Sisters of Fortune, By Jehanne Wake

Daughters of the revolution
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The Independent Culture

Sex and money are twin forces which drive so much of human endeavour. This was particularly apparent in the cauldron of the Regency period, which brewed the Industrial Revolution. With the splendid Sisters of Fortune, Jehanne Wake draws on unpublished material to describe the Caton sisters' lives. Marianne, Louisa, Emily and Bess cut such a dash through American and English society that the Duke of Wellington went weak at the knees. What's more, they were so alert to a changing world that, true to their grandfather's teaching, they cannily made a solid base from the ever-shifting stock market.

Not only does Wake chronicle their unfazed lives, but she illustrates the propulsions of social history – from the Canadian fur trade to the battle of Waterloo and the growth of the railways. Marianne was born in 1788; the others followed swiftly. The latest of five Maryland generations, they came from Annapolis and its plantations, with slaves an income for their grandfather, Charles Carroll. While remaining true to the Catholicism of his Irish ancestors, he had become a force in the Protestant revolutionary leadership, and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.

Carroll was hardly delighted when his daughter Mary chose as her husband the handsome and feckless Richard Caton, from a Liverpudlian mercantile family. As Wake puts it, "in the mind of the Chesapeake gentry he was seen as a shadowy figure without family ties – an adventurer, who had seized one of their marital prizes."

Marianne, Louise and Bess arrived in London in 1816, Emily having married a Scotsman engaged in Canada's beaver trade – which funded her Maryland life. Although Marianne had married into a family with Napoleonic links, her dull husband, Robert Patterson, was to die. In the meantime, Wellington always remained besotted by her.

Wake brilliantly delineates a relationship further complicated by Patterson's death from cholera in 1822. Marianne duly married Wellington's eldest brother, Richard Wellesley. In 1828 another widow, Louisa, went through social vicissitudes in her desire to marry the Marquess of Carmarthen. Even more startling is that Bess, her adept share-dealing incisively described, duly plumped for the sixtysomething Baron Stafford, who had little money and ten children. Jehanne Wake has uncovered, and animated, a whole new lost world.