The Second Duchess is a fascinating historical novel set in Renaissance Italy and narrated by Barbara of Austria, the second wife of Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara. The recent tragic death of the Duke’s first Duchess, Lucrezia de’ Medici, has never been satisfactorily explained and many people think she may have been murdered by the Duke himself. Listening to these rumours, Barbara doesn’t know what to believe. Determined to discover the truth she decides to investigate, but it seems that whoever killed Lucrezia doesn’t like Barbara asking questions. Will Alfonso’s second duchess meet the same fate as his first?
Although the back cover of this book promised “conspiracy, intrigue and murder”, I was still surprised that the story had such a strong mystery element. I have never read anything about Lucrezia de’ Medici’s death before and enjoyed watching Barbara trying to piece the facts together. Despite the gossip suggesting that Lucrezia was poisoned by the Duke, Barbara soon discovers that there are plenty of other people at court and beyond who may also have wanted the first duchess dead. With lots of possible suspects and clues that are only revealed slowly throughout the novel, it’s not easy to guess the truth. Today historians believe Lucrezia probably died of natural causes, but the mystery Elizabeth Loupas weaves around her death feels plausible and makes a great story!
I think another of the things I liked about this book was that the ‘romance’, if you can even call it that, is very subtle and understated. At twenty-six, Barbara has a mature and realistic outlook on life and she is aware that her marriage has been made for political reasons. She doesn’t expect to instantly fall in love with Alfonso and is prepared to work at their relationship, trying to get to know and understand him. Of course, this would be a lot easier if she could just find out whether or not he’s a murderer! Barbara is portrayed as an intelligent and courageous woman, not beautiful like Lucrezia but with a grace and dignity of her own, and never seeming too modern or out of place in a sixteenth century setting.
Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara is an intriguing character and I could never quite decide whether I liked him or not. He commits an act of violence near the beginning of the book that made me think not, but as the story progressed I started to have more respect for him. Both Barbara and the Duke feel like realistic people of their time period and don’t always behave as we might like them to behave, but I actually found that very refreshing as so many authors try to give modern day sensibilities to their historical characters. As for Lucrezia, although she is dead before the novel begins, she is still a very strong presence and we do have the opportunity to hear her point of view – in a very unconventional way. Lucrezia’s passionate, vengeful voice contrasts nicely with the style of Barbara’s narration and gives us a different perspective on the story.
I also loved all the descriptions of the court of Ferrara: the clothes, the food, the interiors of the churches and palazzi, the hunts, banquets and pageants – I particularly liked reading about the Festival delle Stelle with costumes and mechanical devices representing the signs of the Zodiac. Finally, I should mention that this novel is inspired by Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess. The poem is included at the end of the book and I recommend reading it as it adds another layer to the story. I also found it interesting to search for more information and pictures of the main characters in the novel after I finished reading, as they are all historical figures I previously knew nothing about. Portraits of the beautiful young Lucrezia, the dark, enigmatic Duke, and our heroine Barbara can all easily be found online.
I enjoyed The Second Duchess and really liked the way Elizabeth Loupas writes, which is maybe not surprising as she lists two of my favourite authors (Mary Stewart and Dorothy Dunnett) among her influences. This is the first of her books that I’ve read but I’ll certainly be looking out for her others.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.