My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin
Ever since Henry James’s verbose tales of class warfare and fiscal machinations in nineteenth-century Britain and America found their first readers, stories of culture clashes between ambitious nouveau riche Yanks and their patch-protecting, old-monied European cousins have abounded.
The latest specimen is Daisy Goodwin’s frothy, engaging My Last Duchess, a debut novel she has taken a while to get around to, having established a successful career as a TV producer, predominantly with the BBC, after gaining a history degree from Cambridge University.
Her heroine, the woman who becomes the titular Duchess, is Cora Cash, an exceedingly wealthy American heiress coming of (marriageable) age in 1893 Rhode Island. Cora’s life is rigidly controlled by Mrs Cash, who holds lofty goals for her daughter and is unforgiving in the measures she takes to achieve them; when we first meet Cora, she is strapped from forehead to knee into a steel spine straightener designed to improve her posture.
After an early flirtation with another rich young American, Teddy van der Leyden, is thwarted, Cora, on a visit to Dorset in early 1894, meets cute with Ivo, Duke of Wareham, and marriage ensues.
Ivo attained his title upon the death of his father, having already endured the loss of his brother in an incident that he declines to discuss with Cora. Indeed, once the honeymoon glow has worn off it becomes apparent that Ivo is hiding rather a lot from his wife, and his abrupt departure for a months-long trip to Africa during her pregnancy intensifies her misgivings.
Into the fray Goodwin brings Ivo’s mother, known as the Double Duchess since her swift remarriage to a peer of the same caste as her first husband, and two colourful and narratively crucial characters, the vile Sir Odo (referred to in servants’ quarters as ‘Odious’) and his ravishing, inscrutable wife, Lady Charlotte Beauchamp.
The resulting events make for a pacy and absorbing read, with the appealing plot enhanced by the quality and extent of Goodwin’s research – she must, as a producer, have become accustomed to doing her homework, and that practice pays dividends in My Last Duchess.
There is the elaborate finery of the time – Cora enters married life with no fewer than 60 new dresses, handmade in Paris; two women seated next to one another at a dinner struggle to face one another in conversation due to the enormity of their fashionable mutton-chop sleeves – and the smaller accoutrements of a woman of Cora’s class, including a monogrammed dressing case whose contents are carefully listed.
Though the complement of supporting characters is a strong one, the rightful star is the Duchess herself, and it is entertaining to see what Cora is made of as she evolves from self-obsessed ingenue to wronged wife.
Compounding her burden is the task of managing her husband’s ancestral estate, Lulworth, which is less a grand home of the aristocracy than a hothouse of political manipulation and ancient loyalties in which Cora’s Americanness is viewed as an insurmountable handicap. In dealing to her foes, she may prove to be less unlike her fearsome mother than she – or we – thought.
The novel’s end, while not premature, is rather abrupt, and I hope Goodwin feels there is more story to be told. I don’t think the Duchess is quite done yet.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Previously reviewed on coast.co.nz