“She gripped the rubber bulb with her left hand and heard a slight crackle as light tripped through the one hundred and twenty light bulbs on her dress and the fifty in her diadem. It was as if a firework had been set off in the mirrored ballroom.
“As she turned round slowly she was reminded of the yachts in Newport harbour illuminated for the recent visit of the German Emperor. The back view was quite as splendid as the front; the train fell from her shoulders and looked like a swathe of the night sky.”
The ‘she’ in this piece is the overbearing, socially ambitious Mrs Cash, wife of a flour magnate and mother of Cora, the richest and most beautiful heiress in America – and heroine (if that’s the right word) of My Last Duchess, by Daisy Goodwin. Although the old guard in New York may regard her as brash and vulgar, Mrs Cash is determined to use her husband’s wealth to buy a titled husband for her daughter.
So off they go to England where Cora is thrown from her horse while out hunting, and is rescued by Ivo, the Duke of Wareham, who takes her back to his family seat, Lulworth Castle. Naturally, Ivo and Cora fall in love, and are wed in a spectacular ceremony. But married life is not as blissful as Cora hopes. First she must learn about life in England, and avoid the many pitfalls presented by the complex social rules which govern the behavior of the English upper classes. Then she must contend with her mother-in-law, the redoubtable ‘Double Duchess’, who is a close friend of the Prince of Wales. And finally there is the Duke, who has a past which intrudes on the present and threatens Cora’s happiness.
Set in the 1890s, at the very end of Victoria’s reign, Goodwin’s story recreates the period when newly-rich American industrialists sought to consolidate their position by marrying their daughters off to impoverished European noblemen, who welcomed the much-needed injection cash which paid for the repair and improvement of stately homes, as well as financing lavish lifestyles. The extravagance of those lifestyles has been well documented, and Goodwin has gone on record as saying that Cora is loosely based on Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 10th Duke of Marlborough in 1895.
Cora is not always likeable, and in some ways the side story about the growing relationship between her coloured maid, Bertha, and the Duke’s valet was more interesting, especially the fact that segregation existed in New York, which just 30 years earlier had fought to end slavery. Naïve of me, perhaps, but I somehow expected the American North to be more tolerant.
The novel, which highlights the differences between the old world and the new, between old money and new, explores the same territory as Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, but is not as well written, and fails to get under skin of its characters. It’s not great literature but, nevertheless, it is tremendous fun,very enjoyable, and will keep you turning the pages to find out what happens.