Times are hard all over, we’re told, but at the very top, times are just as they’ve always been. Below that, there’s less to go round, which means — let’s be frank — people finding ever-more-ingenious ways to dip into the big pot above. It is human nature for people to employ all their talents in pursuit of wealth, to use whatever it takes, and to the victor the spoils.
And that goes for women and men alike. Despite the efforts of the old-boys’ clubs in finance, politics and other establishment professions, women’s earning power is only increasing, and that means the male-female power ratio is changing. In other words, male gold diggers are operating in your area now. You may know one, or be having a relationship with one. A few of them may be con men, like the Swiss investment banker Helg Sgarbi, who seduced BMW heiress and Germany’s richest woman Susanne Klatten and then blackmailed her; or Peter Chan, feng-shui consultant to Nina Wang, once the richest woman in Asia, who claimed to be her sole beneficiary but was found to have forged her signature on the alleged will. A few may be clowns like Alfonso Díez, the 62-year-old toyboy of the 87-year-old Duchess of Alba (current worth somewhere between $800 million and $5 billion); or Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt, the German policeman’s son who had himself adopted by a hereditary princess and then married Zsa Zsa Gabor. But most of them are just men, doing what some men have been doing for centuries.
In days gone by, women didn’t have the power to move their social position: it was granted to them by their fathers or husbands. Now, women are not only more likely to inherit money directly, but they could well be making more money than the men in their social circle. Figures from the UK’s Centre for Work-Life Policy show that the number of women outearning their husbands is now in the millions. This has resulted, quite naturally, in the rise of the trophy husband. Where previously a successful woman felt the need to find a man as successful as herself, now both sexes have begun to adjust to the idea that she can simply choose a man she finds attractive, just as successful men have been doing for centuries. Rather than having the affair with the tennis coach of old clichés, she can marry him. Men of the old school have a problem with this, but most of us have realised that it’s fair enough and that we’re going to have to shape up — literally. Women want someone who looks good on their arm at a social function and who can turn on the charm, and if they’re the ones paying for the new suit (or even the firm abs, courtesy of that nice man in Harley Street), then that’s fine.
"Where previously a successful woman felt the need to find a man as successful as herself, now both sexes have begun to adjust to the idea that she can simply choose a man she finds attractive."
There are plenty of men looking for
that kind of position. It beats working for a living, after
all. And in many ways, it’s back to business as
usual. Our reflex may be to think of the gold digger as a woman,
but the boys were in there first. Change it to ‘fortune hunter’ and
the whole enterprise becomes instantly more masculine. Literature
is full of roguish fortune-hunters, from Petruchio in Shakespeare’s
The Taming of the Shrew in the 16th century, to Sir Lucius
O’Trigger in Sheridan’s The Rivals in the 18th. By the time
we get to Jane Austen in the 19th century, the idea of marriage as
a business contract is as powerful as George Wickham’s desire for
Georgiana Darcy’s £30,000 in Pride and Prejudice. Charles
Dickens, too, gave us a parade of fortune hunters. Often they were
used to satirical ends, such as the deluded Alfred Lammle in Our
Mutual Friend, who secures the hand of Sophronia Akersham, only
to find out that she was after his (equally non-existent) fortune
But there is also the spirited and undeniably practical defence of the mercenary approach in Barnaby Rudge. “All men are fortune-hunters, are they not?” asks Sir John Chester of his son Edward. “The law, the church, the court, the camp — see how they are all crowded with fortune-hunters, jostling each other in the pursuit… You ARE one; and you would be nothing else, my dear Ned, if you were the greatest courtier, lawyer, legislator, prelate, or merchant, in existence.”
Sir John is only telling young Ned the way of the world. Until all too recently, the wealth of a bride was a consideration that ranked alongside any other factor in her desirability. The ancient concept of the dowry may have evolved into the more euphemistic concept of ‘making a good marriage’, but it endured well into the 20th century. In her new book, The English in Love, historian Claire Langhamer argues that the romantic idealisation of marriage became commonplace only amid the prosperity that came after World War II. “The willingness to marry for love above all else was strongly linked to economic security,” she says. Love is a luxury, in other words — and not such a great basis for wedded bliss, either. Langhamer links it to the rise in divorce rates, adding, “A matrimonial model based upon the transformative power of love carried within it the seeds of its own destruction.”