The American Invasion

Mrs. Levinson arrives at Downton Abbey
The Mother-in-Law Arrives: Lady Cora's mother, Mrs. Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, greets the staff.

When Masterpiece Classic first brought Downton Abbey to the United States in January 2011, it seemed unlikely at first that the program would include an American character amidst the British peerage. But as guest blogger Tara Austen Weaver reports, the story of American brides is even more surprising (and common) than as depicted in our favorite drama.

When Martha Levinson, Cora Crawley’s mother, sails into Downton to attend her granddaughter’s wedding, she is making a common pilgrimage. Cora would have been among many young Americans who, in the late 1800s, traveled east, often with an ambitious mother in tow. They weren’t seeking fortunes; they had those already. Instead they were looking for husbands—and titles to go with them. Let’s call it cash for peerage and pomp.

All of Europe was fair game in the hunt for a noble, but when the Prussian army invaded France in 1870, London became the capital of choice. Queen Victoria’s oldest son, Albert Edward, then Prince of Wales, was a fan of these interlopers. “American girls are livelier, better educated, and less hampered by etiquette,” he said, and helped smooth their way.

The American Civil War had minted industrial fortunes, but new money would not buy entrée into New York society. A royal title, however, might open doors. This meant that, in mansions from Newport to Manhattan, young women paged through listings of eligible noblemen in quarterly publications such as The Titled American. Unlike dating profiles of today, these entries included size of estate, annual income, and family seat.

It was these family seats—crumbling mansions in need of upkeep—that motivated so many marriages. The invention of refrigeration brought cheaper imported produce to England and estate incomes suffered as farming profits dropped. Faced with losing the home of generations—or just needing to re-roof the manse—a bride who brought her own fortune might begin to look appealing.

The impact of these unions was considerable. Between 1870 and 1914, American heiresses injected roughly $25 billion into the British economy ($80 million of that from one Miss Consuelo Vanderbilt alone). By the end of the 1800s, a quarter of the English House of Lords had an American connection in the family.

While some of these marriages ended badly (unheated drawing rooms and lack of bathroom plumbing in country homes were the least of the complaints), a few flourished and left a lasting mark. Jennie Jerome of Brooklyn, daughter of a wealthy stockbroker, married the second son of the Duke of Marlborough. She became hugely popular in her own right, instrumental in guiding her husband’s political career, and influenced that of her son: the future Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

And so, a little American pluck (and a lot of cash) again altered the course of world history.

Want to read more about American brides in the early 20th Century? Check out this post from The Times of Israel, which addresses interfaith marriages. Lady Cora’s backstory includes a Jewish father, Isidore Levinson, whose considerable fortune kept Downton Abbey in the family in seasons one and two.
 

 

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01/07/13

Yay! Love this, Tara!!! A great companion read for Downton fans.

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