A Novelist’s Guide to Being a 20th Century Heiress

Vintage twenties lady with cocktail and lace fan © Anneka/Shutterstock.

Editor's Note:

A screenwriter and novelist, Natasha Solomons lives in Dorset, England, with her husband and young son. She is the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, and The Song of Hartgrove Hall.

When I was writing my latest novel, House of Gold starring Greta Goldbaum, a twenty-year-old heiress in Vienna, in 1911, I knew right away she was a rebel, chafing against social conventions and usually landing into trouble. As a novelist of historical fiction, I thought I’d offer her and other young heiresses some advice on how to navigate their way through the world of wealth successfully.

1. Keep it in the family

Many young (and not so young) gentleman will pursue you for your fortune as well as your wit, charm, and beauty. You may wish to consider marrying a second cousin to avoid this tedium. He will probably be richer still than you, so you can rest easy knowing that he at least is not marrying you for your money. The rest of the family will be content, reassured that the fortune is not going to be passing out of the family, inelegantly divided. Unfortunately, if the cousin in question is a foreigner, you may have to reconcile yourself to the French (ooh la, la) or the English (oh dear).

2. Take up a hobby

The family wealth is stupendous, eye-watering and needs tending and nurturing as carefully as any hot-house flower, but not by you. It is man’s work and absolutely not your concern. Your concern is spending it, ideally on some expensive, ludicrous hobby. Find one. It will help you avoid your new husband/cousin. Avoid embroidery and screen covering as hobbies. They are much too dull, and annoyingly, your new husband will approve. This must be avoided at all costs. Besides, as soon as one great aunt has requested a covered screen from you, you’ll be stuck doing one for every aged aunt in the family, and as already established, your family is enormous.

An excellent hobby to consider is gardening. If you employ lady gardeners, you will satisfyingly incense your new husband. Insist that female gardeners wear breeches. Remember to divert as many streams as possible, and replant mature trees. The object is extravagance, not parsimony. Create hidden corners as they are perfect for misbehavior.

If you really wish to inspire outrage in your husband, dig a flower bed with your own hands and appear at dinner without evening gloves, with dirt beneath your nails. Expect consequences.

3.  A womb of your own

Don’t kid yourself. Your womb is not your own. The stock exchanges across Europe rose on your engagement announcement. Two scions of a dynasty have married, and now everyone is waiting for the next heir. If you don’t want to spend the next dozen years pregnant and recovering while the great-aunts knit little pink and blue socks, you’ll need to be imaginative in the bedroom. A headache for a decade isn’t going to cut it. Marie Stope’s book, The Art of Married Love, with its suggestions of how to avoid children, isn’t due out for another two years, and refined ladies like you are certainly not encouraged to read a copy. Ignore everything your mother told you about being coy and submissive, and only rejecting him ‘one time in three.’ If you accept that, you’re going to end up with a pack of children, and you’ll never do the things you want with your own life. You need to get creative. I’m not going to lie; this one is going to be tricky.

4. Make friends with your mother-in-law

Your new husband will be working in London during the week, leaving you in the countryside, busy to indulge yourself in your new hobby (see point 2). Your new house is still being built and you and your new husband are living for the moment with your in-laws who luckily have a bedroom or twenty to spare. Your happiness will depend almost as much on your relationship with your mother-in-law as it will your new spouse. Remember, she too once was a bride from a foreign country, sent to marry a familial stranger. She too sought solace in fresh air, the English countryside and the delights of rhododendrons. You don’t have to like rhododendrons but listen politely. Raise your teacup and say “gosh” and “my goodness, how marvelous” a lot.

5. Employ a cook who can conjure the delights of home

When you’re missing your old life and your family, you will need comfort food. Obviously, you can’t cook. That would be absurd. You need to hire a chef who can make all those classics – apple strudels as light as air, the perfect clear noodle soup, Kaiser pancakes with cinnamon. Invite your brother to stay as often as you can. This will not only alleviate those pangs of homesickness but a girl like you needs allies.