The American Heiress: the first ‘special relationship’?

Interview with TV Producer & Author Daisy Goodwin

British Weekly
Saturday, November 24, 2012
11:12 AM

“I got the idea about five years ago, when I was visiting Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the dukes of Marlborough,” says The American Heiress author Daisy Goodwin. “I saw the great Sargent portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt and her husband the 6th Duke of Marlborough and I thought it was a great starting point for a book. An American princess finding herself at sea in aristocratic England.”

The year is 1890 and Cora Cash, an American heiress, is in London to marry into the British aristocracy. Ivo, Duke of Warham, sweeps her off her feet. They marry and things change. He becomes distant as the English season heats up so does the potential for betrayals. Did Ivo really just marry her for her money?

The dialog is amusing and the story has the feel of Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey. The nouveau riche Americans wanted to show they were as good as the aristocrats so they used their money to marry them. It had its pitfalls as the married couples came from different worlds and countries. If you can’t wait until Downton returns in January read this over the holidays.

“I discovered a quarterly magazine published in the 1890s called Titled Americans, which was a Gilded Age version of Match.com,” says Goodwin. “In the front half were biogs of all the American women who had married into the aristocracy and at the back were profiles of the eligible bachelors still on the market, with the size of their estate and their credit worthiness. Not very romantic but a fascinating social document.”

“I read lots of books of the period,” says Goodwin. “Trollope, France Hodgson Burnett and, of course, Henry James. I also read lots of memoirs by American heiresses. The Glitter and the Gold by Consuelo Vanderbilt was very useful as was the memoir of Jennie Churchill – Winston’s mum. I also spend a whole day wearing an S bend corset in order to understand fully what it was like to be a woman of that era. Not being able to bend at the waist makes life seem very different.”

“I spent a lot of time at the London Library, the oldest private library in England, looking at ancient copies of the Illustrated London News,” says Goodwin. “You can learn a great deal from the small ads.”

“I have edited eight poetry anthologies, including 101 Poems to Save Your Life,” says Goodwin. “I have also written Silver River, a memoir, and I have been a regular columnist for the Sunday Times.”

Goodwin’s editor is Hope Dellon at St Martin’s Press. “Hope made me rewrite the last third of my book,” says Goodwin. “I wasn’t happy about it at the time, but I am very glad I listened to her as the book is so much better as a result. My advice to all authors is only listen to good advice. Because I have worked in television I am quite used to the editing process. It can be very helpful to have an outside point of view.”

“Hope made an offer for my book, and told me that she liked it because it was ‘Henry James without the boring bits.’

Goodwin has been shortlisted for the Galaxy Book of the Year Award. She lives in London.

Pah! I can outpace Wiggins in a polka-dot dress and stilettos

Pah! I can outpace Wiggins in a polka-dot dress and stilettos

Daisy Goodwin
The Sunday Times
Sunday, November 18, 2012

Aston Martin and Harley-Davidson salesmen feel a rush of adrenaline when a middle-aged man in a leather jacket approaches. They know that a man having his first intimations of mortality is seriously in need of horsepower.

But if you are a woman in the prime of life and already in possession of a lifetime’s worth of handbags, what is the thing that is going to stop time’s winged chariot rumbling away in your ear?

In my case it was the sturdy Dutch frame of a Sparta e-bike that made the pulse race and the credit card tingle.

An e-bike is not a virtual bike on which you cycle like Bradley Wiggins in cyberspace, but a regular bike with a battery pack, which means that you go twice as fast.

Read the original article here.

TV producer beats floods for Kennaway House appearance

TV producer beats floods for Kennaway House appearance

Diana Bowerman
Sidmouth Herald
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
12:00 PM

NO flooded rail line was going to prevent author and television producer Daisy Goodwin from speaking to an eager Sidmouth audience on Friday.

The founder of Silver River Productions hot-footed it across London from Waterloo to Paddington in order to arrive on time for the last in this year’s Meet the Author talks at Kennaway House.

A sell-out audience was there to hear about her debut novel, My Last Duchess, published in 2010 – before Downton Abbey reached the small screen – about Cora Cash, a vastly wealthy American heiress, whose mother is determined to marry her off to aristocracy.

