WHERE THE BOOK BEGAN

It all began with a poem – Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, ‘My Last Duchess’.  I loved this poem from the first moment I read it, and was completely hooked by the image Browning paints of this sinister aristocrat, smugly admitting that he took out a contract on his late first wife, simply because the poor creature annoyed him so much!

Here is the original poem:

MY LAST DUCHESS

by Robert Browning

Ferrara

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive.  I call

That piece a wonder, now;  Fra Pandolf’s hands

Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will’t please you sit and look at her?  I said

‘Fra Pandolf’ by design, for never read

Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

The curtain I have drawn for you but I)

And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,

How such a glance came there; so, not the first

Are you to turn and ask thus.  Sir, ‘twas not

Her husband’s presence only, called that spot

Of joy in to the Duchess’ cheek:  perhaps

Fra Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps

Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint

Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half-flush that dies along her throat:  such stuff

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of joy.  She had

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.

Sir, ‘twas all one!  My favour at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace – all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush at least.  She thanked men – good! but thanked

Somehow – I know not how – as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years old name

With anybody’s gift.  Who’d stoop to blame

This sort of trifling?  Even had you skill

In speech – (which I have not) – to make your will

Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this

Or that in you disgusts me;  here you miss,

Or there exceed the mark’ – and if she let

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set

Her wits to yours, forsooth and made excuse,

– E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose

Never to stoop.  Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile?  This grew;  I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together.  There she stands

As if alive.  Will’t please you rise:  we’ll meet

The company below, then.  I repeat,

The Count your master’s known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretence

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object.  nay, we’ll go

Together down, sir.  Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,

Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

So – there it is:   the starting point.  Years after first reading it, it dawned on me one day that all the ingredients for a novel were here, in the back-story to this poem:  all the dramatic elements you could possibly ask for, ready to explore.

Browning’s duke is highly articulate – despite his protestations that he has no ‘skill in speech’ he is clearly verbally dextrous – and he seems, too, both polite and cultured.  At the beginning of the poem, he uses words like ‘wonder’, ‘depth and passion’, and ‘earnest’ to describe his late wife;  words which imply that he is treasuring her memory as much as he clearly treasures the painted image which he keeps reverently hidden behind a sumptuous damask curtain.  But, by the time the duke has listed the many faults he says he found in the duchess, and by the time he has all but openly admitted that he ordered her death, his very courtesy seems menacing, and you can easily imagine the raised heartbeat and the wide-eyed wariness in his listener (who must surely be hoping that he will be allowed to return home safely, having been party to this alarming confession) .

All wonderfully dramatic stuff!

But, in the earliest stages of planning my book, I found myself faced with a bit of a problem – the duchess, as described in the poem by the duke, didn’t sound nearly interesting enough to sustain reader-interest as a heroine.

She had

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.

Reading this, it seemed to me that this girl was either simple minded and eternally cheerful – a sort of Renaissance Pollyanna – or she was an outrageous, unthinking little flirt, and neither of these ideas appealed to me at all!  But then it occurred to me – and this is where the idea for the progression of the plot really took off – that the duke’s perception of her is not necessarily accurate, and that if he has a distorted view of his wife because of his own psychological problems, the real girl might be something very different indeed to the simpering, uninteresting little anonymity in Browning’s poem.

Discovering what ‘his last duchess’s’ real personality was like, and finding out exactly why the duke’s view of her is so inaccurate, has been what has entertained me so much in writing this novel.  I hope that in the end I have done Mr Browning justice.

A bit about Robert Browning:

robert-browningRobert Browning was born in Camberwell on 7th May 1812.  His father (also called Robert) was the son of a wealthy slave-owner from St Kitts, but Robert Senior was appalled by the very notion of slavery;  he became an abolitionist, left the Caribbean and returned to London to take up a prestigious post at a bank.    Robert the poet was brought up with his sister Sarianna, in an affectionate household full of books and music.  The family lived simply;  Browning had little formal education, although he was encouraged by his parents to make use of the literally thousands of books that took up nearly a whole floor of the family home.  He was a bright boy, and soon became proficient in languages and music as well as writing.  Poetry was always his special love, and in later years, he said that he could not remember a time in which he had not been creating poems.

In 1845, at the age of 32,  he met a young woman called Elizabeth Barratt, a semi-invalid a few years his senior, who lived with her dictatorial father in Wimpole Street in London.  Robert and Elizabeth quickly fell in love;  they married secretly (to avoid parental opposition) in St Marylebone Parish Church in London, in 1846, and moved to Italy, where they spent all their life together, first in Pisa and then in Florence.   They were both writers – both gifted poets – and theirs was genuinely a ‘marriage of true minds’.  They had one child, in 1849 (yet another Robert, nicknamed Pen).    Elizabeth died in 1861, after which Browning and his son left Italy.

Browning worked prolifically all his life, and published a number of poems over several years, but he remained relatively unknown until middle age;  it was not until the publication of his epic work ‘The Ring and the Book’, during the course of 1868 and 1869, that he finally received the recognition he had sought for nearly forty years.    I feel a tremendous admiration for someone so dedicated to his art:  such steadfast belief must give hope to everyone who cherishes any sort of heartfelt ambition.

The poems for which Browning is probably best known now are his monologues (‘My Last Duchess’ being perhaps one of most familiar.)   The dramatic monologue is a wonderfully intense form of poetry, with the reader becoming a character in the unfolding drama, a silent listener, as the first-person speaker addresses them directly.  Browning seems to have had a fascination for dark, psychologically dodgy and even criminal minds – whether that be poor Porphyria’s homicidal lover, the jilted girl in ‘The Laboratory’, or the amoral duke of Ferrara who lies at the heart of my novel.  (I have to admit to a bit of the same fascination myself – I suppose that’s where the connection with Browning stemmed from, originally!)   This, of course, means that in these monologues, faced with Browning’s choice of weird and morally damaged characters, the silent listener has the vicarious thrill of being placed in the presence of characters whose actual presence might well be decidedly dangerous!

Browning received an Honorary MA from Oxford University in 1867, and was made an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College Oxford.   He died on 12 December 1889 in Venice, and on 31 December of that year was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.