In the run up to a certain wedding, a romantic book with a little bit of an edge…My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin. I picked up this book when it first came out in hardback, as I have seen some poetry programmes presented by the author, and thought it may be worth reading as it was based on the true stories of the “dollar princessess” who came over to Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their aim was to marry a title in return for a vast fortune to be ploughed into vast but crumbling mansions and declining family fortunes.
I had read Persephone books’ offering on this subject, The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which I greatly enjoyed, at least the second half which took on more energy and for me, more humanity.
As to this book, I was interested to see that it was on at least one tv book club list. I was surprised to see that it had been so popular, as it is a good book, but not exactly mainstream. It is historically accurate I’ve no doubt; Goodwin was involved with If these Walls on tv and the book which I have mentioned and will post about soon. I spotted at least one fact that appears in the novel about the innovation that was brought in by one American bride. It has a lot of research behind it, and there is an impressive amount of detail about the American situation that Cora, the heroine of the novel, comes from. Britain is a contrast of style, expectations and rules. Cora is seen as challenged by the people, places and role she is expected to impress and fulfill.There in jealousy, crisis and Cora is pushed and pulled by emotions that nothing in her pampered lifestyle has prepared her for. She is not free, and her loyal maid Bertha is the only one who realises what she is going through.
But this is essentially a romantic fantasy. There are goodies and baddies, dismay, bitterness and anger, but I really struggled to feel sympathetic. Cora is very, very rich, and imprisoned by the expectations around her, but this is not a book in real time. She is exiled to the country, but I felt that her sorrow and frustration is not real. I felt more sympathy with her maid, but maybe that is the intention. I never felt that Ivo is a developed character of any depth; Georgette Heyer may have many semi distant heroes, but she does reveal what makes them tick and makes them real. Ivo is just a character who needs to be there and he only seems to have a flicker of realism at the very end of the novel.
I’m a great fan of historical novels, and often read very insubstantial books by Laurens et al which work to a formula. I wanted to enjoy this book, I read it carefully, but I could not really engage with it. It is good that it could be published and pushed as a book with no real sex, violence or despair. But I wish that the characters were more real, the ending more convincing, and in brief that it was a better book. I hope that Goodwin writes another soon, and that she goes for the historical genre again, because she so nearly achieved what I think that this book set out to do. I would buy it, and read in hope!