American Duchess! An Interview with Karen Harper

Amer Duch final coverby Mary Jo

I'm delighted to welcome Karen Harper to the Word Wenches again! She is a wonderful, and wonderfully prolific, writer of historical novels, mysteries, and so much more, and she is here to tell us about her just released novel, American Duchess, the story of Consuelo Vanderbilt, which has been chosen by Women's Day Magazine as one of the 10 Most Anticipated Books of 2019.

Over to you, Karen!

“Everyone was calling it the wedding of the century. I was calling it the worst day of my life.”

This quote is not from a tabloid article or scandal mag but rather the opening lines of my historical novel AMERICAN DUCHESS, told by Consuelo Vanderbilt, the American Duchess of the Gilded Age. After reading about Consuelo in the fascinating non-fiction book To Marry An English Lord by MacColl and Wallace and visiting Blenheim Karen's Mira photoPalace in England, I knew she would make a fabulous main character. I had earlier toured a massive so-called “cottage” of her family in Newport, Rhode Island.

Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, became the poster girl for the shocking practice of ‘Dollar Brides’ or ‘Dollar Princesses.’ These were young women from rich American families who were (forcibly, in her case) wed to titled Englishmen so that they could  replenish dwindling fortunes to save their grand estates. Remember, Cora, Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey was a ‘dollar bride,’ albeit one with a happy marriage.

Consuelo portraitIn 18-year-old Consuelo’s case, her social-climbing mother bargained with the 9th Duke of Marlborough to make her daughter his duchess in exchange for much Vanderbilt money so that he could repair and enhance his heritage of vast Blenheim Palace. It hardly mattered that the bride was in love with someone else and that the duke disliked America and Americans.


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The Splendors of Blenheim Palace

Blenheim 12
Andrea here, As you probably know, a number of the Wenches traveled through England, Scotland and Ireland in the last fortnight (and got to spend time together, both exploring and speaking at the RNA Conference, which was so much fun!) So here is the first of many “show and tell” blogs from our experiences. But as most of you love history as much as we do, I hope you’ll enjoy these vignettes of places that captured our fancy.


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Shaping The Ideal English Landscape

Overview 3
“With large sweeping expanses of lush green fields, groupings of trees, winding paths, and serpentine-shaped rivers and lakes, the English landscape appears as an ideal form of nature; it is, however, an expertly crafted construct.” 
—from the exhibit, "Moving Earth"

Overview 1Andrea/Cara here
, Spring is bursting into bloom where I am, the colors and textures transforming the stark planes of winter into a whole new landscape. It got me to thinking about how trees and shrubs and flowers shape our perception of our surroundings. Modern life, with all its crowded cities and endless strip malls, has tended to dull that bond to the natural world. It got me to thinking about the English countryside, which has always seemed to me to be the quintessential example of a wonderful balance between the wildness of Nature and the careful cultivation of Man.

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The Life of the Lady’s Maid

Forbidden_350Nicola here. The third series of Downton Abbey starts in the UK this week and so today I thought I would look at the role of the lady’s
maid. The lady’s maid has frequently had a bad press. Dramatists of the 18th
century portrayed her as a vain, twittering creature. Lower servants tended to
dislike the lady’s maid, partly for her affectations to gentility and partly
for the fact that she had the ear of the mistress of the house. Certainly in Downton Abbey Lady Grantham's maid O'Brien is a complicated and interesting creation who reflects many of these elements but has a few saving graces. However the
role of a lady’s maid was an exacting one.

 The maid of all work

 Margery, the heroine of my latest book, Forbidden, was a
lady’s maid when her life was turned upside down with a sudden and unexpected
inheritance. It was interesting to study the sort of work Margery did and the
way her life had progressed up until that point in order to see how
dramatically it would change with her elevation to the Ton.

Margery’s story is fictitious, of course, but it is based on
the kind of life any number of women might
Laundry duty have had in service at the turn of
the 19th century. She started her working career at the age of
twelve as a maid of all work in a modest household in a small country town.
(Her back story is given in an earlier book in the Scandalous Women of the Ton
series, One Wicked Sin.) Her employer, Mrs Goodlake, was the wife of a
successful tradesman. As such Mrs Goodlake had a small staff, much smaller than
one would find in a grand country house. Rather than having a specific
function, such as scullery maid or housemaid, Margery had to turn her hand to
most jobs, from working in the kitchens to carrying the water up to the
bedrooms. These “general maids” played the part of housemaid, parlour maid and
cook as the need arose. Whilst a nobleman and his family might employ twenty or
more indoor servants (there were, for example, twenty eight indoor servants at
Ashdown House in the Regency period) a gentry or middle class household might
be able to afford only two or three.

