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Carol Wallace book inspired "Downton Abbey"

"To Marry An English Lord" by Carol Wallace and Gail Gail MacColl (Workman). Credit: Handout /

Most authors are lucky to have one hot book to talk up in public these days. And then there's Carol Wallace. Her most recent novel is "Leaving Van Gogh," which Publishers Weekly hailed as "an intense look at the last months of Vincent Van Gogh" from the perspective of his art-loving personal physician.

Now a much earlier Wallace title, "To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery" (Workman, $15.95), is back, and bigger than ever. Co-written with Gail MacColl and originally published in 1989, this nonfiction account of the wave of American heiresses who, from 1870 to 1910, snagged noble British husbands has just been republished.

The reason? "Downton Abbey" and creator Julian Fellowes.

Fellowes told The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, that he was reading "To Marry an English Lord" when he was approached to do a television miniseries, Wallace recently explained by phone from New York.

But you don't have to have watched "Downton Abbey" -- in which Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), a fictionalized version of the book's American heiresses, still has mother-in-law problems more than 20 years after she rode to the estate's financial rescue -- to enjoy Wallace and MacColl's book. With its gimlet eye for history, social mores, family squabbles and, of course, fashion trends, the book is an edifying, entertaining romp through a remarkably important time on both sides of the Atlantic. This is a condensed version of our conversation.

Is anything different in this version of the book?

There's a new cover, but the interior is entirely the same. What we were writing about happened 100 years ago, so nothing's really changed.

Well, nothing except that a lot more of us are unbelievably fascinated by the subject matter now. But how did you two fasten on this little-known subject back then?

We were both reading a lot of Edith Wharton and Henry James. It was Gail's idea that this American heiress thing they wrote [fiction] about was a real thing and we could write about it.

It's like a 400-page history class -- with lots of breaks for recess.

A friend of mine made a point, which I quite liked, that it's basically serious history packaged as froth. There's a lot of solid underpinning -- we did read these enormous tomes about the English agricultural depression of the 1870s and Parliamentary law and Edward VII. The big historical pattern explored is legitimate, and we are wildly interested in the cut of [ladies'] dresses!


Like Lady Cora, many of these real-life heiresses helped save ancient titles and estates with their bottomless pots of nouveau American money. Was that the only reason British nobles married them?

It wasn't always about the money. In America, the notion of romantic marriage was of very current value in the late 1800s. Among the English aristocracy, [marriage] was more a strategic thing. It was done to unite lands, add money to the coffers and provide heirs for the estate. Yes, you wanted a woman you could stand to see at dinner and have sex with. But does she have to be your "soul mate"? Absolutely not.

Do you like "Downton Abbey"?

Oh, are you kidding? Oh, yeah, I love it deeply! Well, the pacing drives me insane. Sometimes way too much happens in an episode. Still, c'mon . . . what's not to love about it?

Fellowes wrote a letter to The New York Times, urging that anyone interested in "Downton Abbey" and that era read your book. Have you ever heard from him personally?

I have! I think I sent him a thank-you email after that letter. I sing in my church choir and I was sitting there one Sunday morning waiting for rehearsal to start. I looked on my phone and there was an email back from Julian Fellowes. What a mensch.

Has he asked you for any advice, tips for the upcoming season 3?

[Laughing] No, no, they have plenty of experts for that. Besides, they're up to 1920 now, so they're well beyond my era of expertise.

Nothing to offer?

Well, I'm willing to speculate like everyone else. On the Internet, there have been stills of Shirley MacLaine [a new cast member, playing Lady Cora's mother from America] in a massive car, driving up to Highclere Castle. Obviously, the faceoff between Shirley and Maggie [Smith] is highly anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic!


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