Julie Ferry’s new book delves into the world of unofficial marriage broker Minnie Paget.
Nan, Virginia, Lizzie and Conchita are the principal characters of Edith Wharton’s last and unfinished novel, The Buccaneers, which tells the story of four American heiresses who travel to England and marry into the British aristocracy with varying degrees of success.
From the moment I met these young women I was captivated by them, endlessly changing my mind over which of the heroines I most wanted to emulate. However, my point of reference wasn’t Wharton’s book, it was the BBC’s 1995 adaptation and, as an impressionable teenager trying to find my way in the world, I tuned in every week eager to follow their adventures.
That year can only be described as a stellar one for the BBC period drama. With the adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to follow later that year, it was my first real exposure to the genre.
Even then though, I knew that The Buccaneers was special. It was before Colin Firth stepped out of that lake, before Julia Sawalha gave her utterly endearing portrayal of the flighty but rebellious Lydia Bennet and before the serene Jennifer Ehle would rise above it all as Austen’s Lizzie.
For a start, here we had a period drama almost entirely focused on women who, in a period that offered few opportunities for them, decided to make their own. Four female characters who were all very different and flawed but each strong, brave and adventurous. It was a thrilling combination.
Inevitably it was the free-spirited Conchita Closson inducing the naive Nan St George into her first drag on a cigarette who first caught my eye. Passionate and unconventional, she was the first of the buccaneers to marry an English aristocrat. Ostensibly marrying for love, she soon discovered that her husband was far more rake than romantic, attracted as much by her money as her personality.
Virginia, Nan and Lizzy follow their friend over the Atlantic with high hopes of emulating Conchita’s fortuitous match and carving out a place for themselves amid the English aristocracy. All find themselves quickly married off, their new titles secured in exchange for their fortune.
“When I came across Minnie Paget, one of the real-life buccaneers and a source of inspiration for Wharton, I was instantly interested in her story. I felt like I had watching television all those years ago – completely hooked.”
Virginia endures her husband’s extramarital affairs, Nan’s free spirit is gradually crushed by her suffocating marriage to the Duke of Tintagel. Only the pragmatic Lizzy, who makes a seemingly unpromising match, turns out to have a happy marriage to a rising political star.
While I watched these women navigate their way through their relationships, quickly transforming from carefree girls to adults, I ruminated on how I would have fared as a buccaneer, charged with making it in a foreign land. Little did I know that 20 years later I would be revisiting The Buccaneers as research for my first book, a non-fiction book on the American heiresses that travelled to England and married for a title at the end of the nineteenth century.
I had wanted to write a non-fiction book with women at its core for many years and had spent countless hours researching possible subjects, only to have them rejected by publishers and be forced to start again. But when I came across Minnie Paget, one of the real-life buccaneers and a source of inspiration for Wharton, I was instantly interested in her story. I felt like I had watching television all those years ago – completely hooked.
Born Minnie Stevens, she married Captain Arthur Paget in 1878 and although she didn’t secure a title straightaway (the captain was from an aristocratic family but was untitled), she quickly overcame English prejudices of the time about “little American savages” to become an integral part of high society.
Paget’s brother, Harry Stevens, had been engaged to Wharton in 1882 before the engagement was broken off and Edith married Teddy Wharton on the rebound. Paget and Wharton operated in the same circles in America, so Wharton, while building her career as a novelist, was very familiar with the tales of Paget and her friends Jennie Jerome (later Churchill and mother of Winston) and Consuelo Yznaga (the inspiration for Conchita), who all married English gentlemen in the 1880s.
Despite England and their marriages proving a very different prospect to what they had expected, they were just the beginning of a flood of so-called dollar princesses that streamed over the Atlantic offering their new money in exchange for social acceptance.
The original buccaneers who had never been as wealthy as the heiresses that now followed had quickly burned through their dowries and now used their knowledge to help their compatriots make advantageous matches for a fee. Spearheaded by Paget, they set up an unofficial transatlantic marriage system where they mined their contacts in the States and England to make introductions, secure invitations and advise on etiquette.
Taking advantage of a new law, the Married Women’s Property Act that gave them the right for the first time to keep any money that they earned rather than surrender it to their husband, they were rewarded for their efforts with ‘gifts’ of money or jewellery, ensuring that these entrepreneurs maintained the status they were accustomed to.
Wharton wrote about the existence of women like Paget through her character Jacky March in The Buccaneers and March’s role in preparing young heiresses for the scrutiny they would face in England. In Wharton’s world March wields extraordinary power over the lives of her protégés and within the wider aristocracy, just as Paget and her friends did in late Victorian Britain.
Like the characters who occupied my thoughts as a teenager, my research has led me to the real inspiration behind the novel, women who subverted the status quo to claim the life they wanted. For me, their story is just as interesting now, as I found it all those years ago.
The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau by Julie Ferry is out now, published by Aurum Press.911 Views
Julie Ferry has been a freelance journalist for the past seven years. She lives with her husband, four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son in Bristol. The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau is her first book.