All The Pretty Pirates

"…but American girls are pretty and charming – little oases of pretty unreasonableness in a vast desert of practical common-sense."
– Oscar Wilde

The England of Victoria was scattered with the bones of their disappointment.  They foundered on society's unforgiving landscape and were held fast, like sparrows caught on barbed wire.  They swooned, jeweled wraiths, across a countryside of regret.

These were the daughters of America, bred from the new, raw, ricih.  Vanderbilt.  Morgan.  Whitney.  Jerome.  Thjeir fathers were the barons and the bankers, dirty from railroads, mines and Wall Street.  Their mothers were coarse and pushy – seeing their future in the calling cards accumulating in the salverby the door.

They had the money.  But the family name needed something beyond wealth, it needed dignity, it needed respectability.  So it was the responsibility of their dainty – if doomed – daughters to wash their fathers' hands and smooth their mothers' silhouettes and manners.

These nouveau riche had made their names.  But they also needed titles.  So they groomed their daughters, pressing them like flowers between the intolerant walls of behavior and decorum.  They were being prepred for adventures across the sea, and England was ripe for plunder.

Waiting to be claimed by these "dollar princesses" were the impoverished sons of the peerage, languishing in ballrooms like dying wolves.  English girls, steeped in tradition and hooded eyes, had no chance against the audacious competitors which invaded their country.  There was a type of charm in their impudence and fresh faces.  They flirted and teased with a rapier-like modesty.  Like pirates they ransacked the aristocracy until their accents rang in every large house in the country.

But the Victorian aristocracy had been growing tired and decadent.  The husbands who had married American money bore hidden depravities and resentments like coiled diseases.  Their country houses were dank and moldy, chilling their golden brides.  The romantic wistfulness, the daring hand on an ungloved arm, were all for show at the Mayfair parties.

So many times after the marriage, the heiress would fade away, her fine dresses never unpacked, her jewels clouded and tangled.  When Consuelo Vanderbilt wed the Early of Marlborough, her tears made a diamante pattern across her wedding veil. 

Maud Cunard sacraificed her bohemian mentality for a cold, bitter life in her husband's Northern lands. 

Jennie Jerome's husband was a brilliant parlimentarian, and would die of syphilis. 

Mary Leiter worshiped her parents' visits:  "I love the chairs you sat on, and try to see you there, and my eyes fill with tears." 

This was the Gilded Age, society's golden veneer, the false, desirable beauty.  It only took a false word, the image of a young bride in a locked bedroom, to scrape the paint away – to reveal the terrible depths of a dark heart, its cruel, hidden realities.

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12 responses to “All The Pretty Pirates

  1. This is a post of two halves – the first half reminded me of Edith Wharton and then it becomes much darker – sinister and almost Blue Beard-like.

  2. When marriage was not expected to be for love but for financial gain… Your writing made me think of the short gothic story The Yellow Wallpaper where the woman goes mad and scratches off the yellow wall paper.

  3. The American fascination with European aristocracy is long and deep. I never considered the fate of these poor girls, who had the unfortunate condition of getting what they thought they wanted. But in our time the currents will swirl and eddy differently, as we strip the middle class out of our society and build our own aristocrats.

  4. Brings to mind the adage: Be careful what you wish for.

  5. This is a poor reproduction, but the cartoonists noticed.

  6. Some very sad tales from those times. married for title instead of love. Ah, what atrocities haven't been committed in the name of money…

  7. Jando – Edith Wharton was absolutely the inspiration for this. The darkness might have been my own. Oh, Aubrey…
    FD – There was much madness in these girls' stories – they were not brought up to be strong; only the most extraordinary ones tore away the walls into greener fields.
    Doug – These girls got what they wanted until marriage and husbands/husbandry slaughtered them with responsibility.
    Red Pen – I don't think they were even aware of what they were wishing for! Stupid, pretty girls!
    Peg o' T – I know that cartoon! The contrast between the healthy Gibson-esque American girl and her wizened, titled man must have been stunning.
    Kzinti – "Ah, what atrocities haven't been committed in the name of money…" Not many, I'm bound.

  8. The Dollar Princesses

  9. Excellent writing Aubrey!! I ate up every bit and am glad I did!

  10. The Duke of Marlborough was called Sunny by his friends. This was not due to his disposition, which tended to the morose and taciturn. He lived in Blenheim Palace, a huge white elephant which was slowly falling apart. It had so many windows, it took the window washers a year to finish, may chieu and then they just started over. It had fourteen acres of leaky roof, and gardens that were choked with weeds. The Duke needed money. Enter Alva and her beautiful daughter. Alva arranged for them to meet at every opportunity. The Duke proposed and Consuelo accepted (she didn't dare not). The marriage produced two sons but was unhappy for both parties. Consuelo did not like her husband's condescending attitude toward Americans, nor his air of superiority. She hated the toadying she received because of her position. Consuelo wrote that it was all she could do not to laugh when an unctuous official once asked her, "Would you care to say grace, Your Grace?" The Duke and his family thought that Consuelo was spoiled and unappreciative of the Marlborough name and heritage. it was a sad situation all around.

  11. Interesting post! I also liked the beautiful pictures of the heiresses of those times. Looking at it today, I am not able to understand why many women of those times wanted to marry men from an aristocratic background, when they didn't have anything in common.

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