In the 1890s of which the novel is set, there were plenty of titled Englishmen looking for new money to marry to keep their estates going, and soon Cora and Ivo, ninth Duke of Wareham, who meet through a riding accident, are married.

Born in 1961, Daisy, whose long list of credits as a TV editorial director includes Jamie’s Kitchen, Grand Designs and Home Front, got the idea for her first novel after a visit to Woodstock to give a talk about her memoir, Silver River.

At Blenheim Palace she saw a painting of the ninth Duke of Marlborough and his family by John Singer Sargent.

The Duke had a loveless marriage to the hugely wealthy American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt, who brought a $100 million dowry with her.

“She was very classy and cultured and was astonished there was no hot water or bathrooms and the kitchen was half-a-mile from the dining room,” said Daisy, who carried out meticulous research for her novel.

“By 1910 over a quarter of the House of Lords had married American money. Stately homes in England would not be here without this money.”

She delighted her audience with tales from her research, and described the agony of trying to wear a Victorian corset that prevented women bending at the waist. Married Victorian women were not as innocent as people thought, with lots of ‘corridor creeping’ going on at night amongst the gentry.

Chairman of the 2010 Orange Prize panel for women’s fiction, Daisy said she liked books “that have a sparkle to them, a good story that is entertaining”.

An option to film her novel, called The American Heiress in the USA, has been taken out and Daisy says her Cora is a stronger woman than the Cora in Downton Abbey.

Her father was a film producer and her mother a journalist, and after gaining a degree in History at Cambridge and studying at Columbia Film School, Daisy began her TV career as an arts producer, making films about literary figures, devising Bookworm and The Nation’s Favourite Poems Initiative.

Married to TV executive Marcus Wilford, she has two daughters and is currently writing her second novel, about the Empress Elizabeth of Austria “the Diana of her day” and plans a sequel to My Last Duchess in the future.

Venus de Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe At Salvatore Ferragamo Museum

Venus de Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe At Salvatore Ferragamo Museum

Daisy Goodwin
The Daily Beast
Monday, August 27, 2012

One of the many stories that garland the legend of Marilyn Monroe is that the blonde actress used to have her shoes made with one heel half an inch shorter than the other, to give her that distinctive wiggle. But on the evidence of the many pairs of shoes exhibited at “Marilyn,” the fascinating exhibition currently running at the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum in Florence, Monroe’s fabulously seductive walk was all her own work. The Florentine shoemaker made the star’s shoes for many of her most famous movies, including a pair of red stilettos covered in Swarovski crystals that made every female visitor to the exhibition swoon with envy. The heels are both an identical four inches high.

Monroe was smaller in person than on screen. (Sunset Boulevard / Corbis)

 

Ferragamo once wrote that the “women who come to me can be divided into the Cinderella, the Aristocrat, and the Venus … Venus is usually a great beauty, of glamour and sophistication, yet under a glittering exterior she is often a homebody, loving simple things.”

Monroe, who wore a size 6, was definitely in the Venus category. The opening image of the exhibition is a black-and-white clip from Monroe’s last completed film, The Misfits, which was written for her by her third husband, Arthur Miller. She is dancing, silent and alone in a wooded glade, barefoot in a black dress. She is still at the height of her mature beauty, the hair a little longer than the ingénue curls of Bus Stop, and her figure just a shade more voluptuous—the camera, as ever, adores her, but it can’t help revealing Monroe’s inner sadness. Like that other famous blonde, Diana, princess of Wales, no amount of fame and adoration could fill the void left by an emotionally stunted childhood.

The exhibition constantly plays up the slightness of Monroe’s physical reality against her extraordinary screen presence. In the exhibit’s largest room, there is a screen playing clips of Marilyn’s most famous movie moments: as Sugar emerging through the smoke of the railway station in Some Like it Hot; as Lorelei Lee singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in pink satin with a chorus of men in white ties; as the unnamed girl in a white dress in The Seven Year Itch who stands over a subway grating when the train passes underneath, feeling the wind that blows up her skirt.

