Wake (Kleinwort Benson: The History of Two Families in Banking, 1997, etc.) delivers a multiple biography of the fortunate Caton sisters, who flourished in Maryland and abroad, mostly during the Regency period and its aftermath.
Part Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, part serious history of privileged women in the 19th century, the author’s account will evoke sundry responses—admiration, alarm, boredom, bemusement, gratitude. Wake begins in 1816 when three of the sisters—all gorgeous, rich and mysterious—arrived in London, where they quickly became fixtures on the city’s social scene. The author then returns to the sisters’ family history. They were the granddaughters of Charles Carroll, the only Roman Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, a man who owned vast tracts of land, managed multiple fecund investments and lived into his 90s. Son-in-law Richard Caton married into the family in 1787, siring the titular sisters. Although Wake provides a few paragraphs about the family’s slaves, she seems to excuse the owners, praising their practice of keeping slave families together and administering only occasional whippings. Throughout, she prefers words like servant to the nastier synonym, and she never deals adequately with the odious reality that these women’s busy lives rested on a foundation of profound human suffering. Wake cuts back and forth, sister to sister, relying on a rich archive of unpublished letters among them, sometimes emphasizing their financial savvy and extensive wardrobes, sometimes their misfortunes of the heart—Marianne had a decades-long “relationship” with the Duke of Wellington, though Wake cannot confirm that they…“did it.”
A diverse work that requires readers to have multiple personalities—historians, worshippers of wealth and royalty, investment bankers and fashion freaks.