The fact the Margery could turn her hand to anything came in
useful when she went to work for Lottie in One Wicked Sin. Lottie had a small
cottage and only one female servant to answer the door, do the cooking and take
care of just about everything else. Margery performed much the same role for
Susanna in Notorious. The benefit of such a role was that she became close to
her employers and was warmly appreciated, as much a friend as an employee. It
was through the connections of these ladies that Margery progressed in her
career because next she went to be lady’s maid to the Marchioness of Darent and
then to Lady Grant and so became a senior servant in a large household at the tender
age of only twenty three, with the potential to become a housekeeper in good
time. This was a huge leap for maid-of-all-work.

The Senior Servant

The lady's maidA lady’s maid was a personal servant and as such was senior,
highly-prized and comparatively well paid. One of the perks of being a lady’s maid was that you received your mistress’s cast off clothes to wear or sell as you pleased (which gave Margery the original idea for exchanging her confectionery for cast offs in the bawdy house.) A noblewoman of the highest rank
might in fact possess several personal servants. In 1772 the Duchess of Marlborough had a lady’s maid, three housemaids, two footmen and a male French
hairdresser in her personal entourage. The hairdresser was very skilled and
earned £42 per annum, almost at the top of the servant pecking order, but more modest households than Blenheim Palace would expect the lady's maid to pick up the hairdressing responsibilities. 

So what were the requirements of a good lady’s maid? She had
to be discreet, cheerful, obedient, healthy enough to be able to work long
hours, considerate enough not to fall asleep on her employer in the carriage,
virtuous enough to withstand the attention of male servants, honest enough to
care for the jewellery, educated enough to read to her mistress, and have an expert
knowledge of needlework, hairdressing and fashion. In return she would be rewarded with a room of her
own, she would take her meals with the housekeeper and in a superior household
she would be expected to attend only one lady. 

Contemporary opinions on the nationality of lady’s maids are
very amusing. French maids were considered to be the height of chic for their
fashion sense and their skill with a needle and comb. However in times of war
they were a liability in case their loyalties were compromised. Swiss maids
were considered safer and more trustworthy but were criticised for lacking

The lady’s maid had to dress, undress and re-dress her
mistress as many times as was necessary during
Tight_lacing the day. She would lay out her
mistress’s clothes in the morning and tidy the room after the mistress was
dressed. She would then occupy her day with sewing and ironing unless required
to accompany her mistress on an outing. She repeated these activities during
the day as required until it was time for her mistress to retire to bed,
whereupon she would brush her hair for a half hour as well as help her undress.
It doesn’t sound very exciting unless one was maid to a lady who travelled a
great deal, in which case you would get to see the world.

One aspect of the maid’s work that did sound rather more
interesting was the creation of various concoctions to help a lady with
problems such as freckles and sunburn. These potions would be made in the
stillroom using anything from herbs such as lavender and rosemary to milk,
lemons, lard and bullocks’ gall, which the housemaids also used to clean

A lady dressingA rather sad reflection on the role of the lady’s maid comes
from one contemporary writer: “Your elevation into comfort and luxury – your
better clothes, your seat in the dressing room and in your master’s carriage –
are only circumstances in your service and are not given to you to last…” It is
a clear indication that as a lady’s maid got older not all could rely on the
loyalty of their mistress in keeping them at her side.

Some lady’s maids did become housekeepers but this was not common
and it was a promotion resented by the housemaids who felt that they had more
appropriate experience. Some also married above their station but again they
were warned on the dangers and temptations: “If you have any personal
attractions, beware of the least familiarity with any of the gentlemen of the
family. Anything of the kind will lead to improper consequences.”

AbigailI have collected a pretty extensive collection of books
about life below stairs and it was fun to be able to draw on this for the
background to Forbidden. It was such a different world from that of high
society and to explore it gives a very different perspective of Regency
society. It also emphasises how different life was with servants in the sense that there was a lack of privacy that was taken for granted at the time whereas these days many of us would shudder at the thought of a personal maid who had so much intimate knowledge about persons and our lives! I think I would much prefer to have been an outdoor servant (if only they had employed women gardeners) or perhaps the stillroom maid!

Do you think you would you have enjoyed any of the roles in the Servants' Hall? Do you have the skills – or the patience – to ba a lady's maid? Would you have preferred living in a large aristocratic household or a small one?

Another Wedding of the Century

Cat 243 Dover by Mary Jo

No, the title of this blog has nothing to do with that fancy shindig at Westminster Abbey last month.  I blush to admit that it’s still another release with my name on it. 

I’ve never had a busier publishing spring:

March—Dark Mirror, a new YA paranormal
April—The Bargain, a reissued Regency historical
May—Nowhere Near Respectable, a new Regency historical

And now for June:

The Wedding of the Century.

Wedding of the Century 2011 My story is called “The Wedding of the Century,” and that was picked up as the title for this anthology, the third time the novella has been released. 