In the same room the curators display the original outfits that Monroe wore in those films. Many of these costumes—the pink satin column dress she wore for Gentleman Prefer Blondes and the gold lamé plunging halter neck she wore for There’s No Business Like Show Business were designed by the Hollywood designer William Travilla, who clearly understood how to showcase Monroe’s extraordinary assets. Although she seems voluptuous on screen, in reality Monroe was petite, only 5’3″ inches tall in her stockinged feet, 5’7″ in her Ferragamo heels, with a 23-inch waist. The dresses have been lent by collectors from all over the world, and it is the first time that so many of Monroe’s effects have been gathered in one place.

One dress that isn’t here in the original, because it is too fragile to be exhibited, is the dress that Monroe wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy, at Madison Square Garden in 1962. That dress, made of sheer nude chiffon covered with rhinestones, is the screen goddess made flesh. The exhibition has the clip of her singing to the president, with whom she was allegedly having an affair, and we can see how the dress makes her look both naked and sparkling. It was one of her most seductive performances: the columnist Dorothy Kilgallen called it “making love to the president in direct view of forty million people” (the event was televised) but it was to no avail. Rumor has it that Kennedy ended the affair and three months later, Monroe was dead, 50 years ago this month.

The way that Monroe fits into a tradition of tragic heroines who died for love is explored in the exhibition—there are references to Dido, La Dame aux Camellias, Cleopatra, and Emma Bovary. Flaubert’s novel in a translation by Francis Steegmuller, with an illustration by Gavarni on the cover, was in the small personal library that Monroe took with her everywhere. Eerily prescient is the picture that photographer Bert Stern took in Monroe’s final photo shoot, of Marilyn’s face in a rictus mask of abandonment surrounded by glitter and pearls. The curators, Sergio Risaliti and Stefania Ricci say that “the framing of her face, which has become a tragic mask, shows us a woman in sexual ecstasy, a Gorgon, a lifeless doll, a modern Ophelia.”

mariylns-dresses-ov20-2dnary
The exhibition features Monroe’s most memorable outfits—lent by collectors from around the globe—for her movies and magazine shoots. (Courtesy of Museo Salvatore Ferragamo)

 

The curators have chosen to represent Monroe’s death not with a CSI-type analysis of the evidence, but through the images and poetry of the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Alongside Pasolini’s poetry there is an installation of Marilyn’s deathbed with its twisted white sheets, evoking her potent cocktail of Eros and Thanatos.

The last room of the exhibition seeks to show the close connection between Marilyn and the Renaissance culture that had its birthplace in Florence. We are shown Stern’s famous picture of Marilyn standing on the beach wearing a cardigan, her bare legs slightly crossed, alongside a reproduction of Botticelli’s La Primavera—the most famous painting in the nearby Uffizi gallery. Side by side, you can see real parallels between the two blonde Venuses rising from the sea. There is also the Roman marble bust of the dying Alexander, which the photographer Cecil Beaton drew upon in his quest to represent the “spiritual intensity” of Marilyn’s face. We are shown parallels between images of Monroe and the sensuous nudes of Canova and Boucher. There is an extraordinary pairing of Tom Kelley’s famous Playboy nude of Monroe against a red satin background and the penitent Magdalene by the 17th-century Florentine painter Francesco Furini, both women holding a similar pose and an air of languid sensuality.

It is this final room that is the raison d’être for hosting this exhibition, dedicated to an American Venus, in the former cellars of the Palazzo Spini Feroni, supported by the Florence’s city council. As the exhibition’s catalog says, Monroe “has become an icon that does not just belong to America but to the entire world, and is linked to our Renaissance culture in such a particular and distinctive way.”

There is another consideration too. Upstairs in the Ferragamo boutique, it is possible to buy limited edition handmade replicas of the high-heeled pumps that Ferragamo designed for the star, with a special half-wood half-metal construction that made them comfortable in spite of the extreme thinness of the heel. The glamorous Russian sales assistant reverently brings out replicas of the red crystal-studded shoes that Marilyn wore in There’s No Business Like Show Business. It turns out that my 11-year-old daughter shares a shoe size with Monroe, and as she slips them on and starts to take teetering steps across the thick pile carpet, I ask the Russian what the secret is to walking in Marilyn’s shoes. “You must start young,” she says, “and practice every day of your life.”

