Easy Mix Book Review My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

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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.

Daisy Goodwin: A woman of substance (Independent 15th September)

Already TV’s face of poetry, award winning producer and ‘head girl’ of her own company, Daisy Goodwin has written her debut novel. She talks to Arifa Akbar
Read the original article in the Independent Newspaper here

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

On the money: Goodwin's historical novel 'My Last Duchess' was inspired by the excesses of the recent economic boom

On the money: Goodwin’s historical novel ‘My Last Duchess’ was inspired by the excesses of the recent economic boom

The reception area of Daisy Goodwin’s production company looks more like the entrance to a rambling family home than a matrix of steel-on-grey offices. A long sofa spreads itself across one end; a bicycle rests on another. The detritus of interior décor bric-a-brac – plants, cushions and books – is framed by a large-windowed view of central London. The “woman’s touch” to this place of industry becomes more apparent on arrival at the name-plaque on the door of the company’s CEO: “Head Girl”.

Goodwin, 48, the chief executive of the TV production company Silver River, is sitting on another cushion-thronged sofa, surrounded by yet more flowers, family photos, framed Bafta nominations (her winning Bafta and RTS gongs are tucked away at home), Pushkin novels and miniature glitter balls, bearing little of the outward bossiness of the archetypal “head girl”.

She has been ticked off for her job title on more than one occasion for its public-school prankishness, although it is not so much a prank as one might imagine; it has appeared on all her emails ever since she set up her company five years ago, and she defends it against charges of juvenility.

“I couldn’t face calling myself CEO of 10 people and I’m slightly suspicious of titles anyway. You can take the work seriously, but possibly not the structures. I got taken to task by Muriel Gray at the Edinburgh Book Festival once. She questioned whether the title was not demeaning for women. I don’t think it is. Women who run companies can do things differently; we don’t have to ape male corporate structures.”

Goodwin certainly appears to be a different kind of company boss. In between devising television shows, editing poetry anthologies and reading over 100 books in her outspoken tenure as this year’s chair of the Orange Prize (she expressed exasperation at having to sift through heaps of spiritually enervating “mis-lit” to get to the good stuff), she has been using up the remaining slivers of her free time with lunchtime trips to the London Library.

The result, three years later, is My Last Duchess, a fin de siècle romance about the marriages of convenience forged between a European aristocracy facing a cash-flow problem and American billionaire heiresses willing to exchange their fortunes for a marriage proposal that will buoy their social standing. The novel, which she will discuss on Sunday at The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, has so far been likened by some readers to Henry James, but “without the boring bits.”

She was inspired to write it at the height of the economic boom, which came to an end in 2008, with its decadence and slew of Russian billionaires finding footholds in Europe. “It’s always fascinating that things you think are completely contemporary were there 200 years ago,” she says.

The aptly-named female protagonist, Cora Cash, is in part inspired by the real-life story of Consuelo Vanderbilt, a scion of the American billionaire dynasty whose marriage to the ninth Duke of Marlborough became an international emblem for socially advantageous unions.

Goodwin did not have to sketch out her character or storyboard the narrative. Cora, written to resemble one of Jane Austen’s spirited 19th-century heroines, was easy to conjure, she says, not least because she reminded Goodwin of herself.

“You find her reading [Austen’s] Emma at the beginning of the novel,” says Goodwin. “There are a lot of authors now who think the long-suffering heroine is passé, but one of the things I was thinking was that I wanted a heroine in my book, a woman who is the author of her own destiny. I based her on the poor little rich girl. I myself was spoilt and I kind of sympathised with her.”

Writing fiction was an ambition that had remained unfulfilled by what appears to have been her high-achiever’s performance anxiety. In the end, she was galvanised by the practical courage of Winston Churchill’s axiom not to let perfection stand in the way of the good, and the surplus of creative energy felt after the completion of her memoir, Silver River, in 2007. The memoir recalled an emotionally splintered childhood when, aged five, her mother left her film-producer father, Richard Goodwin, for another man.

