aristocracy from the late 19th century onwards, are familiar from the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, and from biographies of the likes of the Jerome sisters and Consuelo Vanderbilt. Less well known are their predecessors, a group of three sisters who in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars arrived in England and who never returned across the Atlantic.

Two days before the wedding of Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill, the seventh duke of Leeds’s widow was buried in the family vault. She had been born Louisa Caton, her father an English merchant whose enterprises almost consistently failed, her mother a daughter of the wealthiest man in Maryland, Charles Carroll. A descendant of the Ely O’Carrolls, he was the only Roman Catholic to sign the American Declaration of Independence and would be the longest-surviving signatory, dying at the age of 96, in 1832.

Sixteen years earlier three of his granddaughters – Louisa and her sisters Marianne and Elizabeth – had travelled to Europe, where, it was believed, the climate would alleviate Marianne’s asthma.

On their arrival in London, although they had money, good looks and good manners, it was by no means certain the Catons would be accepted in England’s then highly stratified society; in an era before income tax and death duties, the appeal of foreign heiresses was far less than would later be the case.

Furthermore, it was widely believed that Americans, dismissively referred to as Yankees, were barely one step removed from savagery; there were still plenty of Englishmen alive, including King George III, who remembered when America had been a British colony.

When Marianne was introduced to the prince regent he gallantly asked, “Is it possible there can exist so beautiful a woman?” but then promptly gave a better indication of prevailing attitudes by remarking to Lord Fife, “See the specimen that America has sent us.” Writing in May 1817, the author Robert Southey expressed a general opinion that Americans tended to “level down everything to the dead flat of vulgar influence”.

The Catons would have to face this kind of prejudice many times over the following decades; even when Marianne was appointed lady in waiting to Queen Adelaide, in 1830, Lady Wharncliffe marvelled, “really it is quite remarkable to see the perfect ease and propriety of her manner in her place”.

But the Catons had certain assets that stood them in good stead when dealing with bigotry, not least a belief in the republican ideals espoused by their grandfather, who wrote to Marianne in 1826 that “the homage deference paid to rank, not founded on the merits esteem of the person to whom it is paid, and all the frippery parade of high life never did or ever will reach satisfy the heart”. The sisters were, and, unusually, even after their respective marriages remained, independently wealthy. Elizabeth, generally known as Bess, played the stock market, her grandfather noting in August 1828, “the speculations of my dear Bess are more in stocks and mines than on marriage”.

The sisters were also charming and beautiful, and soon after their arrival in London, through a connection in Washington, they secured an introduction to the duke of Wellington. This more than anything else ensured their acceptance into the upper echelons of English society.

Wellington was enchanted with all three Catons but fell in love with Marianne, commissioning her portrait from Thomas Lawrence and carrying a miniature of her with him for the rest of his life. Inevitably his devotion led to widespread gossip: in May 1817 the novelist Lady Morgan described Marianne as “the reigning Sultana of Mighty Bey”.

Yet while clearly devoted to the duke, in 1825 Marianne caused a further stir by marrying his older brother, Richard Marquess Wellesley, then lord lieutenant in Ireland. The uproar on this occasion was due not just to her being an American but, more significantly in the light of Wellesley’s position, a Roman Catholic. The Penal Laws were still in force, and the Catons’ religion was therefore the cause of considerable disquiet; when Louisa became engaged to the future duke of Leeds her prospective mother-in-law was so dismayed that she proposed conversion to Anglicanism. In Marianne’s case, marriage to Wellesley had a political aspect, given that the battle for Catholic emancipation was then under way and opponents to the measure argued her personal interest could affect the eventual outcome. The attacks often assumed a snide character: “There will be a Rosary at the Lodge on the Evening of Monday the 20th inst.”, ran a notice in the Dublin Evening Mailin February 1826. “The Ladies and Gentlemen who attend are requested to bring their own beads.”

That Marianne and her siblings survived the many assaults on their reputations and became bastions of a society at first intent on excluding them is evidence of unusual strength of character. In public they presented a gentleness of manner, but they must have been tough to have survived in an alien and often hostile world. It is the only disappointing feature of Jehanne Wake’s otherwise outstanding biography of the trio that she is inclined to accept them at face value and not probe below the surface; might there have been more between the duke of Wellington and Marianne, for example, than an amitié amoureuse? Wake would have us believe the Catons possessed almost beatific natures, but one suspects there was steel beneath the sweetness.

Robert O’Byrne is a journalist and author. His biography of Desmond Leslie will be published by Lilliput Press in September