Daisy Goodwin is a novelist and TV producer.

Chat with Author Daisy Goodwin on Facebook

Chat with Author Daisy Goodwin on Facebook

Daisy Goodwin
SheKnows Book Club
Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The American Heiress is our current SheKnows Book Club pick for 2012, and we’re thrilled to give you the chance to chat with author Daisy Goodwin live on Facebook this week.

Join Daisy Goodwin and the SheKnows Book Club bloggers on Facebook on Thursday, June 14 from 5 to 6 p.m. PST/8 to 9 p.m. EST for one hour. Daisy will respond to your questions and comments on Daisy Goodwin’s Facebook page. Come by and chat with this talented author who’s excited to talk directly to her fans — ask her questions about The American Heiress, her road to publication, being a break-out star in the publishing world or just tell her how much you adore her!

About The American Heiress The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

It’s the story of Cora Cash, an American heiress in the 1890s who should have been careful what she wished for. Traveling abroad with her mother at the turn of the 20th century to seek a titled husband, beautiful, vivacious Cora — whose family mansion in Newport dwarfs the Vanderbilt’s — suddenly finds herself Duchess of Wareham, married to Ivo, the most eligible bachelor in England. Nothing is quite as it seems, however. Ivo is withdrawn and secretive, and the English social scene is full of traps and betrayals. Money, Cora soon learns, cannot buy everything, and she must decide what is truly worth the price in her life and her marriage.

Money can’t buy happiness

This tantalizing novel’s plot jumps off the pages as you follow Cora Cash on her journey to finding what she thinks will be her happy ending — ultimately determining that money can’t buy happiness.

If you’re having Downton Abbey withdrawls…

With the popularity of the PBS hit Downton Abbey, the paperback release of Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress couldn’t have come at a better time. Goodwin’s novel will no doubt help with the withdrawalsDownton Abbey fans are feeling since the show’s season finale aired.

So what are you waiting for? Snap up a copy of The American Heiress and join Daisy Goodwin on her Facebook page Thursday, June 14 from 5 to 6 p.m. PST/8 to 9 p.m. EST and talk with her live about all things writing.

Daisy Goodwin on Inventing Her Mother

Daisy Goodwin on Inventing Her Mother

Daisy Goodwin
Book Reporter
Tuesday, April 20, 2012
12:00 PM

My mother is the reason I turned to fiction. She wasn’t there much when I was young, so I had to invent her. She ran away from home when I was five and my brother three. It was the 1960s and she had fallen in love with another man. She thought she could come back and get us, but my dad thought otherwise.

I saw her in the holidays, but as she lived in another city, she never came to school events or met my friends. All the more room for invention. Over the years my mother became a Chinese girl who was cast off by her family because she didn’t have bound feet (she had been born in China but is of Caucasian origin); Che Guevara’s girlfriend (total fabrication), and an Olympic diver (again with poetic license). I don’t know whether my audience of eleven-year-old girls really believed my stories about my mother, but they were certainly willing to listen.
My made-up mother was, like the original, beautiful and brave; but unlike my real mother, she was always available and completely under my control. I could make her jilt Che Guevara because his moustache tickled her when they kissed, and I loved it when she won the Gold for her swallow dive.

When I saw my mother in the flesh, I would watch her carefully, looking for details from which I could spin another story. Her mother had been born in Argentina, so I made my mother — who is in real life rather alarmed by horses — a gaucho by adoption, riding bareback across the pampas chasing the horizon.

When I was thirteen, my mother moved back to London. When she asked me if I would like to bring my friends round, I was in agony — wanting more than anything in the world to show her off and yet dreading the moment when they asked about the foot binding, or Che’s mustache. My only way out was, of course, more fabrication. I told my friends that my mother had had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t bear any reference to her colourful past.

The meeting went off better than I could have hoped: My mother looked like Ali MacGraw in Love Story, and once they had made that connection, she was officially glamorous. Any stories that I had told about her were accepted because she bore a passing resemblance to a bona fide movie star.

