My Last Duchess – Facts


Most of the characters in this book are fictional, but in a note the author tells us that she has based the novel on Consuelo Vanderbilt who married the Duke of Marlborough, owner of Blenheim Palace. I remember visiting the palace, and the only name I remember from my several visits is Consuelo’s.

Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (formerly, Consuelo Spencer-Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough; born Consuelo Vanderbilt; 2 March 1877 – 6 December 1964) was a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family. Her marriage to His Grace Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough became an international emblem of the socially advantageous, but loveless, marriages common during the Gilded Age.

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Cora is from Newport, Rhode Island. Newport is a seaside city on Aquidneck Island in Newport County. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, wealthy southern planters seeking to escape the heat began to build summer cottages on Bellevue Avenue.

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The estate house that Ivo owns is Lulworth in Dorset. There is a Lulworth Castle in Dorset. Lulworth Castle, in East Lulworth, Dorset. The foundations for Lulworth Castle were laid in 1588, and it was completed in 1609, supposedly designed by Inigo Jones. The castle was built as a hunting lodge.

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When Charlotte breaks her pearl necklace, there is a mention to Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, and the pearl that she dissolved in wine. The feast is the culmination of a wager between Cleopatra and Mark Antony as to which one could provide the most expensive feast. As recounted in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History she wins the wager: after Mark Antony’s feast, Cleopatra drops a rare and precious pearl from her earring into a cup of vinegar and drinks it once the pearl has dissolved.

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The first time Cora listens to Ivo playing the piano, he is executing Waldstein. Beethoven‘s Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major,  known as the Waldstein, is one of the three most notable sonatas of his middle period. The sonata’s name derives from Beethoven’s dedication to his close friend and patron Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein of Vienna.

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Ivo makes constant references to his ancestors’ part in the English Civil War. The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians (“Roundheads“) and Royalists (“Cavaliers“) over, principally, the manner of England’s government.  The first (1642–46) and second (1648–49) wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third (1649–51) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The war ended with the Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. The overall outcome of the war was threefold: the trial and execution of Charles I (1649); the exile of his son, Charles II (1651); and the replacement of English monarchy with, at first, the Commonwealth of England (1649–53) and then the Protectorate under the personal rules of Oliver Cromwell (1653–58) and his son (1658–59).

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The Prince of Wales appears in the novel twice. The first time when he is a guest in Duchess Fanny’s home, and the second time Cora invites him to Lulworth as the godfather of her son. The Prince was once Duchess Fanny’s lover. Edward VII (Albert Edward; 9 November 1841 – 6 May 1910) was King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions and Emperor of India from 22 January 1901 until his death in 1910. Edward had mistresses throughout his married life. At least fifty-five liaisons are conjectured. How far these relationships went is not always clear. Edward always strove to be discreet, but this did not prevent society gossip or press speculation.

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Another important real person depicted in the novel is Lord Rosebery, the Prime Minister, who attends Cora’s first party. Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery,  (7 May 1847 – 21 May 1929) was a British Liberal statesman who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 5 March 1894 to 22 June 1895.

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There is also a reference to Prince Eddy, who Ivo escorts in an expedition to India. Prince Albert Victor, (Albert Victor Christian Edward; 8 January 1864 – 14 January 1892), was the eldest child of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), and grandson of the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. From the time of his birth, he was second in the line of succession to the British throne, but never became king: he died before his father and his grandmother, the Queen.

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One of Cora’s surprises for her husband is a painting by Rubens. His family used to own Rubens’ St Cecilia in the family chapel, but they had to sell it. So Cora decides to buy another painting, Madonna with Child. Sir Peter Paul Rubens ( 28 June 1577 – 30 May 1640) was a Flemish artist. He is considered the most influential artist of Flemish Baroque tradition.

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In Lulworth Ivo has two dogs that are lurchers. The lurcher is the offspring of a sighthound mated with another breed, most commonly a pastoral breed or a terrier type of dog.

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When Cora meets the poet Stebbings in Charlotte’s soiree, the man gives her a copy of The Yellow Book, a magazine where his poem is published. The Yellow Book was a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897. It was a leading journal of the British 1890s; to some degree associated with Aestheticism and Decadence, the magazine contained a wide range of literary and artistic genres, poetry, short stories, essays, book illustrations, portraits, and reproductions of paintings.

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When Cora visits the painter Louvain in his studio, the walls of his house are covered by paintings which he identifies as shunga by Utamaro. Shunga  is a Japanese term for erotic art. Most shunga areusually executed in woodblock print format.

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One of the clues about Charlotte and Ivo is when she is supposed to take part in a tableau vivant, but she cries off eventually as she cliams to have a headache. Tableau vivant  is a style of artistic presentation, often shortened to simply tableau. It most often describes a group of suitably costumed actors, carefully posed and often theatrically lit. In the theatrical context, the actors/models do not speak or move throughout the duration of the display. The approach thus marries the art forms of the stage with those of the more static visual arts, and it has thus been of interest to modern photographers.

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