Last lesson of the school day. In an atmosphere of congealed intelligence most of my class mates appear to be sleeping with their eyes open, or at best their minds are elsewhere, contemplating the freedom of the street after the bell. But my attention is riveted on Miss Fitzsimons, known – sometimes affectionately – as ‘Blue Fits’ on account of her temper and her hair rinse. She is reading to us from Robert Browning, her favourite poet, “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall … 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 liked people who smiled. I wanted to know the friendly Duchess who rode around her castle on a white mule. And I was disturbed by this polite man’s brutal power to snuff out happiness.
The psychological depth of Browning’s poem was beyond the understanding of my 12-year-old self and the unease remained somewhere in my psyche unresolved – until I read Gabrielle Kimm’s debut novel, His Last Duchess. The author had also been intrigued by this poem but as an undergraduate – an age better able to appreciate its emotional nuances; even so, it was a few years before the idea of the novel came to her, “… like one of those moments in cartoons where a character has a light bulb appear over his head – I just suddenly knew that turning it into a novel was what I had to do.”
The light bulb is apt because Gabrielle Kimm adroitly illuminates not only the complex characters of the manipulative and obsessive Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este; his vivacious teenage bride, Lucrezia, and the Duke’s long-suffering mistress, Francesca, but a whole slice of Renaissance Italy. Whether it’s a vaulted kitchen steaming with banquet preparations, the blind dignity of a hooded peregrine falcon, the sensuous intricacies of untying a closely fitted sleeve, or grinding and mixing artists’ pigments, we are effortlessly transported to sixteenth-century Tuscany and Ferrara, unconsciously absorbing the lifestyle of her characters.
The symbolism is intriguing: among the items of Lucrezia’s dowry, Alfonso gains the greatest pleasure from a bronze of Hephaistos (Greek god of the forge), his body taught with effort over the anvil while his hammer fashions the shield of Achilles – an instrument of defence powerless to save the virile Achilles from his inherent weakness.
The novel opens with 16-year-old Lucrezia de’Medici romping in the gardens of Villa Cafaggiolo, her family’s Tuscany home, with her cousin Giovanni; an innocent exuberance that anticipates her forthcoming nuptials with apprehension mingled with wonder and excitement. Alfonso is a handsome man; he eyes her with desire. This she must view as a potential bonus because such an alliance between the houses of Medici and d’Este is sought to further the political and economic position of both dynasties: not to satisfy the romantic yearnings of a young girl.
Alfonso d’Este’s obsession with Lucrezia’s beauty and desirability, later transformed in the chaos of his mind into physical aversion, combined with the political necessity of an heir, results in almost manic frustration and the appalling dénouement two years later. To say Alfonso is ‘a difficult man’ is an understatement, yet the depths of character which the author reveals enables us to understand – if not condone – his actions.
As for Lucrezia, a pawn in the politic power-play of both families and oppressed by her irrelevance in the d’Este household, her hopes and lively spirits are ground down to alienation and an unsurprising vulnerability to the promise of forbidden love.
I will say no more about the plot: your coffee will go cold reading this novel and I don’t want to give anything away. Integral to its pace is the balance within its characters; there are no cardboard stereotypes here. Complex psychology is demonstrated in dialogue and actions appropriate to the period (to some extent Alfonso is a product of his time), but they are essentially, deeply human and in that sense are timeless. Among the numerous supporting characters, Giullietta the nurse, Fra Pandolf and Jacomo the portrait painters, and especially Francesca Felizzi, Alfonso’s mistress, are so richly drawn we imagine their lives outside the story.
And Gabrielle Kimm succumbed to her own creation it seems: unable to get Francesca out of her mind she made her the protagonist of a second novel, The Courtesan’s Lover; not a sequel, but the story of Francesca and her twin girls in Napoli forging entirely new lives after the tragic events in Ferrara. It is due out in November 2011 and I am impatient to read it.
In the meantime, you can read an extract from His Last Duchess, and browse the Renaissance gallery on Gabrielle Kimm’s period website www.gabriellekimm.co.uk
Gabrielle Kimm’s, His Last Duchess, is published by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group.