My mother never knew what liberties I took with her biography. As she is by nature one of life’s swashbucklers, I don’t think she would mind too much about being the heroine of my imaginings. She is just as interesting and exciting as the woman who kissed Che Guevara.

Of course there have been times when I have wondered why I had to make her up, and there have been times when I have felt resentful because I didn’t have a regular mother who hugged you when you came out of school. But my mother, in fact and in fiction, has never been boring. Other mothers do unconditional love; mine is unpredictable, but you can’t look away. She has been and will always be my inspiration, the reason I started to write and the reader whose attention I want to capture forever.

Daisy Goodwin: How I Shelve My Books

Daisy Goodwin: How I Shelve My Books

Daisy Goodwin
20 Something Reads
Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Daisy Goodwin, author of THE AMERICAN HEIRESS — which release in paperback on March 27th — doesn’t have a system for organizing her books, but she did learn a very important lesson — do not let your friends shelve your books for you.

I wish that I had a system for shelving my books. I have this vision of one day having enough time and energy to group them in some wildly logical way, but so far that hasn’t happened.

I did once have a houseguest who thought it would be helpful to sort my many thousands of books by, wait for it, color. Green with green, red with red, pink with pink. It ‘s not an entirely crazy system, as quite often the color of a book’s cover does reflect its content — Scandinavian crime is usually monochrome, chick lit comes in a thousand shades of pink, forgotten female classics of the twentieth century in Virago green, HARRY POTTER in red.  But it is not a system I would recommend unless you enjoy the unexpected — Agatha Christie nestling against Plato, Georgette Heyer with Graham Greene.

But while I don’t have a system as such, I notice that the book shelves next to my bed are full of the books that I reach for and reread in the small hours: Barbara Pym, BRIDGET JONES, A LITTLE PRINCESS by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Collected Poems of Philip Larkin and Edna St. Vincent Millay.  There are also heavier books that I dip into rather than devouring at a sitting; the selected letters of Charles Dickens and the letters between all the Mitford Sisters are currently top of my browsing list.

Once every six months I have a purge and divide the biggest piles into books I would like to imagine I will read one day, books I liked and think I might read again, and books I have read and regretted reading. The last pile I take straight to a charity shop. It feels wonderful and for a few weeks I feel cleansed of book guilt, but slowly and surely the books start piling up again.

Review of The American Heiress: Money May Not Buy You Love, but It Might Help You Land a Spouse

Money May Not Buy You Love, but It Might Help You Land a Spouse

Janet Maslin
The New York Times
Sunday, June 26, 2011
11:12 AM

What should Daisy Goodwin have called her novel about a Gilded Age Newport belle who heads for England to marry her way into a title? It was published in Britain as “My Last Duchess,” since it makes abundant reference to the chilling Robert Browning poem of that name. Now, for American readers, it has been given a forgettably bland name: “The American Heiress.” A hybrid of the two, “The American Duchess,” would have better described what Ms. Goodwin’s sly, glittery period piece is about.

Ms. Goodwin is brazen enough to name her moneybags heroine Cora Cash and to borrow from the life of Consuelo Vanderbilt in telling Cora’s tale. Thanks to the 1895 marriage to Charles Spencer-Churchill that turned Consuelo into the ninth Duchess of Marlborough, Ms. Goodwin need not strain to imagine what it was like for an American girl, from a family that had its own railroad, to catapult herself into the ranks of British royalty.

Not that Ms. Goodwin is unimaginative: she gives Cora distinct personality and allure. But when it comes to serving larks’ tongues in aspic or using live hummingbirds to amuse Newport partygoers, she describes wretched excesses that are matters of historical record, even if her book conflates, inflates or transposes real stories. As a general rule, she writes in an author’s note, “when it comes to the Gilded Age, the more fantastical the circumstance, the more likely it is to be true.”

As Cora is told by Teddy Van Der Leyden, her hapless American suitor, “The whole of America knows you are going to Europe, to find a suitable consort for the Cash millions.” But Cora wants Teddy. And Teddy wants Cora melodramatically. “Who was he to resist Cora Cash, the girl that every woman in Newport envied and every man desired?” Ms. Goodwin writes deliciously about Teddy’s situation. The Van Der Leydens may be an esteemed and snooty Knickerbocker family, but they don’t count for much in the eyes Cora’s frankly ambitious mother. And Cora’s mother runs her daughter’s life.

