Tag: Karen Harper

American Duchess

Cover image for American Duchess by Karen Harperby Karen Harper

ISBN 978-0-06-274833-1

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Funny, but in the midst of all this, I thought how very regal was dear, blind Mrs. Prattley in the almshouse with her black shawl pulled over her shoulders and her graceful, blue-veined hands folded in her lap while I read to her. She, too, had lost her husband years ago, and there was such an inherent, silent nobility about her. God forgive me, but I would have preferred to be spending time with her.”

In 1895, Consuelo Vanderbilt, eldest child and only daughter of railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt, became one of the most famous of the wealthy American heiresses to trade money for title, when she married the 9th Duke of Marlborough in a lavish ceremony at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Manhattan. The marriage, however, had been masterminded by Consuelo’s mother Alva, a determined social climber who arranged the engagement, planned the wedding, and carefully leaked choice information to the press to whip up a stir in advance of the ceremony. American Duchess follows Consuelo’s life in a mismatched mercenary marriage, her scandalous, much publicized divorce, and her efforts to chart her own course and find happiness in the second part of her life, even as Europe was torn apart by the second great war of her lifetime.

American Duchess is narrated in the first person by Consuelo, beginning around the time of her social debut in 1893, but somehow manages to fail to achieve the intimacy usually created by being inside a character’s head. Rather, the way Consuelo depicts herself feels measured and carefully constructed, as if she is presenting herself for public scrutiny, and wishes to put her best foot forward. As a result, while I felt I learned interesting details about her unusual life, I didn’t feel much in the way of emotional attachment to her character. In fact, Harper seems to be trying a bit too hard to hit the notable public highlights of Consuelo’s life, even when they figure little in the emotional arc of the story she has chosen to tell, which is more focused on the contrast between her two marriages.

A similar problem exists with another figure who pops up regularly, but does not actually play a prominent role. Harper frequently name drops Winston Churchill, who was cousin to Consuelo’s husband, heir to Blenheim Palace before the birth of their son, and a good friend of the Duchess. However, this quickly becomes tiresome since he is more of a novel historical reference than a fleshed out character. Perhaps Harper was worried that a more substantial presence would take over the story, but in that case, less would have been more. As it stands, he is an often referenced, but otherwise underdeveloped figure.

Unfortunately I think this is a case where I would have been better served by a biography, since I was more interested in the period and subject matter than the story Harper was trying to tell. I kept finding myself stepping away from the text to go look up historical details, contemporary newspaper accounts, photographs, etc., rather than wanting to read the book itself. So if you have a good non-fiction account of the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt, or the other Million Dollar American Princesses to recommend, let me know in the comments!

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