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Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad

Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad - Jehanne Wake Depending on what you want out of it, this could be anything from a 1 star to a 5 star read. Before you begin, you should be clear on what it is: it a purely non-fictional look at four upper crust sisters from Maryland living in the early 1800's, based largely on letters they wrote to each other over the course of thirty years. The text is heavy on fact-oriented accounts of the various sisters' comings and goings: where they went, who they met, who attended which dinner party and what was served there, and what they were wearing, and how the house was furnished, etc. If you have an academic interest in the times, places, or people mentioned in Sisters of Fortune, then without a doubt this book is a must-have. I truly do have the sense that it must have been a labor of love for author Jehanne Wake; it provides lush detail of all these things, as far as the supporting source material allows. If you're a more casual reader, like I was, this book will probably come across as pretty flat. The characters definitely don't come off the pages and spring to life here. Documenting history clearly takes prescidence over storytelling in this book, so even though all kinds of drama befall the sisters (e.g. being widowed in one's early 30's, miscarriages, loveless marriages, royal intrigues, illness, travel, etc), none of it comes across as dramatic, because it is all dispassionately documented in a detached third person which seems painfully aware of the 200 years between the sisters and the reader. Often the personal dimension of major tragedies are completely glossed over, seemingly logged into the official record with minimal flourish or elaboration, in the manner of "Emily has lost her pregnancy this Spring." That's it?! I found myself wishing Wake would have written this as historical fiction, to flesh out the characters with dialogue or internal narrative. Even at the end of 320 pages, I could only keep three of the four sisters straight in my mind by remembering who lived where, or who was married to whom; the book did not create any sense of individual personalities among them. In fact, the character I had the best feel for was (eldest sister) Marianne's sister-in-law Betsy... a fussy, self-absorbed Nellie Olesen type, who fluctuates between lording her wealth and status over everyone (she married Napolean Boneparte IV), and wallowing in self-pity when her standing and finances are diminished (but still pretty damn high) when the marriage fails. She gossips bitterly and sometimes humorously about most of the other characters in the book, and even though I wouldn't exactly want to hang out with her or be her friend, she was my favorite person to read about. Too bad, because the Caton sisters were no doubt classier and all around nicer people, but their letters were boring.Where the book really shines is when Jehanne Wake starts riffing on background explanations of stuff. Wake was a former fellow at Solomon Smith Barney, and is obviously well-studied in the economic conditions of the early 1800's.One fun feature was watching how the family managed its large portfolio. These days, any substantial family fortune will usually be held in a tax-exempt charitable trust. Family members hold shares in the trust, and receive dividends. They can use it as collateral, and withdraw from the principle, and usually the fund is managed by paid professionals. The fund serves to keep the principle together in one giant lump, to take advantage of high net-worth instruments, instead of dividing it among many heirs. In the early 1800s, a large family trusts were rare- for one thing because there was no federal income tax for them to avoid. Federal income tax was first legislated in 1913. More often, familial wealth was passed down as direct (i.e. unincorporated) personal ownership in the means of wealth generation. Because liability litigation is much more common in present day, it is much less common today to have direct-owned, unincorporated operations on the scale of $100 million, like the Caton family plantations. The family also owned a large number of shares in First National Bank, and later put a giant portion into the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (the "B&O" of Monopoly fame). The Caton sisters were raised from an early age to take an active hand in managing their finances- something unusual for the time and place they were living, and they all seemed to have a talent for it. Marianne in particular made some very shrewd real estate purchases, and saved her second husband the Duke of Wellesly from making some stupid deals. Wake goes into detail about how the sisters' portfolios were structured to prevent their husbands from wresting control of the family fortune from them. That's a very good thing, since Emily is the only one whose husband had any sense with money.So about the money... the book follows the family's rise to prominence beginning with the sisters' grandfather, Charles Carroll (of Carrollton, MD), whose life is no doubt covered in other books. He's an interesting fellow whose fortune first came from import/export during the colonial days, and then grew to shipping, large-scale plantation farming (yes, based largely on slave labor) and later with profitable ventures in arms and blackmarket trade in the period during and leading up to the Revolutionary War. He was the wealthiest signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and in fact the only nominal millionaire of the lot of them. To give you an idea of his comparative wealth, George Washington's total land holdings at the time of Independence, including his lovely Mt Vernon estate, was about 8000 acres. Charles Carrolls' holdings were 90,000 acres in Maryland alone, with additional scattered holdings in New York State, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Carroll was Catholic- a minority regarded with distaste by the prevailing Protestant society at that time in America. Even though the nation had been founded on the principles of religious tolerance, his legal rights didn't always translate to social acceptance. There was a good deal of mistrust towards Catholics in the colonial period and the early days of the republic... probably due to the same old misconceptions and unfamiliarity that always drives prejudices, as well as (ostensibly) the fear that Catholics would undermine the social experiment that was the new republic, by acting with greater allegience to the Pope than to their own national leaders. In this environment, it sounds like there were a lot of places, particularly in New England, where Catholics