Marrying an Heiress- Gilded Prostitution

No painting in the current 100 Masters show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery intrigued me as much as the portrait of Caroline Fitzgerald. There was something about her serious, almost melancholy face that made me want to know more about her so I did some research.

Caroline was nineteen years old in 1887 when her portrait was done by artist Edward Burne-Jones.  Two years later she became engaged to Lord Edward Fitzmaurice.  He was a member of the British aristocracy and Caroline was one of many rich American girls who became saviors for struggling British families who needed to augment their depleted incomes with the dowries of wealthy wives. The American families in return liked the idea of being connected to the British nobility.  In this case Caroline was considered fortunate to be marrying Lord Edward because his brother’s wife was the daughter of one of Queen Victoria’s cousins, thus giving Caroline and her family a somewhat distant, but still easily traceable connection with the royal family.

 I was able to find an article about Caroline’s engagement in the New York Times, July 10, 1889 paper and the headline read  To Wed A Lord.  Caroline was 21 at the time her upcoming marriage was announced, while her fiancée was 43.  The article mentioned she was one of many American girls who would be wed to British nobility during the upcoming social season.

I was unable to find a photo of Caroline’s future husband but did find a cartoon of him which appeared in Vanity Fair magazine with the caption “He doesn’t underestimate himself.” 

Edward doesn’t seem to have been the nicest man.  An October 24, 1909 article in the New York American called How Titled Foreigners Catch An American Heiress  warns American girls about scheming, heiress hunting European men and gives Lord Fitzmaurice as an example of one such villain who “shut his wife up in a gloomy house.” 

Poor Caroline.  Her engagement notice tells us she was well-educated and accomplished. She graduated from Yale College, the predecessor of Yale University, and was well-known in literary circles for her poems, translations and classical scholarship. She was a member of the American Oriental Society and had studied Sanskrit. 

If you look closely you can see in the portrait she’s holding a book of poetry in her hands. In 1889 Caroline published her own book of poetry called Venetia Victrix and Other Poems. She dedicated it to poet Robert Browning and I found a letter Caroline sent to Robert Browning in August of 1889. It is in the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.

Caroline was married to Lord Fitzmaurice for five years and after that was able to obtain an annulment on the grounds that the marriage had never been consummated. Hers was one of three transatlantic unions between wealthy American girls and European nobles that were annulled. Her marriage is sited as an example of ‘gilded prostitution’ in a book of the same name by Maureen Montgomery. (Basically American families were selling their daughters to earn admittance into the British aristocracy, and cloaking (gilding) the act in the aura of respectability with the institution of marriage.) Luckily some happiness was in store for Caroline. 

She went to Italy and met Fillippo De Filippi a doctor, accomplished mountaineer, explorer, geographer and writer.  They married and lived in a Tuscan villa nestled in the slopes above Florence. She traveled with her husband to many places including Russia, Turkestan and the Caucasus. An article in the Geographical Journal which calls Fillippo one of the foremost travel writers of his time, talks about how Caroline explored the Orient with him. Their journey resulted in a highly descriptive travel journal that in particular gives a detailed account of the life of the Russian aristocracy before the Revolution. Looking up Filippi’s writings online I found that many of them list Caroline Fitzgerald as the English translator. They must have worked closely together. 

Sadly Caroline died in 1911 in Italy but not before she’d had many adventures with her second husband. He said after her death, “my life is broken and has lost all significance.” Obviously he must have really loved her. I’m glad Caroline was able to find some happiness after her disastrous first marriage. 

 Caroline’s portrait now on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery belongs to the University of Toronto and was given to them by her brother Augustine’s widow. Caroline’s family did have some Canadian connections. Her  father William John Fitzgerald was a member of the first class of students at Upper Canada College in Ontario.  He went to study law at Trinity College in Dublin and returned to Toronto to practice. In the 1860’s he moved to New York City where he married Mary A. White, the daughter of a rich merchant. They had three children. Their eldest was Caroline and she had two brothers Augustine and Edward. Caroline’s parents maintained homes in both New York and London, England. Interestingly, Caroline’s brother-in-law from her first marriage, Henry Fitzmaurice was once the Governor General of Canada. 

Death-in-the-Age-of-SteamJust one more foot note. The Burne-Jones portrait of Caroline appears on the cover of a historical crime novel published in 2004 called Death In The Age Of Steam.  The Toronto Globe and Mail book reviewer said Caroline’s portrait was perfect for the cover of this meandering story of love and death. 

If you enjoyed this post you might also like…….

Why the 100 Masters Is Worth A Visit

Agnes McDonald’s Railroad Adventure

Bride of New France- The King’s Daughters


Filed under Art, Books, History

2 responses to “Marrying an Heiress- Gilded Prostitution

  1. Ann

    Interesting! I’d noticed this portrait in the gallery, as well, but didn’t take the time to check into any of the art of interest. Thanks for doing the work for me!

  2. thanks for the background…this portrait was one of my favorites at the exhibit.

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