Frances Wynn and the Countess of Harleigh mysteries were inspired in part by the real American heiresses who, between the mid-1870s and around 1910, contracted over 400 transatlantic marriages with British peers. It seemed fitting to introduce some of those heiresses in a series of blog posts and I’d like to start with one of my favorites, Consuelo Yznaga.
Consuelo was the daughter of a wealthy Cuban merchant, and a planter’s daughter who brought their family from Louisiana to New York after the civil war. During a visit to Saratoga Springs in 1875, Consuelo met 23-year-old George Victor Drogo Montague, Lord Mandeville, son and heir of the Duke of Manchester. He had a less than sterling reputation, but he was a friend of the Prince of Wales and he would one day be a duke. He was also unwell, suffering from a lingering fever, possibly a bought of typhoid. Consuelo’s mother invited him to recuperate at their family home, nursed by Consuelo. Once he recovered, and her father offered a dowry of £200,000, they were engaged.
This was only the second marriage of an American girl to a British peer. The New York newspapers crowed and the Yznagas ignored any rumors they may have heard about the groom’s unsavory reputation.
After the wedding, the couple returned to England. With her beauty, wit, and vivacious nature, Consuelo took London by storm. Though her high spirits, cigar smoking, and banjo playing shocked some of the more proper members of society, she was a favorite of the fashionable set and the Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, her charms did not help her marriage. Mandeville had earned his reputation. He spent his wife’s dowry on his mistress and gambling, racking up large debts. The Duke sent them to Ireland in the hope of curbing his son’s spendthrift ways. They also spent some time with Consuelo’s old friend, Alva Vanderbilt, but nothing could keep their debt from mounting.
By 1890, when Mandeville inherited the Dukedom, the couple rarely even saw one another. Consuelo was still a favorite in society an used her connections to sponsor other American heiresses, even after her husband died two years later. Sadly, the 9th Duke of Manchester was no better with finances than his father and had to seek his own heiress.
If you’re interested in learning more about Consuelo, you might enjoy the following books:
In a Gilded Cage: From Heiress to Duchess by Marion Fowler
The Husband Hunters by Anne de Courcy
And of course, the character of Conchita Closson in Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers was based on Consuelo.