were unwelcome. Maryland, however, was a uniquely Catholic-friendly environment among the orginial thirteen states. The state had started off as a bequest to Lord Baltimore, whose wife was Catholic. This set the tone for legal and social acceptance of so-called "papists". Over time, wealthy Catholics migrated to the state, creating a Catholic elite in a state which still had an overwhelmingly Protestant population. That caused some bad feelings at times, but that's beyond the scope of the book. If you're interested in hearing more about that angle, let me direct you to James Michener's Chesapeake. At times, when the Caton daughters lived in England, their Catholicism became an issue- for better or worse. When Marianne married Lord Wellesly, then Lord Governor of Ireland, the (predominantly Catholic) public loved her, but the Crown viewed her with suspicion.Leaving religion aside, the book is also fascinating for the power dynamics it paints between England at the peak of her power, and a very young America. After the rebellious colonies won their freedom, why didn't England try to reaquire them? The War of 1812, would have been a good opportunity to try, but it was really just a minor side consideration to the British, who at the time faced a challenge for supremecy on the seas from the combined naval forces of France, Spain and Holland. Geography also worked in America's favor, since even King George found it challenging to project sustained power across the Atlantic with the technologies of the day. Then there is the issue of trade... America of the early 1800's was the largest market in the world for English products. In 1820, the UK shrewdly normalized relations with their "American cousins" for the sake of funding Empire's many other adventures abroad. England's superpower status comes up repeatedly in this book. For one thing, it helps explain why three of the four Caton sisters up and moved to Britain, in an age where travel was perilous and the distance meant years of estrangement from their family back in Maryland. England was the center of the commercial, social and cultural universe, and these "Dollar Princesses" (as London high society called them) had the means to be a part of it. Why wouldn't they hang out with Rothschilds and royalty if they could? They could and they did. Traveling in these mega-rich circles, they repeatedly cross paths with another symbol of British supremecy: the Duke of Wellington. By all accounts, he's about the closest thing to a rockstar as society could offer in 1820. There's a whole bit about his relationship with Marianne Caton- did they or didn't they? Both were married to other people, but they spend a lot of time alone together, and some of their signs of affection raise eyebrows. For example, how many guys commission $17,000 portraits of their platonic female friends, to hang in their personal study, where a picture of their wife doesn't even adorn the walls? I mean.. whatever, they're consenting adults, but it seems to go against Marianne's otherwise prim and proper public image. This is what I'm talking about when I complain that the book keeps the readers too distant. Did Marianne have an affair with the Duke of Wellington, or was it really all innocent? Was she as proper as she seemed, or was the real Marianne wilder? It seems personal letters might reveal this, but if they do, Wake doesn't tell us. And what should we make of all the high society socializing and the star chasing, and the ostentatious luxury? Are Marianne, Bess and Louisa really the genuine article, true to the image they wished to project: New World nobility... well-bred daughters of privilege representing the new American republic with distinction in the royal courts of Europe? Or were they a bunch of decadent, self-indulgant, social-climbers? Without better access to their intimate thoughts, you could make a case either way. Maybe that's why I like the one outlying sister who was not drawn to the bright lights of London best: tough, practical Emily- the youngest of the four. Instead of living abroad, she stays in America and marries John McTavish- a young partner in the North West Company (NWC)... one of those early royal corporations like the British East India company. Early on in his career, his prospects were decent but modest, but I think he ended up being the best of the sisters' six husbands. Most of the others come across as dullard prettyboy bon vivants, but McTavish worked in the field (i.e. the wilderness) as well as the trading houses, directing company fur trapping and trading operations. This neccessitated Emily living in Montreal (it sounds like little more than a village here). When she got depressed being so far from her family, and couldn't take the harsh Canadian winters, he sacrificed his career to move down to Maryland with her. That seems like something a modern husband might (might) do, but pretty unusual for 1822. It turned out to be a lucky move for him, because the operation he was directing in present-day Manitoba got ambushed and everybody killed. Ambushed by who? Again, Wake goes off on a great tangent here about the insane competition among fur traders during this era. They literally were killing each other, going so far as to set traps to catch and kill each other like animals! It sounds like modern drug war stuff. Anyhow, McTavish survived, and shot further up the corporate ladder when his company was absorbed by the Hudson Bay Company (which still exists today, and owns a large portfolio of department stores and commercial real estate!) and moved operations to New York City. By the end of the book, he was worth millions. So Emily and John McTavish are hardworking and likable, and when grandfather Charles Carroll dies, he leaves Emily a much much larger estate than her sisters. Hurt feelings follow, and people blame the discrepency on Carroll's senility, but I don't buy it: while her sisters were absent from Maryland for years enjoying the London high life, Emily was taking care of her grandfather. I don't see why anybody would think it was a mistake that she got the lion's share of his estate. The sisters didn't see it that way, naturally, and the last part of the book is about the legal battle that followed. It didn't leave me with a very sympathetic view of Marianne (who was already insanely wealthy), Bess (likewise), or Louisa.And I guess that's a good note to end on. The little historic digressions are the best part of Sisters of Fortune. The book dwells heavily on Marianne, Bess and Louisa in London, and that doesn't do it for me at all, but between the money management, the snippets about British-American politics in the early 1800's, and all the crazy crap about fur traders, it was overall a decent read. Thanks, Elizabeth!