Jehanne Wake, Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and AbroadEdited for clarification after some helpful hints from tcherynobyelo
Apparently I can't resist big gossipy biographies about American aristocrats, either. But this one is not only big and gossipy, but also a solid, engrossing read, and one of the few biographies that I've read recently where I have almost no complaints.
The four Caton sisters – Marianne, Bess, Louisa and Emily – were the granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, known to you, if known at all, as the last signer of the Declaration of Independence to die. (He was not selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention for whatever reason, but his cousin Daniel Carroll, not of Carrollton, was an active member and one of the signers of the Constitution.) But beyond that, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (he always used this full name to prevent confusion with the many other Charles Carrolls not of Carrollton) was also one of the wealthiest men in the thirteen colonies, with extensive tobacco and other estates; served as Maryland's first senator (where he crossed paths and met with one of my ancestors, in one of those oooh! six degrees of separation thing, except considerably more degrees here); and, along with his cousin Daniel Carroll, may have helped inspire the "no establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment, since, as Catholics, Charles and Daniel Carrollton had not been allowed to serve in colonial governments. (I originally heard that on a school field trip, and Wikipedia confirms the legend, but since it's not mentioned in this considerably better researched and heavily footnoted book it may not be true.) When Charles Carroll of Carrollton died, the nation went into official mourning on the orders of President Andrew Jackson, and his body lay in state in Baltimore for some days.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that three – three! – of the Caton sisters married titled nobility of England, one (Marianne) first becoming the sister-in-law of Napoleon's sister-in-law and then becoming the sister-in-law of the Duke of Wellington – yes, that Duke of Wellington – and later Lady Wellesley, Marchioness; one (Louisa) first marrying a nice baronet and then marrying the man who became the Duke of Leeds, eventually becoming a nice Duchess; and the third (Bess) settling for – it does feel like settling, after this – a mere baron.
The fourth sister, Emily, made it all to way to Montreal, hated it, and returned firmly to Maryland, to live out her life there and exercise just a leetle
bit of undue influence on her grandfather to suddenly and unexpectedly become his major heiress. Lawsuits ensued. That is all very interesting, as is her social life in Washington's capital, but it kinda pales next to the story of the three sisters in England not to mention all of their investments and speculation in the stock market.
So how did three American women, granddaughters of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, end up in the British nobility
? (Other American women, of course, were to marry into the British nobility – quite frequently in the later 19th and 20th centuries – but they were not related, or as directly related, to American revolutionaries.) Two separate factors, it seems. One, the oldest sister, Marianne, happened to marry the brother of one of America's most notorious women (at the time): Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, also known as Betsy Bonaparte, who had married Jerome Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, in 1803 at the height of Napoleon's power -- not, it must be said, with the approval of Napoleon.
The young and scandalous Betsy – well known for her habit of walking around with what shocked or delighted observers of the time claimed was excessively inadequate clothing leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination – according to just one quote, "I ought rather say, of her no dress
, for if the reports are not much exaggerated, she goes to public assemblies nearly naked." The reports were apparently not much exaggerated. But this was enough to delight Jerome Bonaparte, at least, if not Napoleon, who declared the marriage null and illegal. Betsy, presumably with slightly more clothing, attempted to go to Napoleon to plead her case directly – but was not allowed to step ashore. Jerome married someone else, and Betsy lived in scandal – but the story was enough to gain her some sympathetic British equally unfond of Napoleon friends. Marianne became her sister-in-law, and thus, the sister-in-law of the shamefully mistreated (depending upon who told the story) sister-in-law of Napoleon. It opened doors.
The other factor, of course, money.
Wake does not conceal the unpleasant source of this money: the Carrolls were slaveowners, and the Caton girls grew up on a plantation and estates that made their money, and their inheritances, from slavery. The Caton girls were even given personal slaves who were supposed to be playmates who would grow into personal maids who could be trusted friends since they had grown up together – except, of course, that the slave playmates could be and were severely whipped for even minor offenses. Wake does note and detail that although the sisters lived in a household that supposedly distinguished household slaves from field slaves, supposedly because, as Wake notes, they were still slaves, and even if their status meant that their families would not be separated and sold off, they could still be whipped, lived in considerably lesser quarters, and were tied to the plantation. In a revealing aside that Wake does not explore, one of the white plantation Carrolls complains that the slaves can't be trusted not to drop expensive glass; I can't help but think that some of this breakage was not all that accidental. And in another revealing aside, Wake, who poured through extensive plantation documents, letters and account books, could not find out what happened to those personal slaves. They may have been "just like family," but they did not merit a recording of their deaths.
After a visit home, Marianne took one of these household slaves, a personal servant named Henny, back with her to England. Henny was not one of the original child slaves, but apparently became a friend of sorts; it's not clear if she was freed in United States, but once she reached England, she was free, and Marianne, who brought her to England, knew this quite well.
And yet, as Wake notes, none
of the sisters mentioned slavery in their letters at all, even as the Civil War raged on. Marianne died before the start of the Civil War, but the other three lived through it or at least saw its beginnings, and one of them, Emily, still owned slaves
. Many of them. They knew, but they stayed silent. And I can't help but wonder if the three older sisters stayed in England precisely because they knew – and did not want to face the truth on a daily basis. I don't know.
Equally fascinating is all of the gossipy stuff when the three sisters reached London and started to mingle with the elite. Parts of this book read exactly, and I do mean exactly
, like a Regency novel, complete with trips to Almack's! the vouchers! the Duke of Wellington! Prinny! I had to check and see if Georgette Heyer had written the book, especially after every single one of the grand Patronesses of Almack's were name dropped. (Except that Heyer never really mentions slaves or indeed black people, apart from a couple of random black page boys in early books who were dropped from later books. And she rarely mentions Americans, although with her devotion to the Duke of Wellington, she must have known Marianne's story, at least. I am getting off topic again.)
Marianne arrived in London a married woman, so her flirtations had to be, shall we say, discreet. Nonetheless, the Duke of Wellington fell head over heels in love with her, which opened doors. (And then, after the death of her first husband, she married his brother.) The other two had a bit more freedom to flirt, thus allowing Louisa to marry one of Wellington's staff, an ADC who had lost his arm while fighting under Wellington and afterwards was at Wellington's side at Waterloo. (You can almost hear
Georgette Heyer telling this story in a nice crisp British accent.) Louisa's first marriage, with her sister's connections, allowed her to marry the heir of the Duke of Leeds after the death of her first husband, eventually becoming the Duchess of Leeds. Bess enjoyed her freedom and the flirtations, deciding not to marry Lord Coke (another historical personage showing up in Heyer novels) and above all, playing in the stock market. Eventually she married a baron.
Which is another strength of this book: Wake details how these women continued to manage their own financial affairs and fortunes, often successfully (if, in Emily's case, by, er, putting a little pressure on her dying wealthy grandfather—just like something out of Jane Austen! [who is quoted in the book]), despite the belief that women in the 19th century did no such thing. (Unless they were the Brontes.) The sisters kept informed, and made careful, prudent and occasionally risky investments – often under assumed names, or under the name of a sister or a friend since, of course, married women lacked certain rights with these things. But Wake does an excellent job of showing just how the four sisters retained their independence, and how many of them became the financial support of their husbands. Which ends up explaining some of their marriages quite well, indeed.