My rating: 4 of 5 stars
They were the Beautiful Buccaneers dressed in fine dresses a la Parisian mode, expensively educated in Europe, and exclusively cultivated in the upper echelon of the Classless Class Society. They were American women seeking English aristocratic men who could promise them with prestige of class distinction with a complementary endowment of stately country houses, royal banquets, and a general carte blanche to basically all social occasions, events, and establishments exclusive to a select few. Although it wasn’t exactly akin to the plebeian idea of “Mail-in Bride,” the wealthy American women were vying for the lordly attention of the English bachelors of peerage at the ballrooms of high social clubs. These celebratory high society American women are unveiled in Anne De Courcy’s telling episodic vignettes of The Husband Hunters.
At first, De Courcy’s portrayal of these American Cinderellas is deemed to be cast in rather favorable light despite their manifest materialistic intent on marrying peerage not for love but for necessity. De Courcy eulogizes the idea of “American Beauty” whose circumstances conspired to make her feel that she was mistress of her fate and who always got what she wanted, the remarkable American character that looked so irresistibly attractive and desirable in the eyes of high-class English men. In addition, American women were said to always adonize themselves with fashionably beautiful dresses with a natural air of confidence blurring the boundary of arrogance, which was also oddly very alluring about them. De Courcy is unfailingly sympathetic toward these young beautiful American social arriveste, for theses women fell by the wayside of the highest circle of social class by their birth and ranks, such as whose daughters they were, despite the constitutional credo of freedom to all without hereditary succession of peerage and the entitlement of prestige equal to the inherited ranks. In De Courcy’s humane perspective, these American Cinderellas were in one way or another victims of social discrimination per se of their time.
The book has also nice diversions in contextualizing the cultural and social ambiance of the time, including the introduction of one Charles Frederick Worth, the progenitor of modern-day fashion house designer and trailblazer of hauteur-coutre. Working as a ship assistant at a London tailor shop until the age of 12, Worth went to Paris alone and set up his design studio with exquisite choice of fabrics and gorgeous design that soon caught the eye of Empress Eugene, a tall, slender, beautiful woman who was a great model for Worth’s fabulous dresses, and thus became the most sought-after designer in the Western Hemisphere. Of course, the American young women of the moneyed class were intent on buying the dresses made by Worth in Paris to adorn themselves at social balls to woo their desirable aristocratic suitors from England. For these women firmly believed if they were not worth the wooing, they surely were not worth the winning in consideration of Shakespeare’s fierce observation of beauty as a standard of woman’s merit to escalate social status by marriage: “She’s beautiful, and therefore to be wooed. She’s a woman, therefore to be won.”
The gem of this book is its cleverly nuanced subject matter underlying the hypocrisy of American credo of Independence, Equality, and Freedom, vis-a-vis European, especially their former colonial English, class snobbishness. inherited entitlement of landed peerage, against which Americans claimed to fight and guarded. The American moneyed class needed titles to level themselves with dignitaries to display their flowing hard cash. What it used to be inter-class marriage became intra-class marriage by uniting the well-heeled bourgeoisie with blue-blooded aristocrats. But what good of it if such without end businesslike marriage was loveless, heartless, and soulless? The fear of falling into unwanted spinsterhood might have been deemed miserable, but the repining at the prospect of being an old maid shouldn’t be the main force of being wed at leisure. For marriage is indeed a matter of more worth than to be dealt in by attorneyship as the Bard keenly observed. The Husband Hunters to me is more of a social context of American moneyed class of the time and their economic power that could acquire centuries-old ranks and titles. Such a marriage was regarded as a biblical bond of objectives (money) and prestige (title) in the minds of the American rich families of the time when it was believed that women’s fortune depended upon strength of men. In light of the above, this book is provocatively revealing and cleverly ironic to learn of these American Princesses.