American Duchess by Karen Harper Features Consuelo Vanderbilt, Blenheim’s Dollar Bride
“The so-called Gilded Age in America,” says novelist Karen Harper, “has many ruling and rich class similarities to the late Victorian and Edwardian eras in England. However, a huge gap looms between the way the social strata among the elite in both societies functioned. The key difference is that in Britain, the upper classes had the hidebound heritage of centuries of nobility-and-royal-rules that governed people’s lives. Also, in America, the upper classes were trying to establish such rules, but money talked more than birth at that time.”
This, she explains, caused the phenomenon, known as the ‘dollar bride’ where aristocratic English families sought to marry their sons to daughters of wealthy American industrialists. One of these ‘dollar brides’, Consuelo Vanderbilt, is the central character of Harper’s latest historical novel, American Duchess (William Morrow, 2019). In 1895, Consuelo, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the immensely wealthy Vanderbilt family, married Charles Spenser-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Harper’s novel tells Consuelo’s story from her late teenage years onwards, charting her loveless marriage, her successes at Blenheim and her turbulent relationship with her forceful mother, Alva. A cartoon by Charles Dana Gibson, published in Life magazine in 1895, neatly sums up for Harper the tense start to the marriage, even emphasizing the much-remarked-upon disparity in height between the bride and groom.
“I have had Consuelo in the back of my author mind since I visited Blenheim Palace years ago,” says Harper. “Although I must admit we went there because my husband is a Winston Churchill fan, and, of course, he is also associated with Blenheim. But a young American woman, a newlywed, a dollar bride, calling Blenheim Palace her ‘starter house’ and Home Sweet Home?”
Harper loves to write what she calls, “herstories”, often in the first person. She was also very drawn to writing a story that links England and America. Although a lifelong Ohioan, Harper knew more about the British settings and upper classes than the historical U.S. ones when she began research for this novel. That was thanks to years of being an Anglophile, reading and teaching ‘Brit Lit,’ many trips to England and, she explains, the BBC’s wonderful series such as Upstairs, Downstairs, The First Churchills, and Downton Abbey. There was also some research for her earlier books — The Royal Nanny and The It Girls — that spilled over.
It is clear though, that it is Consuelo’s life and character that captivated Harper and is the driving force behind the novel. Consuelo was the daughter of a highly ambitious mother and the story of their relationship is an important aspect of the novel. “Although Alva had some saving graces later in life, such as boosting the women’s suffrage movement and helping Consuelo get an annulment so that she could wed the man she truly loved, Alva was a dictator when it came to Consuelo’s early life. I give Consuelo credit for not cutting off her mother later in life but for forgiving and comforting Alva in her widowhood and old age.”
The novel also celebrates Consuelo’s successful time at Blenheim where, despite her youth and foreign upbringing, she is able to have such a positive impact that she was known as ‘the Good Duchess’ long after her time there was over.
Readers familiar with Karen Harper’s fiction may know her for contemporary suspense novels, as well as historical fiction. She notes that beyond the obvious differences in writing in the two genres – research and historical speech patterns – the most significant challenge is to accommodate the difference in modern sensibilities, particularly as it relates to the role of women. She points out, however, that “whatever the era of the story, people are people and basic needs, hopes and desires are usually universal.” And whatever she writes, Harper makes sure to keep some excellent advice from her agent in mind: “All good writing is suspense writing.”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of the historical novels Charlatan and The Road to Newgate. The Girl Puzzle will be released by Crooked Cat Books in 2019.