Magazine article The Spectator

Girls from the Golden West

Magazine article The Spectator

Girls from the Golden West

Article excerpt


by Jehanne Wake

Chatto, £25, pp. 394,

ISBN 9780701173081

Who was the first American to marry an English duke? Most students of the peerage would say it was Consuelo Yzagna who married the eldest son of the Duke of Manchester in 1876.

But the banjo-strumming Cuban American Consuelo was not the first Yankee duchess.

As early as 1828 the American Louisa Caton married the eldest son of the Duke of Leeds. This was half a century before the dollar princesses, trading titles for cash, played havoc with Burke's Peerage.

Louisa and her sisters were the pioneers of the American invasion of London society. Their conquest was so successful, and they became so assimilated, that they left barely a ripple. Only now has Jehanne Wake researched and pieced together their story.

The four Caton sisters were born into one of the grandest American families. Their grandfather, Charles Carroll, lived to become a national treasure: he was the last survivor of the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence. The head of an Irish Catholic family, Carroll owned huge tobacco plantations scattered over Maryland which brought stupendous wealth. The Caton girls were proud of their revolutionary inheritance, but their family fortune depended on slavery. Rather as one might give a child a dog, each of the little Caton girls owned a body slave, who remained hers for life.

In their twenties, three of the four sisters travelled to England in 1816. They brought an introduction to the Duke of Wellington, who took an instant fancy to them, and especially to the eldest, Marianne. They were lionised by society. Trailing along behind the Duke, they attended parties at Almacks, stayed in big houses, visited the Prince Regent's court at Brighton and travelled to post-Napoleonic France.

The Duke of Wellington's patronage was crucial. He fell 'madly in love' with Marianne - according to Jehanne Wake, she was the love of his life. Marianne happened to be already married to a dull and difficult American (oddly enough, her sister-in-law had been briefly married to Jerome Bonaparte). The Duke commissioned Lawrence to paint portraits both of him and Marianne. The portrait of Marianne hung always in his study. When her sister Louisa wanted to marry the onearmed war hero, Felton Bathurst Hervey, the Duke overcame the furious resistance of his family, who were aghast at this mesalliance with a Yankee, whom they saw as a savage adventuress. …

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