Well what a read, and to be honest I wasn't sure how this one was going to stand up... would it just be another variation on a theme or would it pack something different. I'd started it twice and on both occasions found myself reading other novels with Cora named as the female lead so I'd stopped, but Port Eliot and my meeting with Daisy Goodwin beckoned so I settled down and disappeared into My Last Duchess (Amercian Heiress in the US) and now feel quite bereft that I have finished it.
I've been trying to decide why I feel so bereft and why, when I turned the final page was I so delighted to read 'Not the End', because it isn't every book that leaves me wondering what may happen next or thinking how much I'd enjoy a sequel and want it yesterday.
I mentioned before that the book is a fusion of what I would probably (wrongly) call literary schema but it fits my need here... those patterns of plot and behaviour that I recognise as central themes in many of the writers I know and love, Edith Wharton, Daphne du Maurier, Frances Hodgson Burnett to name a few.
The book opens in opulent and appropriate fashion in fin de siecle Newport Rhode Island, as Family Cash prepare for the most spectacular ball of the season, to be held in their summer cottage, a mock French chateau and Daisy Goodwin wastes no time in setting the tone for her book. The humming birds that will be painted gold and released in a flurry of glittering but certain death against a backdrop of a Hall of Mirrors that everyone agrees far out-reflects Versailles. Glittering streams of flowing water run the length of each table with uncut gems, emeralds, rubies, topazes for the guests to prospect for with their little silver shovels, competition to find them would be fierce...
'There had been an unseemly scramble for the Faberge bonbons at the Astor ball the week before.'
Then there is the potentially flame-boyant combination of Mrs Cash in a self-illuminating dress, with added lightbulbs wired up to a hybrid akin to a car battery with notions of the National Grid and which she conceals about her person.
What a good idea.
A quick press of the rubber valve and Mrs Cash can single-handedly illuminate the whole of Rhode Island, but for no longer than five minutes before she and the dress will spontaneosuly combust....it's not too difficult to imagine already that Mrs Cash possesses no such restraint and will sparkle for as long as she jolly well likes.
Meanwhile it is the afternoon of the ball and naive and petulant daughter Cora is reading Jane Austen, whilst strapped into her spine improver before being block and tackled into her farthingale with a harness that shuts like a gate. Cora is wishing that she too could be motherless like Emma Woodhouse whilst still hanging onto her fortune of course, which somehow (God knows how) Emma seemed to manage without. Poverty unthinkable and unknowable for poor little rich girl Cora busy practising kissing with her maid in order to seem acomplished when beau Teddy Van Der Leyden makes his move during the ball. With Cora's dress three feet wide and already necessitating a sideways approach to all doorways I could see that Teddy was going to have to be agile, in fact may need to be thinking about a single pitch climb with chalk, rope and crampons to plant that kiss.
I think Daisy Goodwin is giving us all permission to smile sardonically here, we are to share in the wry thought that the rest of us (most of us) only do that river of gems thing on high days and holidays, not for every bog-standard party we throw.
In fact Teddy Van Der Leyden won't be good enough so it is to England that Cora and what's left of her mother (sorry PLOT SPOILER: think Towering Inferno) repair on their private steam-driven yacht the S.S. Aspen and with four horses as excess baggage, to seek a suitable match.
This is the classic fin de siecle scenario of the wealthy American heiresses who in exchange for their fabulous riches sought something money couldn't actually buy... but in fact it could; marriage into a down-at-heel English aristocracy clinging for all their worth to the vestiges of title, a crumbling heap of a stately home in which to invest their wealth, and passage guaranteed into the upper echelons of English society. Daisy Goodwin acknowledges the essence of this through the eyes of Cora Cash's wily and scheming mother...
It was something she saw rarely in New York but she recognised it instantly; it was the quality she herself most aspired to. She knew that unlike her hall of mirrors or the cedar-lined yacht, this was not something that could be acquired or even reproduced. It had to develop over time, like the patina on bronze.'
Ivo, Duke of Wareham is willing and seemingly available, has an air of brooding mystery about him, the requisite crumbling stately home at Lulworth Cove in Dorset the heart of timeless, unchanging rural England, and Cora duly emerges as a Duchess.
There will be faux pas of an artistic nature, mistresses, intrigue, the quest for the heir and spare and though this makes My Last Duchess sound formulaic and predictable rest assured it doesn't read that way.
Daisy Goodwin has created a cracking (crackling in the case of Mrs Cash...sorry) array of characters all very accomplished with their glimpses and glances, the louch and predatory artist Louvain with his 'pelt of silvery blond hair' , the Double Duchess Fanny ( mother of Ivo, killed off one Duke, not ready to be a dowager and so with indecent haste marries another) with her 'creamy smile'...yes makes you want to slap her doesn't it and I did until the very final pages when Duchess Fanny almost comes good.
There's a telling moment later in the book when someone is scraping the green slime off Lulworth's decaying fountains (at Cora's expense) which somehow reflects back on Mrs Cash's original observations about the patina of the English aristocracy,
'It was a coating that meant you had no doubts at all about your place in the world or concern about the world's perception of you.'
Money did buy a reprieve for the aristocrats but there was a great deal of slime attached to the status awaiting any poor rich American girl who found her way into this milieu. They could be a shallow, fawning and duplicitous crowd especially when in the presence of royalty, and Daisy Goodwin capitalises on every opportunity to display it in all its embarrassing glory whilst allowing Cora's character to develop, through her mistakes and naivity, into something increasingly steely and determined.
And woven through the book, those themes of Robert Browning's wonderful poem My Last Duchess, a real favourite and with lines from the poem occasionally used as chapter headings it was good to revisit the mood and the atmosphere of that...
A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed: she liked whate'er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.'
Daisy Goodwin must be sick to death of Downton Upstairs Abbey comparisons though they are inevitable, but I can think of no better place than Port Eliot to be talking to Daisy about her book, sales of which are now topping 100,000 which means you get 'bunched' (with flowers) by your publisher...love it.
There are some fabulous paintings around Port Eliot by Reynolds and Van Dyke but one in particular in the hallway, by John Ellys, of a very fascinating woman, the dancer Hester Booth dressed as Harlequin (this is the similar one in the V&A). In about 1713 Hester fortuitously gave birth to a daughter out of wedlock by one James Craggs. Good choice Hester because Craggs had made his fortune from the scam that was the South Sea Bubble (even I remember that name from school history lessons) and baby Harriet inherited the lot, eventually marrying into the Eliot family and bringing her wealth with her at a time when it was much-needed. Eventually widowed having borne eight Eliot children Harriet re-married one Captain John Hamilton and thus allied herself to the lineage of the late Diana Princess of Wales, and I've had the most amazing afternoon tracing all this online here. Isn't this one of the joys of reading and the internet.
So if any of you have read My Last Duchess and can't be at Port Eliot (12.30pm Saturday July 23rd- the dovegreyreader tent) but have a question for Daisy please do let me know and I'll ask it for you... and do you like my Port Elephant stamp? The elephant synonymous with the house and the family for generations though no one is quite sure why or how, I found him in Tavistock Market, tiny but perfect and walking through all the books that I'm reading for this year's festival.
And if you are looking for more reading around this whole subject of American heiresses here are three books off my shelves, and I'm sure you can all suggest some more.