The young Goodwin was sent to her grandmother’s house in the New Forest for two years with her brother, Jason, until a return to the family home in London following her father’s second marriage. Goodwin adapted and thrived, first at Westminster School, then Trinity College, Cambridge, where she read history and met her husband of nearly three decades, Marcus Wilford, a former foreign correspondent, until it all came home to roost when she had her first daughter, Ottilie, now 19.

Goodwin was struck by a debilitating depression as an outpouring of love for her baby collided with unresolved memories of her mother. The early childhood experience was no tragedy, she insists pragmatically, yet it left its fault-lines on her life and those of her siblings.

“After my parents divorced, I felt I was a double agent, going between West and East Berlin, between the two households. I sometimes think back to my five-year-old self. Children are pretty adaptable, but I was bewildered by it. I and my siblings have been with their partners for a long time. I’m sure that’s because of the divorce. You have a lot invested in a relationship.”

Her own family home in Hammersmith balances in a perfectly ordered state of chaos, she says, with Ottilie about to leave for university, her second daughter, Lydia, aged 10, ensconced at school. The only force of destruction, she adds, with a forgiving smile, are the three dogs – “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

The home life, the award-winning TV programmes, the novel, were never part of a grand plan, she reflects. “I’m not driven in the sense that I’m like Anna Wintour and I get up to play tennis when it’s still dark. I’m a girl who just can’t say no. What I really enjoy is doing something new; I’m on the side of doing things that don’t conform. I can’t bear authority.”

It may have been her aversion to corporate structures that led to her television career’s momentary blip when, aged 27, she was sacked from the BBC. She had been the corporation’s rising star, joining them after two years of studying film at Columbia University, when her contract was, ignominiously, not renewed.

“Looking back, it was probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I was cocky and clever, a rising star, and I think I expected to rise effortlessly. I realised that to be good, you don’t just have to be clever, but smart – and get people to like you. It was a good lesson. I got another job ten seconds later, but I was a bit devastated at the time.

“I remember going to a restaurant in Westbourne Grove and a man came up to me to ask whether I was looking for work, and that I looked like I could be a really good waitress. At the time, the BBC was full of ghastly old men. It’s changed now, but it was the first time I encountered sexism. The all-male crews were not interested in listening to me and I thought ‘is this what the real world is like?’ ”

She decided to become her own “head girl”, and after a stint in the independent sector, working for Peter Fincham at Talkback Productions, she set up Silver River. “I thought people like me were better off doing things on their own. That’s why so many women set up their own companies.”

Daisy Goodwin will be talking to the editor-in-chief of ‘The Independent’, Simon Kelner, at the Woodstock Literary Festival, at Blenheim Palace, at 11am on Sunday 19 Sept

Daisy Goodwin, author and television producer

From: Daily Telegraph | By Jessica Salter

Daisy Goodwin at home

Daisy at home

Daisy Goodwin, 48, began her career as a producer at the BBC working on arts and history documentaries. After 10 years she joined the production company Talkback, where she made programmes such as How Clean is Your House and Grand Designs; then in 2005 she started her own production company, Silver River, best known for producing the sitcom Pulling.

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Cash for titles: The Billion-dollar ladies

From: You Magazine, Mail on Sunday.

For daughters of the new American billionaires of the 19th century, it was the ultimate deal: marriage to a cash-strapped British aristocrat in return for a title and social status. But money didn’t always buy them happiness, says Daisy Goodwin

Interview with TV Producer & Author Daisy Goodwin

Interview with TV Producer & Author Daisy Goodwin

Fiona Keating
The Green
Monday, July 5, 2010
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.

Articles from 2007

In short: Iain Finlayson’s nonfiction reviews | The TimesSusannah Herbert

September 22, 2007

Silver River: A Family Story by Daisy Goodwin Fourth Estate, £16.99

The fashion among poets and critics for exorcising parental ghosts through biography has sometimes produced a rather turgid stream of consciousness, but Silver River runs bright and clear, a quick, vital current of self-awareness by a natural storyteller who uses literary styles and devices with a deft hand. From the first terror of being dangled over a cliff by her father, greatly amusing her mother, to her depression and sense of abandonment after the birth of her daughter, Goodwin artfully integrates the disparate sections of her life, emerging whole and healed.

