Also known by its North American title, The American Heiress
, Daisy Goodwin’s celebrated debut novel My Last Duchess
explores themes of love, money, class, and social mores through the tale of a young American woman who marries into an aristocratic English family at the close of the nineteenth century. The novel begins with preparations for an opulent ball hosted by the Cash family, one of the richest families in America. Taking place in a mock French chateau in Newport Rhode Island, the ball will be lavish in the extreme, featuring a Hall of Mirrors greater than the original in Versailles, running water filled with gemstones, and even gold-sprayed hummingbirds in gilded cages. Mrs. Cash reveals that she plans to add to the spectacle by wearing an extravagant gown decorated with battery-powered lightbulbs, and demonstrates her lack of restraint and patience by complaining that the sun has not yet set so she cannot show off her outfit.
Mrs. Cash’s daughter, Cora, the protagonist of the novel, is also preparing for the ball, initially by having a metal rod strapped to her spine because her mother insists it will improve her posture. This distracts her from reading Jane Austen’s Emma and from speculating that it would be good not to have a mother, like the novel’s protagonist. She also prepares for the ball by practicing kissing with her maid, Bertha, so that she will not appear ignorant if her suitor Teddy kisses her, as she strongly suspects he will. Bertha is initially reluctant, believing that two women kissing is wrong and fearing that she will lose her position, but Cora bribes her with the equivalent of three months’ salary she has hidden under her pillow. However, practicing kissing for Teddy turns out to be unnecessary and Cora, influenced by Mrs. Cash, loses interest in her young suitor. Accompanied by her overbearing mother, she instead travels to England to find a husband from among the English aristocracy.
At the turn of the century, particularly in America, a new class of ultrarich families was emerging that had money but no traditional titles or lands. Simultaneously, many of Europe’s old aristocratic families were falling on hard times and running out of spendable money. As a result, it was common for rich American families to marry off their daughters to struggling upper-class English families, effectively exchanging wealth for aristocratic titles for their offspring. Although such marriages were often more about convenience than love, both appear to fall into Cora’s lap when she is injured falling from a horse and is found by Ivo, the Duke of Wareham, on whose land she was riding. Rescue and support quickly turn to attraction, and before long, Cora is married to Ivo and plunged into the complex world of upper-class England as the new Duchess of Wareham.
Life in England is not as idyllic as Cora hoped, however. Ivo’s mother, Fanny, is condescending and vile to her, sneering at her apparent lack of class and sophistication. Moreover, it is not only her mother-in-law that Cora fails to impress. The culture clash she experiences after moving to Ivo’s dilapidated, stately home is far more extreme than she expected, and she makes numerous social blunders in her efforts to join the aristocracy. One of the most severe faux pas occurs when Cora agrees to sit for a portrait by Louvain, a dashing, if disreputable, painter, that turns out to be far more revealing and sensual than she expects, much to Ivo’s anger. Her husband’s annoyance is an early indication that Cora’s marriage may be problematic. However, it is not the last: Cora repeatedly struggles to please Ivo and, for his part, he is routinely distant and secretive. At times, the only real ray of light in Cora’s life throughout this difficult period is her new best friend, Lady Charlotte Beauchamp, an English noblewoman who supports Cora and helps her navigate upper-class attitudes and expectations.
Things do begin to get better eventually. When Cora gives birth to a child—Ivo’s son and much needed heir—her status improves somewhat, and she and Ivo begin to grow closer. However, these developments are short-lived, and Cora’s life soon takes a turn for worst when it is revealed, in front of guests at a dinner for none other than the Prince of Wales, that Ivo has been having an affair with Cora’s friend and confidant, Charlotte. Among those witnessing this shocking and shaming revelation is Cora’s previous suitor, Teddy, who regrets passing her over and has reentered her life to try and win her back. Cora now finds she must choose whether to forgive Ivo and retain her status as duchess or elope with Teddy. No longer as spoiled and naïve, Cora confronts Ivo, and he admits that he had, indeed, once been Charlotte’s lover but that their relationship had not continued since he and Cora had married. In the face of this honest response, and fully intending to give her son the best possible life, Cora leaves Teddy waiting for her at a train station, determined to try again with Ivo and their child.
Taking its title from Robert Browning’s 1842 poem of the same name, Goodwin’s The Last Duchess
is steeped in tradition, not only in its rich period detail, but also in its continuation of a long tradition of writing about American heiresses navigating the snobbish world of Victorian England. In fact, critics have favorably compared it to the works of classic writers such as Edith Wharton and Henry James while also celebrating Goodwin’s ability to bring fresh angles, insights, and plot twists to this well-established subgenre.