Daisy Goodwin, “The American Heiress”/”My Last Duchess”

The late-19th-century cultural phenomenon of American heiresses marrying into the English aristocracy has attracted literary attention from the moment it began: Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady was published in 1880, a mere six years after the foundational match between Jennie Jerome and Lord Randolph Churchill. James worked this seam thoroughly, followed by Edith Wharton, most notably in her final, unfinished novel The Buccaneers. James and Wharton concentrated on the tension — both emotional and social — generated by these matches, but several of their contemporaries wrote escapist fiction on the same theme that focused more on the voyeuristic aspects of the situation. (Look for Gertrude Atherton’s 1898 American Wives and English Husbands, Constance Cary Harrison’s 1890 Anglomaniacs, or Mary E. Sherwood’s 1882 A Transplanted Rose.) The men’s castles, the women’s jewelry, the parties, the scandals, the love matches and the divorces — this was social climbing taken to the extreme and it entertained many people for a long time.

Sargent's portrait of the 9th Duke of Marlborough and his Duchess, formerly Consuelo Vanderbilt, plus the heir and the spare

Apparently it still does. Daisy Goodwin’s The American Heiress (which was published in the UK as My Last Duchess) revisits the heiress/aristocrat marriage. I have to say, I am not the right audience for this book, because I have previously written about it myself. So by page 10, I could identify not only the models of the characters and settings, but also the author’s sources. That’s my problem, not Goodwin’s. I finished the book because I was curious to see what she would make of it. Her heiress is the usual headstrong beauty, here named Cora Cash. (The elbow-in-the-side name is an unusually blatant touch.) The tale opens with a set-piece of a Newport ball before Cora is whisked over to England where she and her dollars will be trailed before impecunious English suitors. She and the handsome enigmatic Duke of Wareham meet cute in Paradise Wood on his estate — so far, so Georgette Heyer.

The interesting part of the book is not the courtship but what happens afterward, as Duchess Cora and her aristocratic Ivo begin to negotiate a relationship.  Goodwin is at her best imagining the obstacles presented by the Duke’s pride, Cora’s expectations, and their mutual misunderstanding. There were flickers of Wharton here: that sense you get in some of Wharton’s novels of appealing characters who can’t get out of their own way. Cora’s impetuous efforts to please her husband misfire repeatedly, understandably. (She’s slow on the uptake about how little he likes a surprise.)  Her money is almost a character in its own right, and looms large in the marriage.

Ultimately, though, The American Heiress is not interested in exploring the finer emotional shades. Ivo’s habit of running hot and cold with Cora turns out to have a more mundane cause and we’re back in Georgette Heyer-land. Without, sadly, Heyer’s light touch.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
This entry was posted in anglophilia, contemporary fiction, historical fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Daisy Goodwin, “The American Heiress”/”My Last Duchess”

  1. Annie says:

    I haven’t read the book or seen the film, so I can’t make any comment on this particular manifestation of the genre, but I do think highly of the Wharton. It was also filmed (with an reasonably appropriate ending added) and shown here as a television serial. I don’t know if it ever made it to the US. Did you get a chance to see it?

  2. carolwallace says:

    You know, Annie, I didn’t, but I have just added it to my Netflix queue.

    Was “My Last Duchess” filmed in the UK?

    On a completely different reading tack, do you know the nifty mid-20th century procedurals of Michael Gilbert? Nice dry sense of humor, very… efficient.

    • Annie says:

      I’m not certain about the site for ‘My Last Duchess’, Carol. I’ll do a bit of doffing and see if I can find out. And no, I don’t know Michael Gilbert. I’m off to the library site now to see what they have. Thanks for the tip.

  3. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  4. carolwallace says:

    Oh, gosh, Annie, I just meant “was it released as a film” in the UK. Don’t worry about researching it!

    Following my own advice to you I picked up “Smallbone Deceased” of Gilbert last night and am adoring it on the 3d or 4th go-round. It’s full of that erudite dry humor that we don’t do in the US.

  5. Zoe Loves says:

    Hey Carol, I’ve also recently reviewed ‘My Last Duchess’…what did you think about the fact that Goodwin has named the novel after the famous Browning monologue? I sort of feel that it’s a little cheeky, as it draws you in to expect something completely different from what is actually written….Couldn’t help but it enjoy it though.


    • carolwallace says:

      Hi, Zoe — I know what you mean. Of course we transatlantic illiterates weren’t to be expected to get the reference, so we got a new title. I agree, the Browning doesn’t really fit the tone of the novel. I wish I had liked it better!

  6. Kim says:

    You can read another review at thebooklover.wordpress.com.

  7. Pingback: The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin « Gudrun's Tights

  8. Hillary says:

    I had no idea there was a film or series? I can’t find it online anywhere…do you have a link to it? I would love to see it

    • carolwallace says:

      Hillary, I don’t think “The American Heiress” has been filmed yet, but there is a pretty nice TV version of Edith Wharton’s “The Buccaneers” which was one of the principal sources of Daisy Goodwin’s book. http://imdb.to/189EVu

  9. rebellegosh says:

    hi carol..do you know why is it named, “my last duchess?”

    • carolwallace says:

      Belle, I think it’s probably a reference to a poem by Robert Browning called “My Last Duchess” which tells the story of an Italian Renaissance duke who had his first wife…. either put to death or caused to vanish. I guess the poem would be better known in the UK. Not really sure why it would have worked for this book, though. What do you think?

  10. Pingback: Review: The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin | Me and my writing life

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