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Summary

A razor-sharp, beautifully written survey of the world of the wealthy heiress - glittering and gleaming, flawed and fascinating - from the 17th to the 21st century.

We fantasise about what we would do if we inherited a fortune: the house on Cheyne Walk? The Manolo Blahniks? The racehorses? But what would it be like, never to have to dream in that way?

Laura Thompson explores the historical phenomenon of the heiress in four inviting categories. First, the Estate Builders, women like Elizabeth Sloan, whose father Sir Hans owned the land that is now Chelsea. The Patrons - those heiresses who tried to do something with their money - feature Winnaretta Singer, inheritor of the sewing-machine fortune, whose salon in Paris showcased work by Debussy, Fauré and Ravel. Party Girls enjoy their money without shame or conscience. After the death of hostess Ronnie Greville, high-living illegitimate daughter of a Scottish brewer death, 286 bottles of Bollinger 1928 were discovered in her Mayfair home. The Rebels include Alice Silverthorne, who walked her black panther along the Promenade des Anglais and shot her lover in the stomach at the Gare du Nord.

A famous heiress once said: 'Life is less sad with money.' It should be true. But is it? Laura Thompson's Heiresses takes the listener on a sparklingly enlightening search for the answer.

©2021 Laura Thompson (P)2021 W F Howes

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Fascinating piece of history!

This book is so much more than a tale of “poor little rich girls”! Instead, it delves into a centuries’ old tradition of wealthy girls being overtly traded - or in some cases abducted - because they happened to carry an inheritance. The women had no agency, either against parents bartering them for social elevation and a title, or against the seducers who courted them and whisked them away. Once married their patrimony (including children) became their husbands’ property and they, usually unloved for themselves, lived out miserable and stressful lives.
Thus, for me, this book was at its most interesting in its first part, dealing with historical cases about which one probaby previously knew nothing, and yet are important for what they say about society, class and gender. The author deftly points out how some males of “the gentry” but perhaps impoverished (in their terms) would consider wealthy girls of a lower social rank fair game for a false suit or even kidnapping. These men simply felt “entitled” to the fortunes of industrialists and manufacturers whom they considered unworthy - the landed gentry being the real inheritors of the earth’s worldly goods - and would go to any lengths to seduce or kidnap a young and unsuspecting daughter.
The scenario changes in the late 19thC when married women were legally allowed to control their own assets and income, but this is also the period when American heiresses were traded: a massive dowry in exchange for a Duchy or Earldom. Many unhappy and toxic marriages followed. Some plucky heiresses escaped this fate by forming lesbian communes in Paris. Most of the Americans, however, seem to have craved love and attention without the inner resources to forge or sustain a meaningful relationship, and just splashed their inheritance on husband after husband.
The book ends, mercifully, with the story of Angela Burnett-Coutts who inherited the esteemed Coutts Bank and much else but remained an apparently happy spinster dedicating her money to good works & causes, much of this in conjunction with Charles Dickens. Phew! The one that got away!
I’d have given 5 stars all round for this book but for the fact that its second half (C20th) becomes somewhat confusing with too many characters with similar names popping up all over the place, and the author beginning to sound a bit tired of reading. Minor faults! This is a fascinating tour through a neglected part of history, revealing SO much more, in terms of class entitlements and societal connivance, than just the plight of a few rich women!

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A whirlwind ride through the lives of heiresses

Very entertaining canter through some of the richest heiresses in history. Proving that money rarely creates happiness. Quite the opposite.

1 person found this helpful