British television producer Daisy Goodwin turns her fascination with history into a captivating tale of love, class, and good old American know-how for her first novel, American Heiress.
Brooklyn-born Jenny Jerome, who married Lord Randolph Churchill and was the mother of Winston Churchill, was one of America's most famous exports to Britain's upper class. Did she play into your creation of Cora Cash?
She was the prototype, but the book was inspired by Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the duke of Marlborough in 1895, the year Cora gets married. When I went to Blenheim Palace, where she lived, I saw this famous picture of her with her family. She looked so miserable. She got the title, but she hadn't got happiness.
Though the book is set in the late 19th century, the obsession with celebrity is particularly pertinent for modern readers.
I started writing this book during the economic boom. We were all writing and reading about these celebrities, like Paris Hilton. The Gilded Age was the same. Heiresses like Consuelo were followed around like all the stars today get followed around. People wanted to look like them, and the National Enquirer of its day wrote about them right down to the underwear they had. I loved the fact that there is really nothing new under the sun.
Cora grows more thoughtful and sympathetic even as she's scorned by everyone around her. What about her appealed to you?
My favorite literary heroines are always the ones who are flawed: Scarlet O'Hara, Becky Sharp. Cora is very spoiled but not free. She thinks she's wonderful but finds herself in this new world where no one thinks she's wonderful. She's changed as a woman and can see there is life and there is shame and sometimes you have to compromise. I try to show that in her relationship with the duke.
The subplot of Cora's maid Bertha and her interracial relationship brings an upstairs-downstairs quality to the story line, though Bertha seems to fare better with her English counterparts than Cora does with hers. What interested you about the contrast?
What I thought was interesting about Bertha was that, now, color is the ultimate divider in society and makes a huge difference in the way you're treated. But in England at that time, color was not as important as class. We think of Britain as a stuffy society, but Bertha was given high status in Britain as maid to a duchess; in Newport, she has to eat with the other maids. I thought that was fascinating. While Cora comes to England much more circumscribed in her actions and is restricted by these ridiculous rules, Bertha is set free by them.
There's a hilarious scene where Cora's mother goes up in flames at a party in an over-the-top wardrobe malfunction. You've said you based that on your research. Can you explain?
There is a picture of Consuelo's mother dressed like the Spirit of Electricity. It didn't burst into flames, but I loved the idea. It's hubris, isn't it?