Book reviews, new books, publishing news, book giveaways, and author interviews

Review: My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

my last duchess daisy goodwin Review: My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

Wealthy American heiress Cora Cash, the protagonist of Daisy Goodwin's debut'My Last Duchess, is rather aptly, if not especially subtly, named. Her name, though, rather sets the tone for what is to follow:'My Last Duchess makes no pretenses at being a subtle book. It is, rather like Cora herself, brash, bold, and unapologetic for being what it is. Which is a curious melding of serious historical fiction, a Mills and Boon title, and a page or two from New Weekly magazine. This book is a strange beast, particularly considering Goodwin's wide-ranging literary credentials, but it's quite a compelling one.

Cora lives a somewhat conflicted existence. She seems awash, afloat, a little lost amongst a tight schedule of costume changes and social commitments. While there's no doubt that she revels in the attention and adoration she receives from her contemporaries, and that she submits rather happily to those aspects of her life that serve to propel her along the upwardly-mobile channels to which her mother, Ms Cash, has worked so doggedly to gain access, Cora seems to crave respite from her mother's unwavering focus on appearance and reputation. The emancipatory prospects of the humble bicycle, for example, fill Cora with glee: her humble metal contraption represents a temporary escape from the demands of her mother and her much vaunted social status. But still, Cora is aware of the role that she plays, and of the responsibilities that come with this position.

While their wealth may be paralleled by none, the Cashes suffer from that terrible ailment of the'nouveau riche: the absence of any sort of true social respectability. It is an unfortunate reality that America, land of opportunity though it might be, suffers from a painful shortage of aristocratic titles. And because of their rarity, Mrs Cash, much as she would an overlarge emerald brooch or a diamond-tipped hatpin, would rather like to get her hands upon one in order to pin it quite firmly to herself.

Central to her machinations is, of course, young Cora, an ambivalent woman who at times draws sustenance from the adulation of others whilst at times shrinking from it. While the concept of an aristocratic title certainly holds its appeal, Cora harbours an affection for her humble and unprepossessing friend Teddy, whose quiet charm and genuine nature are vastly at odds with the vulgar ostentation and social posturing that characterises life as a Cash. Despite her reservations, however, Cora soon finds herself en route to England, where a painful riding accident results in her becoming the ward, and quite quickly the bride, of Ivo, a destitute duke who is rather happy to bestow his title upon his new wife in exchange for access to her substantial dowry.

Cora, for her part, adores the duke, perhaps in part for the fresh start and freedom that he represents, and she happily attempts to demonstrate the extent of her affection via the means to which she is accustomed to doing so: money. Her efforts, however, are met with responses ranging from cool indifference to something more abject and cruel, and Cora soon realises the very real difficulties involved in reconciling their different cultures and backgrounds. Cora's efforts to overcome the day-to-day realities of this chasm are in no way helped by the various other exigencies that present themselves: her relationship with Ivo, from its beginning somewhat precarious, crumbles beneath her efforts to right things, in part due to a larger, deeper secret he is keeping; and her efforts to ingratiate herself into English society life are thwarted by her bitter, disapproving mother-in-law and a poisonous friendship with a woman who calculatingly betrays her. Cora finds herself in a desperate situation where she must choose between the life she has been raised to live, and one that would cast her into scandal, but that very well may bring with it the emancipation she has always longed for.

My Last Duchess is certainly a page-turning read. An incident at the beginning of the book where Mrs Cashs elaborate outfit, festooned with, believe it or not, lightbulbs, catches fire establishes the Cashes' situation and illustrates quite clearly (and actually rather chillingly) the lengths to which they are willing to go in order to better themselves in the eyes of others. This, and a few other early scenes would seem to allude to something large and grand to come, but this unfortunately turns out not to be the case. Rather, the book largely retraces the lineage of period literature without offering anything particularly new'or even much in the way of the humour or incisiveness so characteristic of the classic novels contemporary to the time in which this book is set. Moreover, the juxtaposition of American wealth and progressiveness with the stunted aristocracy of England is hammered home time and time again, and begins to feel forced and needy.

It's unfortunate, too, that both Cora and her duke are so difficult to empathise with; as a reader, I found myself rather more intrigued by the tales that aren't told, or that are only told in part'those of Bertha and of Teddy'than I did by the newly minted married couple. Cora's insular nature becomes rather frustrating after a while, as do her ceaseless efforts to solve any challenge put before her by throwing some cash at it. The duke on the other hand, is simply a frightful individual, and the passive-aggressiveness that accompanied his every appearance made me turn the pages a little faster if only to get away from him. I shan't give away the book's ending, but I will admit that its brevity, as well as the particular direction that it took, left me a little cold. Perhaps we are to expect a sequel?

My Last Duchess is a slight read, although at times it seems to profess to be something a little deeper. At its heart, it's a melodrama filled with scandal, money, and a love of fashion that borders on sartorial porn'fashionistas will find themselves revelling in the extensive descriptions of period clothing (oh, the giant shoulder pads!). Goodwin's efforts to deal with the notion of emancipation and freedom within the constraints and responsibilities of the late nineteenth century are admirable, and creates some food for thought, although the book itself falls slightly short of a satisfying meal. In all, though,'My Last Duchess is a competent first novel that speaks of good things to come from its author, and while it won't necessarily set your world alight (unless you're poor Mrs. Cash, of course), it's a pleasurable book to curl up with on a frosty night.

200px 3 stars.svg  Review: My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

Purchase My Last Duchess

With thanks to Headline Review for the review copy.


  1. Wow well writte review! I love period books, do you recommend?

  2. Steph /

    Absolutely, if you love period books. Its quite a dark read, but theres some humour in it, and some of the secondary characters really shine (it wouldnt surprise me if theres a sequel). There are some fascinating references to the pop culture and celebrity-orientation of the time that I found quite fascinating. :)

    And that incident with the lightbulb dressoh my goodness!

  3. London Library Reading 2

    Daisy Goodwin

    My Last Duchess

    Saturday 13 November, 7:30pm

    American University, Richmond

    ?5 (?4)

    Daisy Goodwin's debut novel My Last Duchess centers on an American heiress who married into the British aristocracy at the end of the nineteenth century. The book is based on real stories from the American 'dollar Princesses' who made an enormous impact on British High Society at the turn of the century: women like Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's mother, or Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the Duke of Marlborough ' the marriage was spectacularly unhappy, but the Vanderbilt money meant that Blenheim Palace and its treasures were saved. Daisy Goodwin will talk about some of the exciting stories she discovered when researching her book and the real people behind her characters.

    In association with The London Library

Comments make us happy! Do say hello!

Follow us on Blog Lovin' Follow on Bloglovin