Imagine if, instead of finding defeat at the hands of the crafty, debauched Europeans, Henry James’ heroines triumphed, and found love, money and social position across the Atlantic? The result would be something like the real lives of Maryland’s Caton sisters—Marianne, Louisa, Bess and Emily, vividly recreated by biographer Jehanne Wake in Sisters of Fortune.Beautiful, accomplished and almost instantly welcomed when they arrived in the England of the early 19th-century, the American aristocrats (their grandfather was the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence) quickly became part of the Regency social scene. Marianne so charmed the married Duke of Wellington that his biographers name her as the love of his life; yet she married his older brother after the death of her first, American husband. Louisa found love twice, becoming a Duchess along the way. And Bess proved herself remarkably modern in terms of playing the stock market.
For her group biography of the quartet, Wake buried herself in letters and diaries of the period (the sisters were prodigious correspondents), recreating the gilded world that they moved in on both sides of the ocean along with their individual quirks and foibles. Along the way, readers are treated to capsule histories of early American politics (Dolley Madison threw the best parties), the often-tangled English elections of the time and the subtle power and influence that women wielded at balls and social calls, dubbed “petticoat politics.”
Where Wake falters is in trying to follow the sisters chronologically. She often resorts to flashing forward or backward to illuminate something, and is stymied by making Emily as interesting as her more glamorous sisters. And in the current recession atmosphere, Wake spends a bit more time on the 19th-century stock market than is perhaps wise for the demographic the biography is aimed at. But if you’ve already read Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters (all of whom crop up in the sisters’ story), the Catons will be welcome company.
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