Book review: My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin

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Rich American heiress marries titled English gentleman, leading to star-spangled romance, satirical comedy and delicious culture clashes.

Daisy Goodwin’s stylish and entertaining fin-de-siècle novel is the perfect antidote for those still suffering Downton Abbey withdrawal symptoms.

The TV producer and presenter turned author’s dazzling fiction debut is a cross between Edith Wharton and Henry James but with more froth and frills.

Matching up wealthy American women and impecunious British aristocrats was all the rage in the late 19th century and Goodwin details the 1880 marriage of Sir Thomas George Fermor-Hesketh of Rufford Hall near Ormskirk in Lancashire to Nevada millionaire’s daughter Florence Sharon as the introduction to her book.

My Last Duchess, the story of the extravagantly rich and aptly named Cora Cash and her handsome but virtually penniless duke, Ivo Maltravers, is full of the misunderstandings, bitching and treachery that we have come to love.

But is also a finely observed and well-researched recreation of 1890s high society with an astute portrayal of the clash between the new and old worlds, some neat literary allusions and a touching below stairs sub-plot.

After a glittering coming-out ball featuring champagne fountains and gold-painted hummingbirds, Cora is whisked off to England by her predatory mother Nancy who is eager to find a suitable consort for the Cash millions.

She needs little persuasion to fall in love with Ivo, the 9th Duke of Wareham, whose family have lived on land at Lulworth in Dorset for 700 years but who is now beset by money troubles.

Of course, there are problems ahead...not least with Ivo’s mother, Fanny, a twice married ‘double duchess’ who is as far removed from Cora’s vision of an ageing ‘dowager in dirty diamonds’ as it is possible to get.

There’s also the scheming and jealous Charlotte Beauchamp and those infuriating English mores and manners which leave poor Cora stumped.

‘Everything was designed to put an outsider at a disadvantage,’ she discovers. ‘If you had to ask, you didn’t belong.’

Meanwhile, Cora’s black Carolina-born maid Bertha has found a love of her own - the duke’s dashing valet Jim Harman.

Cora, ridiculed by both servants and her new husband’s acquaintances, faces a dark secret and will have to learn quickly if her love is to survive.

With a lavish cast of characters, including a cameo walk-on part by ‘Tum Tum’, the ageing Prince of Wales, sparkling dialogue and a clever plotline, My Last Duchess is a classy, colourful and compelling romance.

Sit back and escape.

(Headline Review, paperback, £7.99)