But when the Cash ladies get to England, something slightly unexpected happens. Cora has taken her own horse across the Atlantic and is in Dorset, riding to hounds with some of the aristocrats she plans to dazzle, when she is startled by the sounds of a tryst in the woods. This causes her to hit a branch, be knocked unconscious and wake up in what, to her American mind, is “a bed with a roof and curtains.” The bed is in Lulworth, a drafty pile that belongs to a bachelor duke.

“I expect he didn’t want to leave Miss Cash’s side,” says a gossipy servant about the ninth Duke of Wareham, also known as Maltravers and familiarly called Ivo by those wishing to flirt with or marry him. Ivo quickly excites the ambitions of Mrs. Cash, though Lulworth hardly lives up to her Newport tastes. “Really, Cora, sometimes I think you forget that I am mistress of a house quite the match of this one,” she tells her daughter.

“I am not sure the Duke would agree,” Cora says. “I don’t think he is in the habit of comparing himself with others.”

“Even dukes can count, Cora,” her mother tartly replies.

Ms. Goodwin has a flair for such dialogue: either that or an extensive familiarity with the works of Edith Wharton. In any case, she supplies Cora with reasonably sharp banter and gives her backbone. Cora is a better character than the spoiled, arrogant creature she could have been. To Ms. Goodwin’s credit, the book has enough sexual heat to make Cora’s inevitable marriage to Ivo seem like something beyond a cynical business transaction, though it has its cynical aspects. In one of the book’s best moments, Mrs. Cash gazes admiringly at a picture of one of Ivo’s supercilious ancestors. “She wondered if Cora’s children would ever gaze at the world with such serene lack of interest,” Ms. Goodwin writes.

Ms. Goodwin also gets some momentum from her story’s subplots, even when they rely on stock characters. Take Charlotte Beauchamp — and Ivo apparently has, leaving Charlotte with a nastily proprietary attitude toward him and a bitchy one toward Cora. As Charlotte looks appraisingly at Cora, she has her mouth “curved upwards in what might have been a smile.” Charlotte also has a husband who is handy with a hairbrush, whether he is using it to groom his wife’s long blond hair (and “pacify it into a golden sheet”) or spanking her.

“The American Heiress” also features Ivo’s feline mother, who made herself a double duchess by marrying a second duke after Ivo’s father had died and who is expertly dismissive in dealing with her new daughter-in-law’s flashy American tastes for, say, plumbing. “Perhaps I am just set in my ways but I cannot help but think there is more to life than hot water,” the duchess tells one of her many admirers, the Prince of Wales (whose royal visits are a royal pain). The novel’s best-drawn secondary character is Bertha, Cora’s American maid, who spends a lot of time lacing her mistress into corsets but even more time making astute social observations. During the course of the book, Bertha acquires direct experience of the differences between racial discrimination in America and class discrimination in England.

“The American Heiress” connects to Browning’s “My Last Duchess” when Cora is persuaded to have her portrait painted by an artist who is guaranteed to inflame Ivo’s dangerous side. But this is a book that seeks to beguile, not horrify. So Cora, unlike the doomed duchess in the poem, remains a vibrant character throughout Ms. Goodwin’s archly entertaining story. She has no intention of seeing herself relegated to a space on a castle wall.

Review of My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin in the Express by Christine Williams

Review of My Last Duchess in the Daily Express

Review of My Last Duchess in the Daily Express

Review: My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

Sunday October 17,2010
By Christine Williams

AMERICAN duchesses were quite the rage towards the end of the 19th century and Jenny Jerome, Sir Winston Churchill’s mother, is perhaps the best-known.
She was just one of the influx of vivacious, wealthy young women anxious to marry into the British aristocracy.

Welcomed with open arms by blue-blooded but bankrupt Lords, they brought money to rescue the stately homes of Britain and a freedom of manner that cut through some of the traditional rules of the day.

My Last Duchess is the story of the aptly-named heiress Cora Cash, who is propelled by her ambitious Mama into marriage with an English Duke. Not that Cora needed any prompting. No sooner does she set eyes on Ivo, the 9th Duke of Wareham, than she falls head over heels in love.

