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Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The American Heiress

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The American Heiress

A Novel

by Daisy Goodwin

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin X
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
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  • Paperback:
    Mar 2012, 496 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Whitmore Funk
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Beyond the Book

This article relates to The American Heiress

Print Review

During the Gilded Age (1865-1914), America experienced a boom in railroad tycoons and oil barons, and a great deal of wealth was concentrated in the real estate of Newport, Rhode Island. Wealthy families like the Vanderbilts and Astors flocked to Newport each summer, and as their appreciation for the New England coast grew, they built opulent mansions that were affectionately referred to as summer "cottages." These stately homes are immortalized in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, from which Daisy Goodwin draws inspiration for The American Heiress.

Rhode Island map Many of the Newport mansions are constructed from imported Italian marble and are designed in the Beaux-Arts style (named after the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris where it was taught), which features grandiose architectural structures, ornate decorative detailing, and large stairways, arches and balconies. Beaux-Arts architecture was heavily influenced by the French Châteauesque style, inspired by country homes built during the Renaissance in France. Richard Morris Hunt, the designer of The Breakers (a Vanderbilt mansion in Newport, pictured below left), was responsible for popularizing this type of architectural design in the United States in the late 1800s.

The Breakers Marble House Kingscote
The Breakers The Marble House Kingscote

The Gilded Age preference for ostentatious art and architecture is often thought to be demonstrative of Thorstein Veblen's theory of "conspicuous consumption," the idea that money is spent in order to demonstrate wealth and gain social status. But historians from the Preservation Society of Newport County argue that the aesthetic choices of the time reflect a far more complex and complicated relationship to goods and wealth than simply the desire to indicate status. By reading The American Heiress, we're given a chance to imagine what those inner conflicts were possibly like.

The Great Hall The Breakers, library The Breakers, kitchen

The three images directly above show the interior of The Breakers. The video below takes us on a tour of the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island.


Map image by NordNordWest
Mansion images (from left to right): The Breakers by UpstateNYer, The Marble House by Daderot, Kingscote by Daniel Case
Images from inside The Breakers (from left to right): the Great Hall, the library, the kitchen by UpstateNYer

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