My Last Duchess

14 October 2011

I knew I was going to love this book as soon as I read the back cover and then had a quick flick through and it certainly did not disappoint. It has all the ingredients that I most love in historical fiction – a beauteous, sprightly heroine; a Duke; a crumbling castle by the sea; social contretemps and misunderstandings; SCANDAL; dreadful princes and gorgeous, opulent, ostentatious period detail.

It seems to be de rigeur at the moment to compare any book, film or television series set in England between the years 1880 and 1940 with Downton Abbey, which is fair enough but can get a little distracting. My Last Duchess is no exception and I have seen several reviews comparing the two, which I think a bit unfair as beyond possibly appealing to the same people and having maids and an American heiress married to an English aristocrat, they aren’t really similar.

Instead, My Last Duchess (or to give it its US title – The American Heiress) owes a lot to the true stories of the American heiresses Consuelo Vanderbilt and the frankly gorgeous Jennie Jerome, who both married into the ducal Spencer-Churchill family of Blenheim Palace and to their fictional counterparts of Edith Wharton’s superb novels The Custom of the Country (oh how I adore Undine Spragg!) and The Buccaneers.

Cora Cash, the heroine of Daisy Goodwin’s novel, could easily have sprung from the pen of Wharton – she has a touch of Spragg’s brash, new moneyed arrogance and short sightedness (literally as well as figuratively) while at the same time retaining Nan St George’s wide eyed innocence and belief in the all conquering power of love.

In summary therefore, if you love Edith Wharton’s social tragicomedies and have a thing for books about gorgeous, sparkling fin-de-siècle aristocratic life then you will most probably adore this. It’s perfect reading material for long winter evenings cosied up beneath a blanket with a big mug of hot chocolate to hand. I thought it was simply superb and really can’t wait for Daisy Goodwin’s next book, which apparently features the tragic Empress Elizabeth herself. Is it possible to type ‘Empress Elizabeth’ without pre-fixing ‘tragic’?

My Last Duchess starts in the year 1893 so of course, I had to add a selection of gorgeous dresses from the collections of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that a real life Cora Cash would perhaps have worn to ensnare the senses of passing noblemen or just create ripples of envy in a Manhattan ballroom.

Evening gown, Rouff, 1895.

Evening gown, Worth, 1894.

Ensemble, Worth, 1893.

Evening gown, Duval and Eagan, 1889.

Evening gown, Worth, 1898.

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