- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2011

By Jehanne Wake
Touchstone Books, $27, 416 pages

During the early 1800s in America, there lived four sisters: Marianne, gentle and beautiful; Bess, indecisive and independent; Louisa, fashionable andbusinesslike; and Emily, practical and domestic. They were the granddaughters of Maryland’s Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a wealthy landowner and the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. He generously bequeathed ample funds and property to each granddaughter, who in turn, became a sensation of the fashionable world on both sides of the Atlantic.

Refined, cultured and wealthy, these aristocrats of early America differed from many heiresses of their time, in that they actively managed their own fortunes, speculated on the stock market and made informed investments. Truly independent, they married for love, unlike many of their sex who lived during an age when, because of economic reasons, they were unable to choose their partners.

British author Jehanne Wake, a former trainee at Solomon Brothers in New York, became interested in this Maryland story while doing research at the archives of ING Bank in London. Her interest lay in moneyed women of the 19th century and the long-held (predominantly male) view that they had no interest or talent in finance or the stock market.

As Ms. Wake plowed through a collection of correspondence she came across one, signed by one E. Caton, that was extraordinary. “Her voice was so vivid and beguiling, so intelligent and authoritative - on the subject of investments and speculations, no less.” The letter-writer was “using words as familiar today as the jargon of the global financial markets,” instructing a female friend about bonds “at 5 & 1/2 pr Ct interest buying at 92”

Who was this E. Caton?

That quest led this Oxford-trained biographer and researcher to leave London and burrow into archives in England, Ireland, Wales, Canada and the United States, including those of the Maryland Historical Society, Maryland State Archives and Georgetown University, to bring to life this original and romantic story. The book is generously illustrated with maps and color plates. The voice of each sister shines through, as do those of other men and women of the period, gleaned from contemporary letters crammed with bits of family and local news.

If Ms. Wake’s text seems a bit dense at times, and overly stuffed with detail and quotation marks, it will be catnip for those who appreciate thorough research and the story of Anglo-American relations during this period of America.

The story gains speed as the sisters set sail for London. Leaving the scorching heat of Maryland summer behind them, the sisters bloomed in the moist English air (“A pint of American summer would thaw all of Europe in ten minutes,” according to one English diplomat). As American women, they were a novelty in London society, presented to royalty, consumed with a round of parties. The contrast between the reception British aristocracy gave to the Caton sisters and that of American diplomats beneath the ambassadorial level was stark. John Quincy Adams, an American minister, complained of the many incidents “from which I can perceive how very small a space my person, or my station, occupies in the notice of these persons, and at these places.”

London in 1816 was still struggling to regain its hold as the most prosperous city of the Western world. The rich in Britain lived on credit, slipping further into debt in order to keep up appearances. The sisters’ attitude toward money was different. Living ostentatiously and in debt with unpaid bills was frowned upon in America. As grandfather Charles Carroll wrote in 1808, “Fortunes are as frequently dissipated by negligence and inattention to pecuniary concerns as by vice and extravagance.”

Since childhood he had taught his granddaughters that “every trifle which can be saved decently ought to be saved,” for “a prudent economy is one of the foundations of independence, & consequently of happiness.” The sisters’ discussion of investments with their grandfather makes for fascinating reading.

Quickly after the arrival of the Caton sisters in London, speculation spread that these fashionable unmarried girls must want British husbands. The wealth of these graceful Americans was not lost on the mothers of British nobility. Marianne’s beauty and grace compelled the already-married Duke of Wellington to fall in love with her. She married his brother Richard, Marques Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Emily married a Scots-Canadian and heir to Montreal’s North Trading Company, and stayed at home in Maryland. Louisa became the Duchess of Leeds and consequently gained an assured place in British society as a member of Queen Victoria’s court. Bess, ever capricious about marriage, did not marry into great wealth yet made a fortune speculating on the stock market. Their story is romantic, reading more like a historical novel.

These unions took place decades before Edith Wharton or Henry James would write of American heiresses marrying titled British aristocrats. But as Ms. Wake argues, despite their marriages, the Caton sisters remained true and proud republicans of the American Revolution.

Ms. Wake has been charming audiences throughout the Baltimore-Annapolis-Washington corridor, speaking at various venues (most recently, Georgetown’s Dumbarton House) about these beautiful heiresses. As Ms. Wake points out, the independence and ability the Caton sisters showed in participating in the male-dominated worlds of politics and finance remain relevant today. If Masterpiece Theater or HBO has not grabbed this property, they should do so. In the hands of a talented scriptwriter, “Sisters of Fortune” would entertain viewers and offer far more refreshing instruction of the political, financial and social world of the 19th century than another umpteenth remake of “Emma” or “Pride and Prejudice.”

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is a biographer and writer living in Washington, D.C.

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