Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Sisters of Fortune includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jehanne Wake. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Descendants of the first settlers in Maryland, the Caton sisters were four Southern belles expected to “marry a plantation.” But, unlike most women in their social sphere, their beloved grandfather Charles Carroll of Carrollton raised them to be independent thinkers, cultivating their interest in politics and money management. He encouraged them to step beyond the expectations and boundaries placed on early nineteenth century women. Beautiful and charming, clever and romantic, all four forged their own destinies in the midst of various personal, financial, political, and religious turmoil. Based on intimate unpublished letters, Sisters of Fortune offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of four loving sisters who were also extraordinary women.
TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. In the prologue, author Jehanne Wake writes: “Restricted as they were by law and convention, [the Caton sisters’] attempts to participate in the male-dominated world of politics and finance and to make their own decisions ran against the grain of their time and are still relevant today” (page xxii). Do you agree or disagree with this statement? If you agree, discuss the universality of the situations and choices the Caton sisters faced (theoretically, or by using an example from your own life). If you disagree, explain why.
2. The part titles contain one or more quotes. Read each and consider how it relates to the Caton sisters and to the section of the book it prefaces. Consider how each quote might be applied to today.
3. The author describes the girls’ relationship with their body maids, their “inseparable companions” (page 27), and later with their personal servants (for example, Marianne’s “cherished” Henny) in depth. Were you surprised by the perspective Wake provides on Maryland’s rich plantocracy’s attitude toward slaves and their relationship to the family (pages 27–30)? How did you react to the sisters’ apparent lack of interest in the Civil War, seeing as they were otherwise so politically minded? As the author notes, their letters make only a single reference to the Civil War, even though it occurred during their lifetime.
4. For three of the sisters, travel was seemingly in their blood. Their desire to remain abroad defined them as people, just as Emily’s desire to stay firmly planted in Maryland shaped her. How have the places you have visited or lived influenced you? Is there a place that holds a special place in your heart— either as one you’ve been to or one you’ve always wanted to visit?
5. How are the sisters different from one another? How are they similar? Do you have a favorite sister, one who you related to in particular?
6. Sisters of Fortune features many pictures from nineteenth century, as well as fragments of letters and other personal correspondence. How did these items shape or enhance your reading of the book? Did they add to your understanding of the setting and time period? Did they bring up additional questions about it? Was there a particular picture or letter that stood out?
7. All four sisters were determined to marry for love (or not at all). Do you believe that all four of them did so? Compare and contrast their various marriages. Who do you think made the best match? The worst? Why?
8. Louisa’s second marriage was to a man five years younger than she; Bess waited until she was well into middle age before marrying at all. How did the sisters’ attitudes about marriage differ from the conventions of the time?
9. Do you believe the sisters could have accomplished their goals just as easily without getting married, given that they had money of their own and did not need to be financially supported by their husbands? Why or why not?
10. How does each woman relate to her husband (or husbands)—as a friend? A lover? An impediment? An equal? Were you surprised by the way any of the husbands related to their wives?
11. The Caton sisters lived in a world where many people were motivated by their own ambitions, to the point of betrayal (for example, Betsy Bonaparte, or even Harriet Arbuthnot, who attempted to drive a wedge into the Duke of Wellington’s friendship with Marianne). Do you feel these women would have been stronger had they attempted to form real friendships—such as those the sisters had with one another—instead of reacting to another woman’s success with envy or spite? Or do you feel they lived in a time where such attitudes were customary?
12. “The Catholic question was lost last night. I feel in a great rage about it,” Bess fumes (page 166). Discuss the role religion played in the sisters’ lives, both on a personal level and in the context of the ongoing Catholic and Protestant conflicts. How strongly do you feel their religion shaped their identities in their own minds and in the minds of others? Were you surprised by some of the measures taken against Catholics? Do you think, without their staunch faith, the sisters might not have fared as well as they did? Has religion played a significant role in your life?
13. The girls grew up devoted to their grandfather, their “directing Planet” (page 261). Yet they spent most of their adult lives without seeing him, or their mother, who lived, as she so aptly put it, in “expectation from Packet to Packet” of letters (page 213). Do you think you could do as the Caton sisters did and go years without returning home or seeing certain members of your family? Do you think that the loss was worth it to them in terms of what they gained by staying abroad, or that Emily fared the best (in an emotional sense) by staying close to home?
14. The title of the novel is Sisters of Fortune. Do you agree that, indeed, the Caton sisters were sisters of fortune? Discuss why or why not.
A CONVERSATION WITH JEHANNE WAKE
In the prologue of the book, you discuss being captivated by a letter Bess had written, the germ from which this book grew. We get snippets of all the Caton sisters’ writing, but you must have read many more pieces than what ended up in the book. How was the voice of each sister different? Was it easy to create a picture of the time they were living in through their words?
Each sister’s voice emerges through a very distinctive style of expression in the letters. Marianne’s was tactful and uncritical except of political events, while Bess’s was much more revealing and emotional. Louisa’s style is easily distinguishable because her private notes, for example, are written in a blizzard of short phrases so that one can imagine her multitasking—dashing off instructions and news to her sisters while sitting in a carriage, giving her maid orders and talking to someone else all at the same time! It helped that the sisters and their friends really did write in the language of Jane Austen’s letters and novels so that I could immediately picture them in that period. The sisters use phrases such as “beyond everything delightful”[Bess] and “ so gratifying” and “the most agreeable society” [Marianne].
