One of my favorite books of all time is The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton. I am a big fan of Wharton, although I do tend to find her books depressing at times, and The Buccaneers is my favorite book, despite the fact that it is an unfinished work. (It was released after having being finished by another author who followed Wharton’s notes.) Anyway the story is a rich young American woman from new money who goes to England looking to marry “up” and ends up with a Duke. The marriage fails, there is scandal and she runs off with one of the landed gentry who lives near the Duke. Sounds juicy, right? Wharton’s book is a masterwork commentary of class, money, social status and gender, plus her main characters are deeply compelling.

So about a month ago I saw that a new book was coming out by Daisy Goodwin, titled The American Heiress, about a young, rich American in the 19th century who goes off to marry a Duke and ends up in a difficult marriage… sound familiar eh? So of course it is really hard not to compare Wharton to Goodwin (which is probably unfair to Goodwin),  but I was intrigued and read the book.

So Goodwin’s protagonist is the aptly named Cora Cash, a wealthy new money American who has one of the most fiercely social-climbing mothers (and mother-in-law, the hysterically noted “Double Duchess,” but that comes later) depicted in literature. As far as Mrs. Cash is concerned, Cora is just a vehicle for her own social advancement, and she whisks her away to England to go title-hunting. With Cora is her free black maid, Bertha, whose light skin almost (but not quite) allows her to pass. Bertha is devoted to her mistress, and as a ladies maid occupies a rather high tier in the pecking order of household servants. (For those who have not seen enough Upstairs Downstairs, a ladies maid is only under the head housekeeper and butler. Governesses and tutors don’t count as ‘real’ help, although they are, in a sense, but their education elevates them above the rank of servant.)

Core, who is despite her wealth is rather naive, has an accident while out hunting and is rescued by a handsome, brooding Duke.  He is mysterious throughout the book, both volatile and charming, and he makes an offer to Cora. Of course, being a Duchess is something she cannot refuse, so she accepts. And then the story really gets going. We follow Cora trying to make her way through the intricacies of British society, and trying to grapple with the consequences of her marriage.

So after reading this book I thought long and hard about it. The good parts include Goodwin’s language– she is a very fine descriptive writer (as she is also a poet this should not be surprising) and her turn a deft phrase is delightful. The character of Bertha is compelling, in fact, the exploration of race and class that surrounds this light-skinned ladies maid is intriguing and I wish Goodwin had done more with it. The Duke is a brooding character, in fact, maybe too much so– you never really understand why he married Cora (aside from needing her money) and I found him too much to be like a more classic romance novel character, without the fun and self-deprecation that romance novelists bring to the pages. Mr Darcy, he is not. Cora herself is also not terribly well developed as a character, about half-way through the book I wanted to reach into the pages and shake her for being a stupid girl, for caring too much about what people thought, and for her acceptance of this stifling society.

Goodwin’s emphasis on the vulgarity of wealth in the late 19th century is intriguing. In some sense, I felt like it was as much a commentary on the ultra-rich now as on the characters set in the past. Some of the things that they buy and do are insane. You often find yourself thinking “how could anyone have this much money?” Goodwin seems to be encouraging her readers to laugh at the empty, shallow lives of the superrich.

While the plot was interesting and sucked me in, I found the ending really unsatisfactory. This is more of a glimpse into a particular world than a well-told narrative, because the ending does nothing for the book. (I don’t think all endings need to tie up all the loose ends, but I think there needs to be some satisfaction within them.)

Wharton’s Buccaneers it is not, but I have a sense that Goodwin was trying to do something different. But what, I am unsure. This book is a light, frothy read, and is sure to keep one busy while at the beach or traveling. Goodwin’s writing is beautiful, but I think she needs to work more on her characters, to make them more fully human.

One thing is for sure, I am glad that as a woman, that I was not born into this sort of society. Granted the world was not very nice to women in the 19th century in general (life as a farmer or rancher’s wife was terribly hard too–which likely would have been the lot of someone like me back then) but there is something especially vulgar about these rich daughters being married off strategically for their money and connections.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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