Robert Browning wrote ‘My Last Duchess’ in the mid nineteeth century. The Duke is displaying a painting of his late wife to the emissary of a potential new wife. The late wife was young, nouveau riche, socially beneath the groom, but arrived with a sizeable dowry. The painting showed her happy and flirtatious nature, which displeased the Duke “’twas not her husband’s presence only, that called that spot of joy into the Duchess’ cheek”. This Duchess was killed as a result of her alleged improprieties.
In our latest book club read, Cora Cash, the main character of Daisy Goodwin’s ‘My Last Duchess’ escapes that fate, but there are strong similarities of theme and plot. Rather than a menacing tragedy, we have a romantic novel, light but detailed, filled with social commentary without being a treatise.
None too subtly, the ‘Cash’ family are exceptionally wealthy if a bit brash for the heights of New York society. Cora is beautiful, educated, in demand. She travels to England in search of a titled husband. So far, so predictable. There is a lot of detail of clothing and excessive displays of wealth (reference to Faberge party favours, gilded humming birds, unbelievable meals) which doesn’t sit heavily. Normally I get bored by too much detail, but perhaps these excesses were so remarkable that they held my imagination.
Cora could have been arrogant, but her character is more sympathetic than I’d anticipated. She is spoilt but spirited, rebelling against expectations and her dragon mother. The Duke, Ivo, is also rebelling against his mother, the Double Duchess. The two mothers are great fun, despite their difficulties, machinations and power struggles, especially when the Prince of Wales comes to visit.
Cora is self assured and in love with her husband, but lost in her new world, the old world. She struggles to find friends and doesn’t realise how she is being manipulated by others. She is encouraged to have her portrait painted; a scandal ensues- ‘on each cheek was a splash of colour’.
The romance between servants Bertha and Jim is worthy of further exploration. Bertha is black, from the South of the US and very aware of the potential difficulties their relationship would bring. Jim thinks they’ll be alright if they go to London, as everyone is a foreigner there.
Will Cora run off with Teddy, her first love? Will Ivo see the error of his ways? What will Charlotte do next? What will become of Bertha and Jim? Will the Double Duchess retire from competition?
I enjoyed this; it wasn’t rubbish romance and it was far from being a worthy tome. The writing is a little plodding, but not enough to be irritating to me. Others in the bookclub were not so forgiving; ‘boring’, ‘needs a thesarus’, ‘Mills and Boon’, ‘do I need to bother finishing it?’ were some of the other comments. Mind you, nobody felt strongly enough about it to argue too much. There was wine to be having and food to eat and lives to be caught up on. It’s only a night out.