Cora Cash has grown up in a world in which money unlocks every door. Her coming-out ball promises to be the most opulent of the gilded 1890s, a fitting debut for New York’s ‘princess’. Yet her fortune cannot buy her the one thing she craves – the freedom to choose her own destiny.
For Cora’s mother has her heart on a title for her daughter, and in England – where they are bound, to find Cora a husband – impoverished blue bloods are queuing up for introductions to American heiresses. But the aristocracy is a treacherous realm. When Cora loses her heart to a man she barely knows, she soon realises that she is playing a game she does not fully understand – and that her future happiness is the prize.
Daisy Goodwin’s sparking debut brings the fin de siècle romance between England and America to exuberant life.
Q: How would you sum up your book in one line to a curious Amazon customer?
A: It's about love and money and whether you can ever separate the two--plus it gives you the skinny on country-house life at the end of the nineteenth century.
Q: What drew you to the period in which you have set My Last Duchess?
A: I studied history at university and I have always been fascinated by the fin de siècle period which has so many parallels with our own. I started writing the book at the height of the boom but 21st century billionaires are tame in comparison with the Americans of the Gilded Age--the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Carnegies. The American super-rich lived like kings, if not better than kings. Consuelo Vanderbilt who married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895 couldn't get over how primitive the plumbing was at Windsor Castle. I had enormous fun researching this book--one of the most unusual things I discovered was the fashion for tattoos among British aristocrats male and female.
Q: How did the character of Cora take shape for you?
A: There is quite a bit of me in Cora, although sadly I am not an heiress to vast wealth or a Duchess (yet), but I do understand what it is like to live with an overbearing parent. I was interested in writing about a character who can never be sure whether she is loved for herself or for her money. It is easier to write a novel where you are taking a character from one culture and putting them in another--Cora is an American princess but she doesn’t know how to navigate English high society. But she is not a passive heroine, I like the fact that she fights back.
Q: And what about that of the Duke?
A: The Duke is the ultimate in unreliable men. I think all men are shaped by their relationship with their mothers and Ivo has a particularly stormy one with the Double Duchess. I wanted to write about a man who is impatient with his own faults but doesn’t quite know how to overcome them. His relationship with Cora is about more than money – she is the one person in his life who is genuinely fearless.
Q: What can readers look forward to next from you?
A: I am writing another novel set in the nineteenth century. It is about a love triangle between a man, his fiancée and the Empress of Austria and is based on a true story.
Q: What do you enjoy reading?
A: Everything! Although having said that, when I judged the Orange Prize this year I found myself tiring of books with info dumps ('look here is my research!') or ones based on undigested personal tragedy. There are certain authors I return to again and again: Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse, Barbara Pym--I would give a great deal to be able to write like that. Living writers I admire include Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Lorrie Moore, Hilary Mantel and Julian Barnes. I enjoy a really good crime novel--I like C.J Sansom, Josephine Tey, Sophie Hannah and Jason Goodwin. And I read a lot of poetry--I don't have a favourite poet but I love Carol Ann Duffy, Wendy Cope, Robert Browning, Billy Collins and Byron to name but a few.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
A: I didn’t start writing properly until I was in my forties although I had always wanted to be a novelist. I think what stopped me was my own perfectionism. I think Winston Churchill said, 'Don't let perfection stand in the way of the good'. When I actually sat down to start writing, as opposed to fantasising about it, it was surprisingly easy. On a good day it feels like I am tapping into something subconscious; quite often I will read back what I have written and think, did I write that? I work full time running a TV production company so when I find the time to write I have to be really disciplined--I won't let myself get up until I have written a thousand words. I can write anywhere so long as I have my noise cancelling headphones, I always listen to music when I write--Mozart or Bach is the best music to write by.
Q: Tell us something unusual about yourself.
A: I failed my driving test thirteen times. I have now passed and am really quite a competent driver, so it just goes to show that persistence in life is everything.
Recommended Reading from Daisy Goodwin
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford: One of the most brilliantly put together books I have ever read. Full of twists and turns. Every time I read it I notice something else.
Couch Fiction by Philippa Perry: This is a graphic novel about therapy, which sounds weird but actually works really well. Compulsory reading for anyone who has ever considered therapy. A clear, funny look at what therapists do.
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin: This is the first in a series of detective stories set in nineteenth century Istanbul featuring the eunuch detective Yashim. Beautifully written and deftly plotted. I would say this even if he wasn't my brother. A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym: I love Barbara Pym and this is her absolute best. I think she is one of the few novelists to rival Jane Austen for comic timing and razor-sharp social comedy.
