The Second Duchess
by Elizabeth Loupas
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.
- Robert Browning, My Last Duchess
Barbara, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, has come to Ferrara to marry the Duke who rules over the prosperous city. Rumors swirl about the cruelty of this man; it is said that he poisoned his former wife because she was adulterous and came from a family of low birth. Horrible as the stories are, they seem possible – the Duke is a proud, vain man with a cruel streak and a crafty nature. He forbids Barbara from even speaking of his former duchess and her mysterious death, but the duke’s command only raises Barbara’s curiosity. She starts her own investigation into the death of Lucrezia d’Medici, but as she begins to ask questions it quickly becomes clear that if she isn’t careful, Barbara will share her predecessor’s fate.
An oddity in this historical mystery is the presence of Lucrezia’s immobilia, a ghost. At the end of every chapter, she weighs in with commentary on preceding events, dropping hints about who she was and how she met her untimely end at the tender age of seventeen. She’s a catty little thing, calling Barbara ‘La Cavalla’ (‘The Mare’) and rattling on and on about the various lovers she had throughout her two-year marriage. I can’t say that Lucrezia’s presence does much to move the plot forward, but at least she’s able to explain to the reader her motivations for the decisions she made in life.
The characters act very appropriate to the time period – no 21st century feminists in period gowns here. Barbara is an intelligent woman, with a keen perception that enables her to easily dissect the intrigues of the court of Ferrara. But her goals are confined to a woman’s proper role: she wishes to mother children and support her husband – but she doesn’t really seem interested in co-ruling or supplanting him. Barbara accepts her husband’s dominance over her; she might ask a question or two for clarification, but ultimately she conforms to his will.
Overall, it’s a story well-told, inspired by the Robert Browning poem quoted at the beginning of this review. From the cover I had guessed The Second Duchess would be a fairly straightforward historical romance, but it’s actual much more of a mystery with some romance tossed in. The rich pageantry of the Farnese court is described beautifully, transplanting the reader to an opulent world of gilt and marble. Now that the weather’s starting to warm up (here in California, at least!) it’ll be a great inaugural read for the poolside.
3.5 out of 5 stars