Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad

  • Jehanne Wake
  • Touchstone
  • 393 pp.

Marrying well in 19th-century Europe, through the eyes of Baltimore’s famous Caton sisters.

Reviewed by Natalie Wexler

Before the Kardashian sisters — long before — there were the Caton sisters of Baltimore. Like the Kardashians, they were attractive, wealthy and famous for being famous. But the Catons lived in the relatively strait-laced world of the early 19th century so the similarities end there.

Unlike Kim, Kourtney and Khloé — whose parents at least get credit for creative alliteration — Marianne, Bess, Louisa and Emily Caton were raised to observe the proprieties and uphold the family honor by marrying well. Granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the wealthiest men in the country and the longest-surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, they were raised in comfort, although not ostentation. And their beloved grandfather’s fortune insulated them from the reversals they would otherwise have suffered as a result of the improvidence of their father, an amiable but feckless Englishman whose name lives on in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville.

Well known among Maryland’s elite, the sisters acquired real fame beginning in 1816, when the elder three traveled to Europe in the company of Marianne’s husband. The journey’s ostensible purpose was to restore Marianne’s health, but dinner parties and all-night balls quickly took precedence over spas and mineral water. The young women were hailed as the “three American graces,” and thanks to the approbation of the Duke of Wellington, who was to remain enamored of Marianne for the rest of his long life, they were warmly embraced by the highest reaches of the British aristocracy. Ultimately, all three sisters married into titled families: Marianne, after the death of her American husband, married the Duke’s elder brother, the Marquess of Wellesley; Bess eventually married a baron; and Louisa married first a baronet and, after his death, a duke.

This may sound like a familiar story: wealthy American heiress enters into loveless match with land-poor British nobleman, bringing a much-needed infusion of cash. We’ve seen its fictional incarnation in the works of Edith Wharton and recently in the BBC mini-series “Downton Abbey,” as well as real-life examples in the lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Consuelo Vanderbilt. But all those stories — real and fictional — came decades later. And as Jehanne Wake’s insightful account makes clear, the Caton sisters’ stories differ from the archetype in significant ways.

Although it had been some 40 years since the American Revolution, the British still viewed Americans like the Catons with deep suspicion, assuming they were little better than savages. To add to their difficulties, the Caton sisters were Catholics at a time when anti-Catholic prejudice was rampant in England. Although they may have fascinated London society for a season — a tribute to the power of their personal charm — not every noble family was clamoring to admit them to its bosom. When Louisa’s second husband defied his family’s wishes to marry her, he suffered a permanent breach with his father, the Duke of Leeds.

Nor were the sisters’ fortunes secure, since their grandfather was still very much alive (he lived to be 95) and they wouldn’t come into their inheritances until his death. After Louisa’s marriage to Sir Felton Hervey in 1817 — the first Caton alliance with the nobility — Wake reports that his family were “aghast.” Perhaps they weren’t the only ones. In a letter that Wake appears unaware of, one contemporary observer remarked that Hervey’s family had “expected ready money,” and that no one would “go to the altar with” the remaining unmarried sister, Bess, “unless the money is first paid down.”

But for the most part, the Caton sisters’ marriages, unlike those of later “dollar princesses,” appear to have been motivated primarily by love, on both sides. Even Marianne’s second husband, the Marquess of Wellesley — described as a “libertine of shattered fortunes” who was “over head and ears in debt” —seems to have been genuinely fond of her, although the two lived apart for much of their married life. Bess Caton didn’t marry until the ripe old age of 47, but not necessarily for lack of “ready money.” In her youth, Bess had declared to a friend, Eliza Godefroy, that “unless she loved someone as enthusiastically as” Eliza loved her own husband, she would never marry at all. In the event, though, her reasons were less romantic. She confided to a servant that, while love was one consideration, Lord Stafford’s 10 children were “not so kind to him as they ought to be, so I pitied him & thought I should marry him & take care of him.”

Perhaps the real reason Bess avoided marriage so long was that she enjoyed her independence. As Wake makes clear in often fascinating detail, Bess, like many other women of the period, was an avid speculator, cannily tracking the ups and downs of various investment schemes and issuing orders to her brokers. As long as Bess was unmarried, she could conduct business in her own name. But there were ways around the legal fiction that married women had no autonomy, and Wake demonstrates that all four sisters — even quiet, domestic Emily, who married a Canadian commoner and stayed close to home — exercised a good deal of control over their own lives.

Wake’s account illuminates the details of women’s lives during a relatively “dark period” of women’s history. The conventional wisdom is that the women’s rights movement was quiescent between Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” in the 1790s and the Seneca Falls suffrage convention of 1848. As the Caton sisters’ story demonstrates, however, elite women were becoming better educated (Bess, for example, turned to reading David Ricardo for her own edification) and exerted increasing influence on politics and the economy. More generally, Wake deftly sketches in the historical background to the sisters’ experience, shedding light on such issues as Catholic emancipation and the mid-19th century bubble of railroad speculation.

The book contains a few errors that would have been caught by a careful copy editor, a breed apparently threatened with extinction by the crisis in publishing. Wake sometimes introduces a name or abbreviation first and only later explains to whom or what she’s referring, and on three occasions she uses “prevaricate” to mean “dither” rather than “lie.” And perhaps Wake has taken the sisters’ own versions of events too much at face value. She maintains that despite their acquisition of noble titles, they always remained staunch republicans and proud Americans. But considering that Marianne spent decades as lady-in-waiting to the Queen, it’s not so clear how deep her republican principles ran. And while Wake presents the fact that all three sisters married aristocrats almost as coincidence, perhaps some calculation was involved. Their old friend Eliza Godefroy commented, after Bess’s marriage, that “the end of life is to obtain the object of our Soul’s ambition, and rank and title was theirs.”

Overall, Sisters of Fortune is a solidly researched and lively account of an illuminating and little-known episode in Anglo-American history. Through quotations from the Catons’ letters and other primary sources, Wake brings them vividly to life and inspires genuine affection — so much so that tears came to my eyes on reading of the gentle and tactful Marianne’s death. If some historian undertakes a joint biography of the Kardashian sisters 200 years from now, you have to wonder if they’ll come off nearly as well.

Natalie Wexler is the author of A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court and is currently working on a novel based on the life of Eliza Anderson Godefroy, the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States.

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