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Silver River: A Family Story by Daisy Goodwin | The Sunday TimesSusannah Herbert

September 23, 2007

The very first line of Daisy Goodwin’s family memoir suggests long intimacy with suspense. “ ‘But don’t you want to be famous?’ said Joe as he held me over the cliff.” Goodwin was six, a plump, scowling child with vague aspirations to film stardom. Joe, her new stepfather, was a storybook ogre, her rival for the love of her runaway mother. “What I’m going to do,” he declared, “is drop you here off this cliff and I’m going to film you falling down . . . You might be crippled, but you’d be a crippled film star.”

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Goodwin: First Person | Guardian

September 16, 2007

Daisy Goodwin was just five when her mother left their safe, middle-class life for a ‘dirty, rude, sexy’ northern boy called Joe. The effects of her abandonment are still being felt

I don’t remember the day my mother left, but I remember the moment when I noticed she had gone. Someone, not my mother, had left my brother and me alone in the bath with a Lucozade bottle made of glass. I was five and my brother was three so we were soon sitting in a tub of bright red water, crying. Someone, not my mother, came at last and plucked us out of the bath and dried us and put plasters on my wounded knee. The someone may have kissed it better even; I don’t remember, she was not my mother.

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Goodwin: “Children of the divorce Olympics stay married” | Sunday Times

September 16, 2007

A victim of the break-up boom of the 1960s, our correspondent says her generation will fight to avoid inflicting such pain again

From the age of six I have lived a double life. Not because I was intrinsically deceitful but because, like 20m other people in this country (according to a survey last week), my life has been profoundly altered by divorce.

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Goodwin: “People like fairy stories” | Digital Spy.co.uk ( Joanne Oates)

August 24, 2007

A session on factual entertainment provoked some lively debate at MGEITF this afternoon, discussing the success of shows that try to change people’s behaviour.

Kelvin Mackenzie, former editor of The Sun, said that too many factual entertainment shows that try to do good are bad for a channel.

Speaking at a MGEITF session today – called F’*ck off, I’m a TV God – he said: “They keep making these things and they don’t work, and then it takes over a network.”…

Joining Mackenzie on the panel was Daisy Goodwin, founder and ‘head girl’ of indie Silver River, the company behind many successful factual entertainment shows. She defended the format, pointing to Grand Designs as an example of where a fact-ent show had ‘done some good’. “It has raised people’s awareness of what can be done in architecture in this country, ” she said.

Goodwin said the popularity of using experts in fact-ent shows is because they are like ‘fairy godmothers’. “People like fairy stories and that is what these experts are,” she added.

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Goodwin Stops Traffic | Media Guardian.co.uk ( John Plunkett)

August 28, 2007

Having transformed the nation’s attitude to architecture and encouraged us all to get on the property ladder, Daisy Goodwin is about to tackle her toughest challenge yet – traffic congestion. Channel 4’s The Woman Who Stops Traffic will feature her efforts to cut traffic in Marlowe, Buckinghamshire. It is made by Goodwin’s production company, Silver River.

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Let’s Facebook, my dear | timesonline.co.uk ( Daisy Goodwin)

July 22, 2007

The scene: Shoreditch House (the new east London members’ club) last weekend; the cast: middle-youthy, middle-class media types; the conversation: “Nice Facebook picture, love the Warhol vibe. How many friends have you got? Only 30? Never mind, it’ll pick up. You know, Ricky Gervais is on it.” Both parties consider this a substitute for actual conversation and edge away to find other “friends”. Everybody at the party is either on it, thinking about joining or is an official refusenik. Even five months ago this wouldn’t have been the case, but the Facebook phenomenon is greasing the wheels of middle-class social life faster than Nigella’s goose fat.

