Heat Factor: It’s chilly in these ancestral ducal mansions
Character Chemistry: I never believe that he loves her, even if she insists she knows that he does
Plot: What happens after the American Heiress snags her Duke? Well…
The opening epigraph for Daisy Goodwin’s debut novel is the first line from Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.” The general gist of the poem, as spoken by the Duke, is: “Hey friend! Check out this portrait of my last duchess. She’s dead now. Normally I don’t show it to people, because that smile is just for me. Except really, it wasn’t just for me, everything she looked at made her happy, and she looked at everything.” This bitching about his supposedly beloved wife culminates in the creepiest bit of the poem:
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together.
“Anywho, now my duchess is dead and I’m ready to get me a new wife! Plus check out this other sweet art I have!”
The opening line is pretty standard – “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall” – but since I’m a nerd and actually had heard this poem before and whatever awesome college English professor who taught the poem pointed out the unspoken implications of what’s going on here, this set me up to expect a good Gothic. But that is not what we get. Sure, the castle is drafty, but it’s not particularly dark. And sure, the Duke is grouchy and distant, but he’s not particularly mysterious or menacing. There’s a chapel where they hang out, but it’s light and airy and beautiful, not gloomy.
On the other hand, the plot is set up as a standard American Heiress romance. Cora Cash is the only child of an outrageously wealthy Gilded Age flour baron, and so is herself outrageously wealthy. She is, in fact, the richest girl in the Gilded Age, and that is saying something. She goes to England, and in a standard meet-cute she is scooped up by an impoverished but young and handsome Duke, who is all that is desirable even if his name is Ivo. They fall in love, or at least she does. They get married in spectacular fashion back in New York, and then have a fabulous honeymoon.
But it’s not quite a standard romance either, despite its many romantic trappings.
Because after the wedding… she goes to live in England, with the Duke. And his mother hates her. And the aristocrats snub her. And the servants do not listen to her. And she makes missteps, because she doesn’t understand why they would want something musty and old when they can have nice new shiny things like plumbing. Daisy Goodwin has stated that her inspiration for the novel was seeing a portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt (a Gilded Age squillionaire who married a Duke) and thinking that she looked miserable. Maybe this one by Carolus Duran (1900):
And Cora is miserable for much of the book, spending time alone and isolated in a country manor.
Now, I don’t want to think this book is all doom and gloom (but not gothic). There are several humorous moments when Goodwin explores the culture clash of a rich American in this space that’s supposed to be the poshest ever but… isn’t. The whole situation makes me rethink all those Happily Ever After endings featured in the American Heiress romance novels I’ve read in the past.
In addition, there are a few moments of beautiful sensuality. Ivo gives Cora a necklace of black pearls while they are honeymooning in Italy, which leads to an erotic scene where she wears nothing else. Mind you, we don’t hear about anything besides her nudity and the pearls, and the scene is told as a flashback, but the image of her wearing nothing but her black pearls becomes a recurring motif through the second half of the book. My take is that Cora thinks back on this moment to convince herself that their connection is real when she’s facing another dreary day back in the English countryside.
Goodwin intersperses scenes told from Cora’s perspective with scenes told from a range of secondary characters – predominantly Cora’s maid, Bertha, and Cora’s mother, but also including random people who cross Cora’s path. This accomplishes several things. The one-off characters, such as the hat-maker who goes to watch Cora get married, give the reader a better sense of the immense amount of scrutiny that Cora lived with.
The scenes narrated by Bertha are especially strong. Bertha gives us another outsider’s perspective into life with the British aristocracy – she’s not especially impressed with the damp either, but she does appreciate not being automatically on the bottom of the hierarchy because she’s African American. She is not quite at the top of the heap as Cora’s lady’s maid, because of Cora’s outsider status, but she does gain certain privileges once the pair move to Britain. Bertha also has a love story which runs parallel to Cora’s, as she negotiates her relationship with Ivo’s valet.
Bertha also gives us another perspective on Cora, which is not entirely complimentary. (Shocking, I know.) Bertha feels a strong obligation to Cora, which causes her to sometimes act to the detriment of her own best interests; Cora, not surprisingly, does not feel the same obligation to her maid.
One person whose perspective we never see is Ivo’s. It is therefore hard to parse what exactly his feelings are, which ultimately means that the chemistry between him and Cora is not quite there. Cora insists that Ivo loves her – she knows he does. But does he, really? He kisses her ardently before proposing, and they spend some artfully vague time together in the bedroom after their marriage, but he’s also frequently distant. He disappears for days to go hunting right before their wedding. He doesn’t much seem to care about what she does with her time, though he doesn’t appreciate her efforts to restore his home to its former glory. And then he heads off to India for an undetermined time right after she announces her pregnancy.
My real ambivalence about this book, however, and whether it really works as a romance, stems from the ending. Spoilers ahead.
Ok, so in the end, Cora and Ivo are having problems. Cora is convinced that Ivo never broke off his affair with his other woman. She therefore decides that she will leave him, with their child, and run off with her first love, a nice American boy. Ivo catches wind of the plot, intercepts her, and declares his love, while explaining away all the evidence of the affair as coincidental. Cora decides to stay, because he loves her after all.
You COULD read this as a standard happily ever after, wherein after many trials and tribulations, the Duke finally comes to his senses. However, Goodwin casts this reading in doubt, and there are ways you could read the ending is not happy at all. Cora says that it’s all worth it, because she appreciates the sunny days more when most of her life is cloudy. (!!!!!!!!!!!) And Charlotte the love rival is convinced that they aren’t going to last, and that the Duke will come back to her eventually. Plus, the Duke’s excuses and explanations are just patently nonsense. He’s like: “Oh, she came to my room and that’s why my cuff link was in her bed; or, oh, she came to see me as soon as I landed in England after my trip.” BUT that doesn’t explain why a) his WIFE didn’t know that he had returned and b) why it took him so damn long to arrive home (his valet beat him there, because he was gone for a whole night). WHEN SHE IS 9 MONTHS PREGNANT. Basically, the Duke is emotionally abusive, and my reading of the ending is not joyful at all – even if Cora deludes herself into thinking it is.
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