Daisy Goodwin’s first novel is rich in lavish detail and society gossip, with pages peopled by dashing young rakes, unscrupulous beauties and fashionable but predatory painters. All provide problems for our heroine as she embarks on married life.

It is Charlotte Beauchamp who proves to be Cora’s real enemy. Brought up by Ivo’s flirtatious, amoral mother Fanny (now married to her second duke), Charlotte is, frankly, jealous. She always wanted Ivo for herself but she is clever enough to conceal her emotions, befriend Cora and lead her into escapades calculated to endanger her marriage.

There is a touching sub-plot, introducing Cora’s devoted black maidservant. Transplanted from the deep South of America to a stately mansion in England, Bertha falls for manservant Jim. Their below-stairs romance, with its racial undertones makes an interesting contrast with the upstairs immorality of the nobility.

It is a romp of a book, with all the ingredients for a self-indulgent afternoon read. A well-written, brilliant first novel by a confident, skillful storyteller. It is pure, light-hearted, unpretentious entertainment.

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Easy Mix Book Review My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

Read original article here

Ever since Henry James’s verbose tales of class warfare and fiscal machinations in nineteenth-century Britain and America found their first readers, stories of culture clashes between ambitious nouveau riche Yanks and their patch-protecting, old-monied European cousins have abounded.

The latest specimen is Daisy Goodwin’s frothy, engaging My Last Duchess, a debut novel she has taken a while to get around to, having established a successful career as a TV producer, predominantly with the BBC, after gaining a history degree from Cambridge University.

Her heroine, the woman who becomes the titular Duchess, is Cora Cash, an exceedingly wealthy American heiress coming of (marriageable) age in 1893 Rhode Island. Cora’s life is rigidly controlled by Mrs Cash, who holds lofty goals for her daughter and is unforgiving in the measures she takes to achieve them; when we first meet Cora, she is strapped from forehead to knee into a steel spine straightener designed to improve her posture.

After an early flirtation with another rich young American, Teddy van der Leyden, is thwarted, Cora, on a visit to Dorset in early 1894, meets cute with Ivo, Duke of Wareham, and marriage ensues.

Ivo attained his title upon the death of his father, having already endured the loss of his brother in an incident that he declines to discuss with Cora. Indeed, once the honeymoon glow has worn off it becomes apparent that Ivo is hiding rather a lot from his wife, and his abrupt departure for a months-long trip to Africa during her pregnancy intensifies her misgivings.

Into the fray Goodwin brings Ivo’s mother, known as the Double Duchess since her swift remarriage to a peer of the same caste as her first husband, and two colourful and narratively crucial characters, the vile Sir Odo (referred to in servants’ quarters as ‘Odious’) and his ravishing, inscrutable wife, Lady Charlotte Beauchamp.

The resulting events make for a pacy and absorbing read, with the appealing plot enhanced by the quality and extent of Goodwin’s research – she must, as a producer, have become accustomed to doing her homework, and that practice pays dividends in My Last Duchess.

There is the elaborate finery of the time – Cora enters married life with no fewer than 60 new dresses, handmade in Paris; two women seated next to one another at a dinner struggle to face one another in conversation due to the enormity of their fashionable mutton-chop sleeves – and the smaller accoutrements of a woman of Cora’s class, including a monogrammed dressing case whose contents are carefully listed.

Though the complement of supporting characters is a strong one, the rightful star is the Duchess herself, and it is entertaining to see what Cora is made of as she evolves from self-obsessed ingenue to wronged wife.

Compounding her burden is the task of managing her husband’s ancestral estate, Lulworth, which is less a grand home of the aristocracy than a hothouse of political manipulation and ancient loyalties in which Cora’s Americanness is viewed as an insurmountable handicap. In dealing to her foes, she may prove to be less unlike her fearsome mother than she – or we – thought.

The novel’s end, while not premature, is rather abrupt, and I hope Goodwin feels there is more story to be told. I don’t think the Duchess is quite done yet.

3 / 5 stars: A diverting tale of a steely dame.