Isn’t reading fantastic? Yesterday, I was reviewing a book that struck me as a highly unusual but surprisingly accessible read, and today I’m discussing a novel that was a composite of all sorts of familiar historical costume drama plotlines but that was a very enjoyable comfort read. Two books from opposite ends of the spectrum, that simply could not be more different to one another, but both with much to recommend them.
If you can have a literary historical potboiler, Daisy Goodwin’s My Last Duchess is it. Take the opening, for instance, in which Mrs Cash, rich and tyrannical mother, makes the final preparations for the last and greatest ball of the season in her Newport mansion, at which 800 guests will admire not only the cages of gold-painted hummingbirds, ready to be released at midnight, but Mrs Cash in a wildly extravagant dress covered in tiny lightbulbs. When we hear the electrician warn her that she must not keep them illuminated for more than five minutes at a time, we have a little tingle of schadenfreude at the catastrophe that inevitably lies ahead. Meanwhile, her pretty daughter, Cora Cash, is also preparing for the ball, strapped into a steel spine adjustor to perfect her posture. Cora is well aware that she represents her mother’s ticket to the ultimate social prize, an aristocratic husband from England, whence they are destined in the coming months. But Cora, desperate to be free of her overbearing mother, has her own desires, in the form of childhood friend, Teddy Van Der Leyden. Teddy, however, is longing for an artistic career in Paris, and is fully aware that however fond he is of Cora, his mother would never approve of marriage into one of the nouveau riche families, when his own stretches back respectably through the generations.
So you can see the sort of thing we’re dealing with here. It’s fun, and it’s light and frothy and it takes place in the hyperreal 19th century so familiar to us from sumptuous television dramas. Daisy Goodwin has done her research and the pages are packed with details of the clothes the women wear, and the complicated but rather fascinating rules of etiquette that govern the upper echelons of both American and British society. Inevitably, Cora does not get her (romantic) way, but is shipped off to England, where a riding accident lands her, literally, on the grounds of an impoverished English Duke whom Mrs Cash recognizes instantly as perfect wedding material. A hasty marriage takes place, and that very hastiness means that Cora walks into her new life dangerously innocent of the Duke’s past and of his present. The narrative at the heart of the book is one of a sentimental education, as Cora must grow up and leave behind her life as a spoiled and privileged child, to take her place in a complicated and sometimes hostile society, learning how to use her money wisely and coming to an understanding of what she really wants.
The novel reminded me a great deal of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Shuttle, which was about American heiresses coming over the pond to save the ailing British aristocracy with their shiny new dollars, and in fact the book is named as one of Goodwin’s sources. The author based the character of Cora Cash on a real life counterpart, the heiress Consuela Vanderbilt, who brought a $100 million dowry to her marriage with the Duke of Marlborough, although apparently the union was not a happy one. If there was one character I couldn’t get on with in this novel, it was the hero, Ivo, Duke of Wareham. If Americans in the novel tend to be represented as forward and a bit flashily vulgar with their cash, the Brits come off much worse, as emotionally constipated and really rather unpleasant with it. Ivo is British manhood at its proud and repressed worst and I wished he’d shown a few qualities deserving of Cora’s affection. There were lots of little places where Daisy Goodwin could have done more with her characterization; why Cora Cash falls for the Duke is a mystery to me, the relationship between Cora and her half-caste maid, Bertha is left a bit undone although it has much potential, Teddy is a fine character left underutilized, and the influence of mothers, particularly demanding and possessive ones, is hinted at but could have been brought out in much richer and more interesting ways. Plus, the ending feels rushed, as endings to these sorts of books so often do. But to criticize this book feels a bit churlish; it doesn’t pretend to be serious literature (probably gunning for the Phillippa Gregory end of the market), it’s a bubble bath of a book, a jolly lose-yourself-in-something-faintly-ridiculous-but-familiar sort of book. And it’s certainly one up from the trash level. It’s quite well written and Goodwin has an excellent eye for the set piece scenes as well as the piquant detail. When the weather is dreary and life is a tad dull, and you don’t want to read anything you have to mentally chew, this does very nicely.