The gorgeous cover to the right of this text belongs to Elizabeth Loupas’s The Second Duchess, a historical novel inspired by Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” Since Elizabeth’s book will hit shelves on March 1, I asked her if she’d mind writing up some thoughts about her writing and research process, and about fictionalizing real (and already fictionalized) events.
First I’d like to thank Katharine for inviting me to write a bit about the intersection between “My Last Duchess” and The Second Duchess, and how researching and writing the book changed my reading of the poem. Thank you, Katharine, and congratulations on the paperback release of your own beautiful, beautiful Alcestis.
I have loved “My Last Duchess” from the time I first read it in junior high. For junior-high-me, it had everything—the glamour of the Renaissance, a darkly brooding narrator, a beautiful and doomed heroine. At first I saw only the surface romance of it. Later, in university classes, I read it more carefully and followed the traditional interpretation—the duke as a madman who murdered his innocent wife out of pride and jealousy and sheer possessiveness. My focus was always on the duke and the duchess and I never really thought about the unseen character of the potential second wife.
Much later, when I was tutoring high school students through writing essays about the poem, it suddenly struck me that there was yet another level to the poem’s story. Who was this second wife? What would she make of her new husband? At that time I did not know any of the historical background, or even that Browning had based the poem on fictionalized versions of historical personages.
So I began to look things up—research! How I love it—and a whole new world opened up to me. The poem’s duke, Alfonso II d’Este, became less a one-note megalomaniacal villain and more a classic Renaissance prince in the mode of Machiavelli. His first duchess, Lucrezia de’ Medici, became less the innocent victim and more a willful seventeen-year-old. (She was only fourteen when she and Duke Alfonso were married, and seventeen when she died.) The duke’s second wife, Barbara of Austria, took on a face and a personality of her own as well—she was twenty-six, old for a first marriage at that time, and ambassadors’ letters are frank about her lack of beauty.
Browning chose one way to fictionalize the relationships of these three people—a way, I think, that reflects his own Victorian sensibilities, his admiration of the Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites, and his taste for psychological drama. I wanted to choose a different way. I did. The Second Duchess is the result.
So for me now, there are two ways to read “My Last Duchess.” One is the way Browning intended, and which a million students and critics have expounded—that the duke is a madman and that he had his first duchess murdered. When asked what his meaning was, Browning himself said, “I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death, or he might have had her shut up in a convent.” So this is Browning’s story, and he’s sticking to it. There’s something to be said for it—it’s compelling drama.
The other way to read the poem is with the genuine historical personages in mind. Duke Alfonso was a soldier, a sportsman, a musician. He fought in the French army with his cousin Henri II of France. He was a world-class tennis player—the first written book of rules for tennis is dedicated to him. He was the patron of the first professional female singers in Europe, the Consort of Ladies. So although he was indeed vain, arrogant, and vengeful, he was a sixteenth-century prince and that was what was expected of him.
Young Duchess Lucrezia, so often characterized as an innocent victim of the Duke’s jealousy and madness, was the daughter of Cosimo I de’ Medici; she and her sisters were not as sheltered as one might think. (Read the fascinating story of Lucrezia’s older sister Isabella in Caroline P. Murphy’s Murder of a Medici Princess. Isabella plays a critical role in my Lucrezia’s development, and she’s far from innocent.) Even Browning hints at the duchess having a mind of her own: “…and if she let / Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set / Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse…”
It changes everything. I think it makes the poem richer. Browning’s fictionalization, and a re-fictionalization based on the historical record, intertwine with each other for me now as I read, and make my experience of the poem all the more intricate and powerful.
(The Second Duchess, published by Penguin/NAL, will be released March 1, 2011. For complete details see www.elizabethloupas.com. Thanks, Elizabeth, for writing about it here!)