Cora found most novels hard to sympathise with – all those plain governesses – but this one had much to recommend it. The heroine was ‘handsome, clever and rich’, rather like Cora herself. Cora knew she was handsome – wasn’t she always referred to in the papers as ‘the divine Miss Cash’?
I did it. I survived my second ‘Come At Me, Books!’ dare. As I expected, it was a complete trainwreck – but this time with dukes and duchesses, rather than assassins. This did not make it any better. My first qualm with this book would be why it was even called My Last Duchess in the first place. I understand the reference to the Browning poem, but why make this reference? Cora becomes the latest Duchess of Wareham, certainly, but she is by no means the last – it feels to me as though the author was just trying to make her book seem more literary and interesting than it actually is. It’s like Cora herself once thinks ‘Perhaps she should change into something more interesing. Something that suggested that she could be fascinating as well as decorative’ – unfortunately, this book proved to be neither. It was very dull, with 500 pages of little to no plot, lots of descriptions of gowns ordered from Paris, and Cora complaining about everything under the sun, or lack thereof, because she’s in England now, and nothing could ever be as good as it was in America.
Apparently this book was published as The American Heiress at some point, and that makes so much more sense, not only as a title but because the book is all about Cora, a spoilt and irritating wealthy American socialite who travels to England in search of a titled husband. When she becomes engaged at just over 100 pages in, what follows are 400 more pages of banality – gossip, hunting, trying on dresses, moping about, and not listening when people try to confide important plot points to her. I say important plot points, but I’ve basically just told you the entire plot right there. Nothing happens. There are a lot of revelations in the last ten pages or so but they don’t come as a surprise at all, and everything is wrapped up far too quickly and tidily – that, and because I didn’t care for any of the characters, the revelation that so many of them had shady pasts did not come as a surprise. Everything was so clearly signposted from the start that the book plodded and lumbered about, trying to fill its pages with empty meaningless fluff before shoving in ‘drama’ right at the very end.
But back to Cora. I spoke to my friend Ellis who dared me to read this book as I began doing so, and I said ‘I’ve only known [Cora] for two pages and I want to punch her’. She considers herself to be so much better than everyone else, with her ninety dresses made in Paris in her trousseau, thinking someone is ‘quite good looking for an English girl, despite her dowdy clothes and miserable hair’, and complaining within the first couple of chapters that ‘It’s not my fault I’m richer than everyone else’. Over the top and vulgar, Cora’s only flaw, in the author’s mind, seems to be her short-sightedness – literally. She not only manages to not see things that are right in front of her within the world of the book, like a scandalous painting, but also the plot itself. She is childish, stomping her foot in frustration on a number of occasions, ripping items of clothing and breaking priceless necklaces in her impatience to get undressed, and constantly whinging about everything from the weather to the bathrooms to the other characters she interacts with. No wonder everything keeps going so horribly wrong for her as she tries to navigate English nobility – her failings are meant to make the reader pity her, poor little rich girl that she is, but I just found them alternately amusing and frustrating beyond measure. How can she be so stupid? She did not change at all over the course of the book – except for the fact that I kept finding new reasons to want to punch her.
Shame I can’t wear the bill around my neck. I would like to see their faces once they realise that I can spend more on one dress than they spend on their clothes in a year. They’re all so dowdy, and yet they dare to look down their dripping noses at me, even though they’re all desperate for me to marry one of their namby-pamby sons.
The other characters are no better. Cora’s mother manages to set herself on fire within the first couple of chapters because of her ridiculous fancy dress costume, and refers to the Duke of Wareham as ‘Duke’, rather than ‘Your Grace’ – she is always far too familiar and uncouth, and complains constantly about the standard of living in England not living up to her American standards. The Duke’s mother is no better. The ‘Double Duchess’ – as she is hilariously referred to throughout the book – has not only slept with the Prince of Wales but some of her own servants; apparently the stationmaster was ‘as discreet as he was muscular’ and had ‘spectacular’ calves. Charlotte, one of the English aristocrats, is catty and selfish – ‘Yes, you are his wife but I am the woman he loves. Sadly it’s not a position you can buy’. Bertha the maid is always stealing from her employers and sneaking off to kiss Jim, one of the Duke’s servants – and Jim’s only goal in life seems to be kissing Bertha and trying to get her to sleep with him. ‘You’re not cross, are you, that I kissed you? You just looked so fine standing there, I couldn’t help myself’, he says, having only met Bertha a couple of times before, referring to her as his ‘black pearl’ – while Bertha keeps getting herself into entanglements with him and doesn’t leave, even when she knows she should, such as when her mistress is giving birth. ‘She did not trust him to let her go willingly, and she knew it would take so very little to make her stay’, indeed. Then there is Cora’s initial love interest, Teddy, who insists on abandoning her to run off to Paris to paint, but when he finds out some of the scandal in Cora’s new life becomes determined to rescue her – he literally uses the word rescue – since ‘he loved the woman, not the heiress’.
You’ll notice how I have mentioned all of these characters, but I’ve yet to discuss Cora’s husband, the Duke, or do so by name. That’s because his name is Ivo. The names of the characters in this book are just so stupid. Cora Cash. Ivo. Odo. Mrs Softley. I could go on, but I really should tell you more about His Grace Ivo ‘I like you when you’ve been crying’ Maltravers. I think that was his last name though, to be honest, I don’t really care. He first meets Cora when she gets knocked off her horse by a tree branch – yes, really – and asks him ‘Would you like to kiss me? Most men want to, but I am just too rich’ before passing out. After hardly ever speaking and not knowing each other for very long at all they become engaged, but for most of the book he isn’t actually there – he’s off hunting, or travelling abroad – and when he is there, well, the already excruciating writing gets even worse: ‘When he finally reared up, giving a yelp of what was both pain and pleasure, she pushed herself towards him, willing him to continue. She wanted him to stay deep inside her forever – only by keeping him there would he be really hers.’ This was no Mills and Boon, whatever sexual references there were weren’t all that explicit, but nevertheless I felt a bit icky having read that. Pain, what pain? What sort of sex are they having? It turns out they’re having sufficient sex that Cora becomes pregnant and they have a baby – a son and heir, of course – but he isn’t even in the country when the child is born. There is so much build up as to why he’s been away so long, why he arrived back in secret, and there is no payoff until much later – he arrives home and all is well, and reveals where he was in his big speech at the end, which anyone with half a brain would have already figured out.
He and Charlotte had been sleeping together before he met Cora – Charlotte had fancied Ivo’s brother, Guy, and so Ivo had stolen her away from him. When Guy found them canoodling in the family chapel, the only place they could be together without being seen by the servants – and the first place Ivo and Cora kissed, and where he proposed to her, of course – he went off and killed himself by deliberately falling from his horse. The day after the funeral Charlotte asked Ivo when they could get married, as nothing now stood in their way, and throughout their marriage Ivo used Cora in a number of ways to try and get revenge on Charlotte, and prove their relationship was at an end. Cora, of course, had no idea about Charlotte and Ivo having been together, despite being told about it or its being hinted at several times, and when everything is revealed she just takes Ivo’s word for it, and they live happily every after. Of course they do. Because Cora is a complete moron.
A shameless rip off of shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, My Last Duchess is dull, repetitive, and unoriginal. I completely understand why this book pushed my dear friend Ellis away from reading for a year – if I had to read anything like this again, I would set my head on fire with a stupid battery-powered fancy-dress costume. If that sounds ridiculous to you, then avoid this – one of the most ridiculous books I have ever had the misfortune to read.