As you unraveled their story, did you find yourself relating to or sympathizing most with any one sister in particular?
Although I related to each sister at different parts of the story, I started out by sympathized most with Marianne but by loving Louisa in particular—she was so game and vivacious, brilliant at overcoming male opposition and getting people to carry out her philanthropic schemes while all the time hiding her misery at being childless.
This is your third book. Was the process and/or experience of writing Sisters of Fortune new or different in any way? Did it present more of a challenge?
Yes is the short answer! I had to master a period of American history and historical sources with which I was unfamiliar. It was certainly challenging at first. As I became immersed in the Caton sisters’ story, however, I felt that their family letters were a history lesson in themselves: they are full of the political, economic, and social events of the day.
If you had one question to ask the Caton sisters, what would it be?
It’s very difficult to confine myself to one question when there are four sisters! Perhaps why did Marianne not confide in the Duke of Wellington earlier about Lord Wellesley’s attentions?
What kind of research did you do for Sisters of Fortune? Did you travel to Maryland, or the various places in England and France the sisters visited or lived?
I started researching for Sisters of Fortune with a diagram of everyone the Caton sisters knew, their family and friends, and created a time line. Then I searched for primary sources—their letters, journals, and diaries in public and private collections—and read memoirs about them. It’s like fitting pieces into an enormous jigsaw puzzle of their lives. I believe, like many biographers, in the power of place, so I followed their letters to Maryland and visited the places they lived in and knew such as Carroll House in Annapolis; Dumbarton House in Washington, D.C.; and Apsley House in London; Hornby Castle in Yorkshire; and Dublin Castle and Phoenix Park in Dublin.
While doing your research, did you come across any information, either about the sisters or the time period itself that shocked you? Were you aware of any part of their story before you began your research, or was the entire writing process a series of discoveries for you?
I try to remain completely open-minded about what I find when I research a book. I was not so much shocked as distressed about how mercury-containing calomel was dispensed in America to treat female patients in general and to Marianne and Louisa in particular, as it caused infertility.
I only discovered the Caton sisters through reading a letter written by Bess, so the entire process was a series of wonderful transatlantic discoveries for me.
Of course, many letters and papers from the time did not survive, and as a historian, there is only so much you can glean from the documents that do remain. Were there pieces of their story you were forced to surmise or fill in for yourself? As a writer, how do you make the decision of what to include and what to leave out?
I was lucky that so much of the Caton sisters’ lives was documented, but I also know that lots was unsaid in their letters so that sometimes intriguing puzzles remained unsolved. I wanted to know much more about Henny Johnstone, for instance, and about the sisters’ attitude to slavery, but because they almost never mentioned, it I could never learn what they thought—and as a historian, I couldn’t forfeit the trust of my readers and make it up!
In terms of selection of material I’m guided by “show, don’t tell” and have only one revealing anecdote rather than three! I did love writing about the sisters’ wonderful clothes and jewels, some of which were sketched in Louisa’s little black doodling notebooks, and I included them when they added to rather than distracted from the story.
What led you to the path of writing historical biographies? Were you a history buff in school? Is there one person or time period in particular you would love to write about?
I’ve always loved history and, yes, I was a bit of a history buff at school. When a friend asked me to help her with researching Queen Victoria’s family, I was soon enthralled by the process of finding documents and writing up the results to tell the story of a life. So I combined the two by writing historical biographies!
My favorite time period is the early nineteenth century, the early Federal period, when so much was changing in America and Europe, and I hope to revisit it in a future book.
What is your next project?
I’m pursuing an idea for another Anglo-American book, as I’m gripped by the history of the connections between America and Britain, though this time my period is the early twentieth century.
Who are your writing influences? What are you currently reading?
At school I read everything by Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen, which left me with an abiding love of the early nineteenth century, confirmed by rereads of two favorite books, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Biographers who have influenced my writing are Richard Holmes, whose Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer charts his physical journeys into his subjects’ lives, and Claire Tomalin who gets inside her characters’ skins—be it Samuel Pepys; Jane Austen; or Nelly Ternan, the invisible mistress of Dickens.
I’m currently reading historian David McCullough’s The Greater Journey and learning more about Americans in Paris, 1830–1900, and French influences on American culture.
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. While abroad, Marianne, Bess, and Louisa attend countless balls and dances. Jehanne Wake writes: “The most fashionable dances were the waltz, polka, mazurka, and polonaise, and the officers passed a certain amount of time practicing their dance routines” (page 129). Sign up for a dance class as a group and learn the basics of the waltz or polka. Or just have a casual dance lesson using YouTube (or a member’s expertise) to learn.
2. “Allegiance was also conveyed through the language of flowers. . . . At the Tuileries the ancien nobilité looked askance at violets, the favorite flowers of Napoleon” (page 127). There is such a thing as the language of flowers: find a flower-language dictionary online or in a bookstore and have each member list his or her favorite flowers and look up their significance. What is your ideal bouquet, if you were selecting flowers solely for their meaning?
3. Portraits were a popular gift to give family and friends at the time. Bring a camera to a book club meeting and take some modern-day portraits of yourselves. Or try creating miniatures, like the one of Marianne that the Duke kept with him always. Exchange them as gifts at your next gathering.
4. The Carroll/Caton family kept a “little Irish Manuscript Book,” which contained their genealogies, “dotted about” with Gaelic names (page 190). Have each member research his or her family’s genealogy and present the findings to the group.