It’s a long novella written almost twenty years ago for a Harlequin historical anthology.  I was vastly flattered to be asked since I was the first non-Harlequin author to receive such an invitation.  The theme was weddings, which is pretty much a no-brainer for a romance author. <G>

WOTC is set in the Gilded Age with a vastly wealthy American girl marrying an English duke.  My story is loosely inspired by the famous marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough, but with a happier ending.  (The real people ended up getting divorced.) 

To Marry an English Lord To Marry An English Lord. Or, How Anglomania Really Got Started

I don’t remember what gave me the idea for the story, though I do remember that these characters spoke in my mind more clearly than just about any other couple I’ve ever written.  Plot inspiration probably came from came from the fabulous book To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace. 

This book is sadly out of print now, but used copies are available for as little as $.21 + shipping, and if you like rollicking social history, this book is for you.  Lots of stories of the men and women involved in this transatlantic marriage mart and the delicious details of the lives they lived. (Here’s a picture of the famous designer Charles Frederick Worth Worth, an Englishman who worked in Paris and was the very height of fashion for the period.)

It’s something of a mystery how Americans, who famously tossed out the King of England and banned all inherited titles, nonetheless adore royalty and lords and ladies.  (I don’t precisely adore them, but I do enjoy writing about them!)

Lady Randolph Churchill It was a perfect meeting of needs: rich Americans in search of old titles, and English aristocrats in dire need of money.  Of course, human nature and hormones being what they are, the couplings weren’t usually that cold blooded.  The dazzling Jennie Jerome, daughter of a New York financier and sportsman, met Lord Randolph Churchill, a brilliant younger son of the 8th Duke of Marlborough, at a ball held on a cruiser moored at the Isle of Wight.  (I. e., it was all insanely fashionable.) 

Lord Randolph proposed and was accepted three days later,  Neither set of parents approved—the Marlboroughs thought the connection vulgar, and Jenny Jerome’s mother wasn’t impressed by the fact that Lord Randolph was a younger son, but the Prince of Wales endorsed the match. 

Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, John Singer Sargent The financial negotiations were very difficult, since Lord Randolph didn’t have much money.  Leonard Jerome settled 50,000 pounds on the couple for an income of two thousand pounds a year, but insisted on giving Jennie a separate income of a thousand pounds a year. 

This outraged the Marlborough lawyers: an American girl lost her American citizenship when she married an Englishman, and English law gave all the wifely property to the husband.  Leonard Jerome didn’t think it wise that a wife should be so completely dependent, a sentiment I can heartily agree with.  (The family portrait is Consuelo Vanderbilt and family, and hangs at Blenheim Palance.  It's huge!)

The marriage had its ups and downs, but must be considered a success if only because it produced Winston Churchill.  (He was born less than eight months after the marriage, which suggests that not all Victorians were straight-laced.  <G>) 

Blenheim Palance 
Winston was born at Blenheim Palace, the wildly overdone seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, and was first cousin of 9th duke.  (The one who married Consuelo Vanderbilt.)  Winston had a fascinating and very colorful career (did you know that he won the Nobel prize for literature) before becoming perhaps the most respected Englishman of the 20th century. 

My Wedding of the Century

My novella protagonists are very different from the glitterati since I was intrigued by the idea of two basically nice, down to earth people trying to find each other and a real marriage in the midst of all the fashion and drama of high society.  (Consuelo Vanderbilt’s autobiography is called The Glitter and the Gold, which captures the essence of that.)

The heroine, Sunny Vangelder, is a warm, laughing young lady who wants to marry for love rather than to fulfill the social climbing ambitions of her mother.  The hero is Lord Justin Aubrey, a quiet, introverted second son when he meets and is instantly drawn to Sunny.  She doesn’t even notice him that day at the garden party, where she is busy falling love with a charming snake.

The Breakers, Newport Then Justin unexpectedly inherits his brother’s dukedom, debts, and a very large house with a badly leaking roof.  He needs to marry an heiress, but he truly wants Sunny.  Forced into the marriage by her mother, Sunny can’t believe that love has anything to do with it.  (The picture is of The Breakers, the famous Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, RI. Some of the novella takes place in Newport.)

Naturally Justin and Sunny work things out, but in romance, the journey to the ending is the whole point.  I had a lovely time researching and writing this story (which is about twice the length of the average novella), and I’m delighted that it’s once more available.

I’ll be giving away a free signed copy of The Wedding of the Century to one person who comments on this post between now and Tuesday midnight. 

And before I sign off on this Memorial Day–a moment of silence for all those military men and women who have served this country since the beginning.

Worth gown--Empress Elizabeth of Austria Mary Jo , adding a picture of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria wearing a Worth gown