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The Glitter and the Gold
Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan
(Hodder and Stoughton, £25, *£21)
The union of beautiful American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt with the 9th Duke of Marlborough in November 1895 caused a media sensation. New Yorkers congregated in their thousands outside the Church of St Thomas on Fifth Avenue to witness the departure of the newlyweds; so intense was their interest that police were required to keep them at bay. Such an ordeal might have taxed the stamina of even the most radiant bride. For poor Consuelo, tearful behind her veil, the scrutiny proved almost unendurable.
In this wonderfully evocative memoir, first published in 1953 and now reissued in an elegant new edition, the reluctant duchess recounted the circumstances behind her celebrated-and ultimately disastrous-marriage to a virtual stranger. Born into a family of staggering wealth and influence, Consuelo was effectively forced down the aisle by her ambitious and domineering mother, Alva. Installed as the mistress of Blenheim Palace at the age of only 18, she struggled to find a place for herself within the glittering, self-confident world of the English aristocracy.
She was not aided in her endeavour by a husband whose nickname of Sunny belied his grimly fastidious nature. Fortunately, her charm and intelligence won her many friends, and her candid accounts of sumptuous balls and country-house weekends make for enchanting reading. Her sense of humour allowed her to weather every storm, not least the ire of a feisty dowager who publicly rebuked her for daring to sport white gloves to the Longchamp races during the mourning period for Queen Victoria.
The Marlboroughs eventually separated in 1906, and Consuelo went on to find happiness with French aviator Jacques Balsan. But her tenure at the very apex of Edwardian high society provided her with a fund of stories to last a lifetime. Recalling her impressions of the Corontion of 1902, Consuelo described the wave of patriotic emotion that washed over her. As the choir sang and the jewels flashed, she was surprised to find a lump forming in her throat. ‘I realised,’ she admitted half a century later, ‘that I was more British than I knew.’