His Last Duchess

Written by Gabrielle Kimm
Review by Ann Northfield

This debut novel is a fictionalised account of the real life Lucrezia de’Medici, probably best known for being the eponymous heroine in ‘His Last Duchess’, the wonderful poem by Robert Browning. Set in 16th-century Italy, the novel follows the fortunes of the young Lucrezia as she is married off to the fifth Duke of Ferrara. Anyone who has read or knows the poem will already be aware that this is not going to end well.

Bearing in mind that this is one of my favourite poems and an era of history I find fascinating, the question remains why did this novel leave me cold? There is passion, jealousy, and intrigue, and it is well-researched, full of historical detail. It examines the vulnerability of women in this world where they are totally dependent on the whims of men but for me, the characters came to life only sporadically and there was too many ‘lurching with longing’ type of phrases. All the details of the poem are faithfully included, making it sometimes feel a little bit like an extended creative writing task. It is designed and packaged for reading groups with notes and questions included and there is plenty of scope for discussion. It is targeted at fans of Phillipa Gregory and Sarah Dunant and although of similar ilk, it isn’t quite up to their standards. A pleasant enough romantic read which does create a well-realised historical world, but ultimately fails to compel as much as I had hoped.