The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
I love Austen and period romances, so I had fun reading this book. I listened to it in audiobook, so I got to enjoy the accents and the descriptions of architechure, clothing, and parties. I love the little verbal duels and one-upmanship you find in this genre, especially between the Cora, the title character, a wealthy girl from New York who becomes an English duchess through marriage, and her mother-in-law, “the double duchess,” an imperious aristocrat.
I did enjoy the book, but I also got frustrated with the characters. I guess that just comes from getting emotionally involved, which is a good thing. I like getting caught up and invested in a book like that. My biggest emotional reaction throughout the book was about how cruelly the duke treated his wife and how horrible their communication was as a couple. I got so angry at the duke for being carelessly late to important things (like the rehearsal dinner and the birth of his son), not telling Cora important things, brushing off her questions. He was so high-handed and arrogant, giving off a vibe of “How dare you question me?” and “Aren’t you cute to think you know better than I do?” I know that the author was drawing on the often misogynistic traditions of romance novels to give him those traits and make him handsomely Byronic and Darcy-esque; maybe the book helped me to realize that I don’t find those traits as attractive as I used to. Poor communication or lack of communication drive so many romance plots, and create so much drama, while in real life marriage I’ve found so far that poor communication is really not an option. You must talk. Period. You must push the other person to tell you what you need to know, and if they refuse, it’s an unacceptable refusal of intimacy. I’ve only been married a year and a half, but I’ve figured that much out. Clearly, 1890s English aristocracy had different expectations for marital communication and emotional intimacy than we do here and now. However, Cora’s expectations seem similar to our current paradigm, and, given that she chose a love marriage, entirely reasonable.
It was clear that the emotional maintenance of the marriage is solely Cora’s job. When she surprises the duke with something that she doesn’t know he’d find inappropriate, it’s her job to understand why his ungrateful reaction is justified, not his job to act happy with something he doesn’t like as much as she expected him to. It is entirely typical, even now, but especially for the time period, to put that burden on the female partner, but it’s still bullshit. Women can’t be the only ones who self-censor to spare a partner’s feelings. Men can’t be allowed to do whatever they want without first considering their partner’s feelings. This is one of the final frontiers of gender equality.
The ending was mostly satisfying, with the home-wrecking villainess miserable and properly humbled, a dramatic declaration of love from the hero, and the marriage safe (for now). Probably because I was still so upset on Cora’s behalf, I wanted her to demand more from the deceitful duke: concrete proof of fidelity, promises to share everything first with his wife and to stand up for her in all situations, public rejection of his former lover. It’s hard to tell whether she doesn’t ask more from him because she has a forgiving heart or low standards. On the final page, Cora muses about how much stronger she has become and how she’s grown. Now, this is what we want for fictional characters: we want them to grow. But her growth came through suffering, and she would not have suffered so much if her husband had been more honest with her, if he’d told her his true feelings before he was on the verge of losing her, if he’d taken equal responsibility for creating a happy, intimate marriage. My problem is this: does the fact that women grow and learn mean that it’s ok for men to selfishly create conditions in which a woman must change herself in order to survive? We let men off the hook too easily. If we demanded more of them, they’d step up, because they’d have no choice, and women would not have to be the only ones suffering and growing.
I don’t think of the book as pernicious in the way it brings out these gender issues; I don’t think the Maltravers’ marriage was meant to be seen as very healthy. Rather it was a springboard for me to contemplate the meaning of a good and equal marriage.
I recommend this book to anyone who likes Downton Abbey, which I’ve really enjoyed this season, even as it becomes more and more of a soap opera. The American Heiress reads like a prequel to the PBS series. Cora and Ivo Maltravers are similar to Lord and Lady Grantham from the series: a rich American girl paired with a poor but titled Englishman with a deteriorating estate. The dates are such that the two fictional couples are clearly of the same generation. The women both have a snarky mother-in-law, upstairs/downstairs action, inheritance drama, a husband who’s been tempted to stray, and even share a first name.