Saturday, 19 September 2020

Book review: The Husband Hunters, Anne de Courcy (2017)

I bought this entertaining study at Gleebooks one weekend earlier this month after a ramble in the sun across Wentworth Park. My mobile phone’s activity tracker said I’d been more sedentary this year and, in response to this information, I decided to take countervailing measures.

The body wasn’t the only thing exercised in the event; the mind was also. Sometimes with this book it’s hard to keep abreast of outcomes as the intricacies of people’s relationships can force meaning out the window if you don’t pay attention though what it has in abundance – these are all true stories despite the soap-opera tone – is pathos. 

Often modulated by irony: the book mainly deals with New York society as the endless search for social cachet therein was the driver of female ambition fuelling interest among patrician and arriviste mothers, from Stateside, in titled families resident in the archipelago. 

These are basically American stories although there’s no doubt that England also benefited from the transaction, especially in terms of human rights. What young Americans were used to in terms of property law and civil rights differed from what was normal for their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic. The ethos of the frontier – where men outnumbered women, and where women’s contributions to domestic economy were more highly prized – impacted on the ethics and morals of the community in London and rural England. 

In the light of such revelations it’s easy to see how reading this book can help to constitute a kind of study of the education of manners, with a bias toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. 

What happened at the end of this era – by the first years of the new century the traffic of young women and their mothers to London had slowed – was that people became grossed out by the level of expenditure. The dramas played themselves out in the newspapers, so they were public events. With the push for female electoral franchise heating up and the pushback against sickening levels of spending by the one percent, instead of social advancement the fashionable world became more focused on other things. 

Charity and human rights became popular all of a sudden. The new century was also when technology began to forcefully change Western economies and political settlements, and so de Courcy’s book can have broad appeal if you are interested in learning about how science can affect both finance and morals. The ability to cross an ocean in a matter of days rather than weeks must count as an improvement, regardless of the impact on the global environment, and other novelties (refrigeration, telephony) also made the world a smaller place than it had previously seemed.

Subtitled ‘Social climbing in London and New York’, this multi-subject biography is very readable and is lots of fun especially if you’re energised by descriptions of sumptuous gatherings of people. The lists of costumes for parties, the descriptions of the preparations made by the organisers, and the lists of names of invitees contribute toward making a kind of catalogue of excess in which other objects are ignored – apart from art, which is included only because of the money involved in the purchase thereof. The only thing missing here are details of the catering (today food is of supreme importance in most developed countries, so this is actually a distinct shortcoming). 

Definitely one to keep an eye out for!

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