I liked Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress; it was more real than most of the books I’ve seen about love in Victorian England, which as far as I can tell revolve around a rake, who also happens to be an aristocrat, and some innocent miss who changes his perspective (according to the back—and front—covers). Wildly implausible. I don’t know why anyone would choose a historical romance over historical fiction.
Cora Cash is a rich American heiress whose mother is determined to marry her off as well as humanly possible. A prince would be preferable, but in the likely event of unavailable princes, a duke will do. Cora just wants to be free of meddling mothers, but she discovers that even in marriage there’s still plenty of meddling. Plus, it’s not as easy as she thought. Her husband is secretive and complicated, life in the aristocracy is filled with landmines, and her dream of love seems to be slipping away.
I like that this book wasn’t shy about talking about the reality of the Gilded Age, the dust and ashes beneath the glimmer and gold.
Cora Cash at first disappointed me because she was a typical vain, rich girl; I steeled myself to read a book where she was the protagonist. Ugh. And then I saw beneath the riches and even the vanity, the latter of which wasn’t nearly as consuming as I’d thought. In fact, she was surprisingly honest and good despite being spoiled, filthy rich, and seen for only her beauty and money. How disheartening would that be anyway, to be just valued as a pretty face and a pile of gold? I found myself rooting for this sweet, naive girl who was so willing to believe the best in others.
Ivo, Duke of Wareham was more likable during the couple’s first meeting before he was a duke (or Cora knew he was anyway) than during many of the subsequent chapters. Interestingly, it was the title and all the trappings that made Cora’s and Ivo’s relationship so murky. Part of the problem is that Ivo’s thoughts and feelings are almost completely mysterious for much of the book. To us and Cora. She takes a lot on faith, which makes her even more likable.
Bertha, Cora’s maid, was a surprising addition, giving a unique perspective to a class decidedly (supposedly) beneath dukes and duchesses. Bertha is a black girl from the South “chosen” to serve Cora, but her story is more complicated. See, she’s not only black, but of mixed heritage because some jerk white guy took advantage of her mother, leaving woman and baby to fend for themselves. Back at the turn of the century, this would have been a huge deal. Children of mixed heritage weren’t completely uncommon, but it was hard for them to find acceptance anywhere. Add in being a “bastard” (technical term here for the time), and it would have been almost impossible to get along. Despite all this, Bertha is a compassionate, wonderful human being who loves Cora like a sister.
From Bertha, we get a glimpse of the serving class in England which is strangely snobby and obsequious in turns. You see how the servants gossip and even subtly insult their employers (I can’t bring myself to say masters; that’s just so demeaning); you see loyalty bestowed undeserving; you see how people of any class are willing to take advantage of others. These selfish relationships juxtaposed against the selflessness of Bertha illustrates the point that honor has nothing to do with race, religion, or class. Bertha may be one of my favorite characters, though I love Ivo’s complexity and Cora’s innocence as well.
The American Heiress is a character-driven novel, so the plot isn’t particularly active, but you do have interesting movement in the guise of the ebb and fall of high society into and out of London as the year progresses. Plus, it’s this movement from the city to the country and back again, the house parties and the balls, the social calls, that creates the impetus to move the plot forward. This is how Cora interacts with Charlotte, and then with Teddy, and with all the secondary characters in order to come to some difficult conclusions. It grows her as a character.
This book doesn’t shy from some of the less savory foundation stones of the Gilded Age, such as a woman’s role in a man’s world. I’m not a feminist (I believe in unifying people rather than trying to divide them by playing one gender against another), but I am a woman and it’s hard to see how so many women were only valued for those tangible things they could bring to a marriage, like they are nothing but a cog in a business arrangement. On the other hand, there is something of practicality in marrying for money and for love, so I can’t fault the logic, just some of the results.
Then there’s the theme of a black woman in the time between the Abolition of Slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. That 100-year span was not easy for black folks. It pains me to see the people of England being more accepting of a black person/white person relationship than people in America.
And then there’s fidelity in marriage. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, then or now, to expect fidelity, but I know it often isn’t the case. In fact, aristocratic marriages of the time were business arrangement without love or fidelity. This book is honest about that, but hopeful as well. Why can’t you have it all, marriage that brings money, love, fidelity, and children?
I enjoyed this book, the subtle love story, the way women manage to make their way in new worlds; it shows the power of us, of women, of the love and compassion we can wield for the good of our families and homes. I enjoyed the even subtler themes woven throughout the book. It might not have had some of the biting commentary and satire of other historical fiction books I’ve read, and the character development could be better, but I think it was worth the read.