The American Heiress

  • Daisy Goodwin
  • St. Martin's Press
  • 480 pp.

The Gilded Age meets the Kardashians in a sweeping upstairs-downstairs novel about the quest for a monied husband.

Reviewed by Maria Kontak

What does one make of a novel whose opening salvo finds a young beauty French-kissing her black maid? Save your blush and tingle and go elsewhere if you crave satisfaction for a prurient streak. If anything, The American Heiress soft-sells sex.

Cora Cash has the requisite gifts for Newport and New York society during America’s booming Gilded Age: beauty, wealth and wit. A catch for any matrimonial aspirant, Cora lacks only one quality at the onset of this delicious Kardashian-style, glamour-cum-reality glide through the hearts and minds of the characters that line Cora’s path to the altar.

Almost with relief we learn that our gifted heroine, who “can handle calculus,” does not know how to kiss a man. Action deftly swoops downstairs from upstairs and repeats its delightful dip throughout the novel. For a price — and money rarely strays off the pages, whether the action takes place in the New or Old World — Cora’s maid and confidante,  Bertha, fills the gap, tutoring her mistress in this art; hence, the non-titillating early scene. The story of Bertha, who serves as an African-American foil to Cora, provides a compelling undercurrent to the principal plot of surviving the marriage hunt and its aftermath of surviving the marriage.

Cora’s mastered kiss, however, doesn’t bring what headstrong Cora wants,  namely to stay home in New York. Cora’s ambitious mother gains the upper hand and ships off her heartbroken daughter to England in the family yacht, where the hunt for a titled husband for her peerless daughter ensues.

On the author’s native soil — Daisy Goodwin is English, and a historian by training —  the free-flowing narrative picks up the pace, weaving in vast amounts of English history. The era’s social antics and politics are scrupulously detailed, downstairs and upstairs, with an expert hand.  The frequent entry of the Prince of Wales onto the pages in wonderfully framed passages and dialogue takes the action really upstairs.

The excitement of a society novel takes on verve beyond period detail of sleeve fashions and tattoos, bicycling and hygiene, food and art,  etiquette and religion. Nor does it stop with England’s crumbling estates, draughty halls and naughty balls. There is enough intrigue to fill at least another tome (perhaps Ms. Goodwin will oblige her readers)  and the novel omits little that constitutes the fabric of a life in a particular time. In its sweep it is a bit reminiscent, minus the philosophical and anatomical debates, of Robert Burton’s unparalleled Anatomy of Melancholy.

This brings us to the issue of the novel’s antecedents. Many come to mind.  While Cora is still in New York, Jane Austen slides in with a reference to Emma Woodhouse, whose determination Cora seems to possess.  Thematically, the buccaneer spirit on foreign soil of the two heroines,  Cora and her maid Bertha, takes the reader to Edith Wharton and Henry James. The duel between outdated toilets and mores of the Old World versus the comforts and customs of the New is clearly there, but it is not the really captivating part of the work. Nor is it the novel’s democratic spirit, which not only shows how servants and lower ranks lived, thought and felt. How the stationmaster minded standing stock-still for hours awaiting a royal carriage or how the collar and cap chafed the telegraph boy can be found in earlier novels. Possibly the poignant scene of Bertha with her mother’s quilt has been done before. But Daisy Goodwin does more. She shows how this segment of society, the non-society, had fun. The account of the very short milliner’s assistant fighting throngs for a peek of Cora’s fabled wedding in New York takes you right into that woman’s heart. There are echoes of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, and perhaps a borrowed motif or two, but the fabula and language, rooted in romance fiction, is fresh and thoroughly comprehensible.

Heart is what the novel is really about: Cora’s heart, Bertha’s heart. Teddy,  the suitor for whom the kissing lesson was intended, discovers his heart too late, alas. Almost all the characters, including the ambitious and imperious mothers of heroine and hero, betray their hearts at one time or another. The problem, or at least a problem for this reader, is the long wait for the heart of the hero, and when it finally emerges,  sadly credulity is suspended. Never mind the at-times overly casual banter and dialogue that endearingly and refreshingly breaks ranks, or the outright paraphrasing of British clichés as by the beautifully depicted and aptly-named Mrs. Wyndham, Cora’s mentor in England, who tells Cora “the real crime is to show weakness.” After all, the juiciest gossip is conveyed in this manner and this novel excels in both.

Nevertheless,  the hero remains unconvincing. We penetrate the heart of Maltravers,  the duke whom Cora marries, only in the final pages. Perhaps it comes too late, or perhaps it deliberately accentuates his status of having been set apart from everyone else in the novel. We have been told and retold about the hero’s family’s unswerving loyalty to Roman Catholicism through England’s repressive anti-papist historical blips and lest we forget, Father Oliver, a Catholic priest and family intimate, is right there at the dinner table to remind us. Plausibility wanes not only when without a shrug the hero marries out of a church very strict on such actions but sinks further with the revelation of his use of the family chapel for illicit sex. Unlike Cora’s innocent French kiss with her maid, this is titillating, but somehow out of place in a novel as wonderfully airy and well-behaved as is The American Heiress.

Maria Kontak, an international business and trade specialist, holds a doctorate in Russian literature from the University of Michigan. Her short stories appear on the website, and she is working on her first novel, The Thirty-Third Year.

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