'This is a beautifully written dive into late 19th century uber-rich (if not a bit tacky) New York society as it brushes up again snobby, aristocratic Britain. The question is whether the match between heiress Cora and brooding hero The Duke is a love match or a matter of convenience. Diehard romantics (that's me) won't be disappointed'--Adele Parks in Heat magazine
'Sparkling and thoroughly engaging...the story of a poor little rich girl learning the hard way how to concentrate on the next step along the tightrope makes for a highly enjoyable and intelligent read'--The Sunday Times
‘Daisy Goodwin's debut novel is a delightful confection - a clash of cultures set in late 19th-century England, embellished with the glittering lavishness that the period implies'--Marie Claire
‘Intelligent exploration of the gulf between the New World and the old - and one woman's spirited attempt to bridge it'--Guardian
‘Rich in lavish detail and society gossip... 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, skilful storyteller. It is pure, light-hearted, unpretentious entertainment.'--Sunday Express
'Clever Daisy Goodwin. Not content with being a raven-haired poetry temptress, she's written My Last Duchess. It's a marvellously assured read about a marvellously assured American heiress called Cora Cash...It's a literary Greatest Hits; there's a mysterious duke, a woman in a veil and secrets, as well as lashings of period detail about dresses for yachting, opera and dinner. Heartily recommended; Goodwin writes beautifully; her easy style disguising both erudition and emotional truth.'--Wendy Holden, Daily Mail
‘A wonderful guilty pleasure of a read...the detailing is beautiful, the great phalanx of historical characters amusing and the relief of reading a novel that puts enjoyment first, so rare and gratifying that I am ready for a sequel'--Amanda Foreman, Sunday Telegraph
‘Anyone suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal symptoms (who isn't?) will find an instant tonic in Daisy Goodwin's My Last Duchess ... this is a deliciously evocative first novel that lingers in the mind. Henry James with belles on.'--Allison Pearson, Telegraph, Books of the Year for Christmas
‘Deliciously classy. An intelligent pleasure, full of exquisite period detail'--Kate Mosse
'I was seduced by this book, rather as Cora is seduced by her duke: with great skill and confidence. Daisy Goodwin's first novel is intriguing, atmospheric and extremely stylish. I was still thinking about it long after I had reached the end'--Penny Vincenzi
'Book recommendations don't come much better that from queen of chick-lit ADELE PARKS. So when Parks herself told us not to miss My Last Duchess, we got straight on it...Lose yourself in this beautiful story about love in the 19th Century' ****--Heat magazine
‘Transporting you to a different world... the perfect mix of escapism and intelligent writing.'--Weight Watchers Magazine
I loved this book - it got me through a very rainy weekend stuck in a small cottage with my kids and nothing to do. It was full of colour, and I really enjoyed the pure entertainment quality. It's unashamedly a romance, but I also enjoyed the Anglo American angles and thought the history was well researched. Read it and let it take you away.
It appears that this is a bit of a `marmite' book after reading the other reviews, but I have no qualms or embarrassment in saying that I actually enjoyed it. The story is a decadent, ostentatious look at late nineteenth century society in both Britain and the United States. Granted, it is a bit superficial at times and a bit fluffy- but as a tongue in cheek read I found it quite entertaining and this isn't usually the sort of book I'd pick up- but it is by no means ever going to be a literary classic.
The book focuses on American heiress Cora Cash (yes, really), a girl from one of the countries wealthiest families and stuck with a pushy social climber of a mother who is determined to marry her off to a titled husband; cue the Cash family visiting England and trying to firmly ensconce themselves in the lives of the upper classes. When Cora comes a cropper off her horse and is coincidentally rescued by the (continually stony-faced and expressionless) Duke of Waltham, her future seems set for her, but will marrying a duke make Cora as happy as she hopes?
This is a story that is rich in detail (perhaps a bit too overly descriptive at times, but hey ho) and really gives an insight into how the upper classes lived at that time. From the elegance of the fashions of the time to the luxurious foods, drinks and uber sophisticated soirees and houses, it is a bit of an eye-opener actually. I found myself revelling in a world I could never really imagine. The character development is fairly decent in places, though the author cannot seem to make up her mind as to whether Cora will be a headstrong, independent women or a shrinking violet. I did find it slightly discerning that upon marriage her personality changed completely. Ivo (the moody duke) was a bit of a prat to be honest and I didn't like him at all. For me, it was Bertha the maid who salvaged this book- and the excellent Double Duchess- I loved her icy personality and shrewd manipulations. Well played sister, well played.
Character assassinations and other little niggles aside, the plot focuses mainly on love, wealth, family disharmonies and unreliable men- not too dissimilar from books set in latter centuries, but oh how they differ in tone. I would say that if you take this book for what it is- a girly read that makes no apologies for exploring the tacky nature of New York and English upper class society with a bit of dodgy romance thrown in on the side, then you will probably enjoy it. Don't take it too seriously- it appears the author hasn't either. Oh, but be warned: this book does contain cruelty to animals; hummingbirds at that- the poor little things!
Readers of Browing's poem of the same name will recognise elements of it in this book, but it is in no way closely based on it and fear not, you will not guess the ending or the book from the poem. It is an easy to read romp through the 19th century. The American heroine, Cora, is the equivalent of royalty in her wealth but she lacks the standing that a English title would give her, and so a marriage to a duke in England is soon arranged with Cora's mother playing the interfering matriarch brilliantly. Cora's marriage at first seems perfect - she has the title she desires, she is wealthy, beautiful, in love and pregnant, but she soon learns that all is not as it seems in her marriage and that her husband has his own secrets which threaten what she holds most dear. In addition, Cora must learn to navigate the treacherous English society, where her lack of lineage is oft treated with contempt by the English aristocracy.
Goodwin's writing style is engaging and fluid and I found myself easily lost in this book and indeed in Cora's world.