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Articles from 2006

Confessions of a Heroine Addict | The Sunday Times (Daisy Goodwin)

September 17, 2006

Confessions of a heroine addict

They’re never considered for literary prizes, but romantic novels say more about the society we live in than many realise, says Daisy Goodwin

From the age of 10 I have been sharing my most intimate moments with some highly unsuitable men: a would-be bigamist with a penchant for dressing up in women’s clothes, a gun-running philanderer who isn’t averse to a little marital rape, a misogynist snob with more money than sense and a sociopath who likes to strangle puppies. Despite their failings as human beings these men have been there for me through teenage heartache, marital difficulties, new babies, new jobs. In fact I rarely go to bed without one of them.

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Don’t Do It Girls: It Wouldn’t work for me and it shouldn’t for you | Independent on Sunday (Daisy Goodwin)

September 03, 2006

At the age of 17 I was convinced my difficulties with boys, parents and French verbs would be resolved if my hair was blond and curly instead of dark and straight. Funnily enough, the marmalade-coloured frizz that I arrived at, courtesy of Clairol, did nothing to improve my lot – quite the reverse if anything. But at least the evidence of my folly had grown out four months later. Read on

Daisy Pulls It Off  | Broadcast ( Dan Wootton)

September 19, 2006

After launching in the midst of unexpected tragedy Daisy Goodwin’s start-up Silver River has had a bumper first year. Self-styled head girl tells Dan Wootton how she is fostering a culture of success at the indie Daisy Goodwin has always been the archetypal glamorous TV executive. She’s a talent-spotter par excellence, she’s friends with the right people – and she’s certainly not camera shy. Read on

Poetry? It’ll soon be about as popular as morris dancing | The Observer (David Smith)

January 29, 2006

Daisy Goodwin, the TV presenter dubbed the Nigella Lawson of poetry, has warned that the art form of Shakespeare and Keats is dying and set to become as quaint as morris dancing.Read on

Fremantle makes a splash with Silver River

From: C21Media (Jonathan Webdale)

MIPCOM NEWS: Fremantle International Distribution (FID) has signed a long-term distribution deal with Silver River Productions, the new UK production outfit set up by former Talkback editorial director Daisy Goodwin.

Under the terms of the three-year arrangement, FID will have rights to sell all formats and finished shows from Silver River, which was set up in July by Goodwin and comedy producer Harry Thompson.

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Festival: Something for everyone – Books

From: Times Online


In just three weeks’ time, the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival will swing into unmissable action. Between Sunday, April 10 and Sunday, April 17, the historic city of Oxford will provide the stunning location for one of the country’s most successful, entertaining and high-profile celebrations of the written word.

John Mortimer kicks off the festivities in style with a rereading of Brideshead Revisited. Hilary Spurling talks about her brilliant biography of Matisse. Melvyn Bragg and Ann Widdecombe are the entertaining speakers at the festival dinner, held in the candlelit Tudor dining hall of Christ Church. Kazuo Ishiguro will discuss his new (already bestselling) novel, and Doris Lessing will talk about a distinguished lifetime’s writing. Hear Claire Bloom, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter and Dominic West interpreting poems about the garden; Daisy Goodwin on Poems to Last a Lifetime; Simon Armitage and Nick Laird on their poetry. Novelists include last year’s Man Booker winner Alan Hollinghurst, David Mitchell, A L Kennedy, Andrew Miller, Jasper Fforde and William Boyd. Take the rare opportunity to hear one of France’s greatest writers, Andrei Makine.

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Birth of a Notion – Poetry

From: Times Online (Daisy Goodwin)

Books of the year It is a striking paradox that while sales of poetry decline year on year, the number of volumes of poetry published rises annually. Perhaps these facts are not unconnected — readers may well be daunted by such an abundance of new collections. One place to start is Newborn by Kate Clanchy (Picador, £12.99; offer £10.39). These vivid, tender poems form a lyrical alternative to all those bossy childcare manuals. The collection flows like a novel through conception, pregnancy and birth — capturing the gradual but ineluctable changes that come with motherhood.

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