My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

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My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Heiress American Cora meets impoverished, enigmatic English Duke. Better written than it sounds, with themes of snobbery, sexuality and an underlying menace to enhance the aristocratic atmosphere.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Headline Review
ISBN: 978-0755348060

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There's plenty to enjoy in this debut novel by Daisy Goodwin. And first up is the elegant cover. I wanted to read the book as soon as I saw the photograph: a beautiful girl with great presence about her. The thoughtful look on her face and lack of ring on her finger hinted at an intriguing story. It was also a fair bet that this historical fiction, set in the nineteenth century, was about a romance, suitable or unsuitable. So the cover complemented the story – a quite unusual feat, judging by other offerings I have seen recently.

And then after that great cover... was I disappointed? Well, I think the obvious comment about this novel is that it's a good read. Within a couple of pages I was hooked, and I finished the story in two longish sessions. It's quite reminiscent of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, though with enough difference to make it enjoyable rather than annoying.

Cora turned out to be an attractive heroine: spirited, headstrong, a little selfish and with enough money to cause a stir every time she entered a room. New money provided a lavish lifestyle for Mr and Mrs Cash with their only daughter, Cora, heiress to their bakery fortune. The story started in America just before Cora's Coming Out ball, and the conspicuous consumption depicted wouldn't be out of place in Hello magazine. Curiosity about the inside life of the super-rich had me fascinated. Many detailed little touches brought the Victorian period to life. I particularly liked the gilded hummingbirds in their cage: a motif for young women, marketed for advantageous marriages by their mothers.

A mutually profitable practice of the period was for English aristocrats to marry American heiresses, who baled out their impoverished estates in return for a title. It didn't take long after her arrival in England for the beautiful Cora to net the ninth Duke of Wareham. She conveniently forgot her first beau, Teddy, in her haste to wed the enigmatic Ivo. Oh dear, the happy couple did sound a little Barbara Cartland-ish at times, but it's a difficult trap to avoid completely.

Other characters strengthened the writing. Mrs Cash, Cora's overbearing and snobbish mother, was outrageous and convincing. Bertha, Cora's maid, was thoughtfully placed to explore issues of colour and servants in post-Civil War America and class-conscious England.

I most enjoyed Daisy Goodwin's minor characters. There were some wonderfully imagined vignettes which lifted the writing to a higher level. One was the brief appearance of the little milliner, inconsequential to the story, but beautifully formed; I was sad that she never reappeared. Another was Prince 'Tum-Tum', in suspended animation and filling his aimless life with pleasure and food until his mother, Queen Victoria, died. I liked the well-honed picture of a malicious philanderer who gives Cora politically sound advice. There were multiple viewpoints leaving the reader all but omnipotent; although not to my taste, this suits the Victorian style of the novel.

Ivo was a rather frustrating character. The hints of hidden secrets and his ambivalent behaviour towards Cora gave an opening to lift the story out of romantic mush and into the strongly psychological, and I was sorry that the author didn't take the chance. By the time Ivo revealed his secrets, they came as little surprise to me.

The title comes from Robert Browning's poem My Last Duchess in which the Duke reveals to an emissary that he has ordered his late wife's disposal because of her sexual indiscretions (which may or may not be in his imagination). There's certainly a nod to Browning's tale in the plot. But in this book, as in late Victorian society, men had a sexual history that their wives, young women barely out of their teens, were expected to tolerate. A feeling of menace developed in the story, underpinned by the domination and repressed sexuality of several characters, so that I anticipated an outstanding climax. I'm afraid I felt a little let down as the characters drifted away from me.

In spite of my criticisms, I'm impressed by Daisy Goodwin's writing. She has the ability to conjure up an authentic world, people it with believable characters and write a good story. Her conceptualisations are very, very imaginative; her historical research is spot-on. I'm in no doubt that Library readers will enjoy this standard historical romance. But if Daisy Goodwin can relax more into her own creative style, my hunch is that she has the potential to produce some very exciting fiction in the future ... and sorry, Daisy, that this last sentence sounds like a school report!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Suggestions for further reading: If you enjoyed this novel, I think you might also like The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan, a well written historical novel based on the real story of bringing hydro-electricity to the United States in the early twentieth century.

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