'To Marry an English Lord' inspired Downton Abbey'

Most authors are lucky to have one hot book to talk up in public these days. And then there's Carol Wallace. Her most recent novel is "Leaving Van Gogh," which Publishers Weekly hailed as "an intense look at the last months of Vincent Van Gogh" from the perspective of his art-loving personal physician.

Yet, suddenly it's a much earlier Wallace title, "To Marry an English Lord," that's back — and bigger than ever. Originally published in 1989, the nonfiction account of the wave of American heiresses who snagged noble British husbands from 1870 to 1910, has just been republished by Workman Publishing — nine years after the meticulously researched, yet somehow still deliciously gossipy, book went out of print.

The reason?

Two words: "Downton Abbey."

OK, two more: "Julian Fellowes," its creator.

"Last September, Julian Fellowes said in the (British newspaper) the Daily Telegraph, 'When they came and asked me to write a miniseries for TV, I was reading this wonderful book, 'To Marry an English Lord,' " Wallace said by phone from New York recently, referring to the book she co-authored with Gail MacColl. "Gail lives in England now and she sent me the paper. This was really great news!"

Indeed, you don't have to have watched "Downton Abbey" — in which Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), a fictionalized version of the book's American heiresses, still has mother-in-law problems more than 20 years after she rode to the estate's financial rescue — to find "To Marry an English Lord" as "wonderful" as Fellowes did. With its gimlet eye for history, social mores, family squabbles and, of course, fashion trends, the book (which the duo started researching in 1984) is an edifying, entertaining romp through a remarkably important time on both sides of the Atlantic.

We spoke with Wallace last week:

Q: A little housekeeping first. Is anything different in this version of the book?

A: There's a new cover, but the interior is entirely the same. Because they ran it from the original film (of the manuscript). Also, it all happened. What we were writing about happened 100 years ago, so nothing's really changed.

Q: Well, nothing except the fact that a lot more of us are unbelievably fascinated by the subject matter now! With the success of "Downton Abbey," this topic seems like a no-brainer in 2012. But how did you two fasten on this little-known subject back then?

A: We were both reading a lot of Edith Wharton and Henry James. It was Gail's idea that this American heiress thing they wrote (fiction) about was a real thing and we could write about it. Think back, that was the Reagan era, the early '80s, when everyone was obsessed with money and Princess Diana and English country houses. My husband would say, "It's a sign. There's going to be an audience for it somewhere."

Q: Really. It's like a 400-page history class — with lots of breaks for recess.

Q: Like Lady Cora, many of these real-life heiresses helped save ancient titles and estates with their bottomless pots of nouveaux American money. Was that the only reason British nobles married them?

A: It wasn't always about the money. In America, the notion of romantic marriage was of very current value in the late 1800s. Among the English aristocracy, (marriage) was more a strategic thing. It was done to unite lands, add money to the coffers and provide heirs for the estate. Yes, you wanted a woman you could stand to see at dinner and have sex with. But does she have to be your 'soul mate'? Absolutely not. These American girls were better-looking than English girls and better able to talk to men. So they were more appealing in that sense. But they were really appealing because if you needed money, there weren't that many English girls with lots of it because of the way English inheritance law is set up. As we know from ("Downton Abbey's") Matthew Crawley.

Q: King Edward VII, aka the Prince of Wales during much of this period, is a major figure in the book. Did he help this "funny little phenomenon" along?

A: Edward VII is crucial to the whole thing. Partly because he had nothing to do. He was seriously, seriously bored, and to distinguish himself from his mother (the dutifully dour Queen Victoria), he sets up a shadow court. It's far more welcoming to exotica than Victoria's, and these pretty, fun girls from America were definitely exotica.

Q: I forgot to ask. Do you like "Downton Abbey"?

A: Oh, are you kidding? Oh, yeah, I love it deeply! Well, the pacing drives me insane. Sometimes way too much happens in an episode. Still, c'mon ... what's not to love about it?

Q: Has Julian Fellowes asked you for any advice, tips for the upcoming Season 3?

A: (Laughing) No, no, they have plenty of experts for that. They do such a great job on that. Besides, they're up to 1920 now, so they're well beyond my era of expertise.

Q: Nothing to offer?

A: Well, I'm willing to speculate like everyone else. On the Internet, there have been stills of Shirley MacLaine (a new cast member, playing Lady Cora's mother from America) in a massive car, driving up to Highclere Castle.

Obviously, the faceoff between Shirley and Maggie (Smith) is highly anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic!

Share This Story