I have written before on this blog on the subject of dramatic monologues and of Browning’s use of them in his poem Porphyria’s Lover. I make no apology for turning once more to Browning’s poetry, which I love (even though Oscar Wilde damned him as a poet: ‘Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.’), for a glance at the literature which has influenced my own writing and its portrayal of the criminal mind.
My Last Duchess is a poem which works subtly on a psychological level. I remember reading it for the first time and being astonished at the way in which it made me engage with the situation it depicts, a powerful duke’s receiving an emissary and showing him a painting of his previous wife. (It is commonly thought that this man was the fifth Duke of Ferrara, seeking to marry a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I, and coming to marriage terms via her brother, Count of Tyrol, Ferdinand II.) I didn’t need factual historical background to understand the poem, which itself, line by line, gradually led me along a trail of suggestions and clues to the horrified realisation that he had had his wife ‘done away with’.
In fact, the first thing that struck me as I read the opening lines (‘That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive.’) was that this was like Paulina’s presentation, in The Winter’s Tale, of Queen Hermione’s ‘statue’ (it is really Hermione herself) to the king, Leontes, who believes that his jealousy caused her death. Leontes says, in astonishment at the sculptor’s skill, “The fixture of her eye has motion in’t, As we are mocked with art.” The portraiture of the Italian Renaissance was, of course, sublime in its depiction of looks and character and I was initially lulled by my reading of The Winter’s Tale into thinking that this poem would similarly celebrate artistic achievement. I could not have been more mistaken.
The monologue forces the reader into the shoes of the emissary, listening to the Duke and drawing conclusions about his attitudes, opinions and personality, just as we might upon meeting someone for the first time in real life. Browning’s power lies in his understated use of speech; it is all so matter-of-fact! Line by line, we receive the duke’s description of the cheerful friendliness of this young woman, who smiled on all alike, and we gradually realise that he thought that she should smile for no-one but himself and preserve for the rest a haughty reserve. Then comes the shock: ‘I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.’ Now, with a hammer’s clang, we see why only he may draw the curtains which conceal her lifelike, smiling face: he has ensured that she will smile only for him. He passes on, leading the emissary, and talking of another artwork with equal lack of emotion.
I have read this poem countless times and it has itself the freshness of a new painting whenever I come back to it. I look for this psychological detail in the presentation of villains in crime novels and I am delighted when I find it. There is, for me, far less enjoyment in more stereotypical portrayals, which rely more for impact upon the brutality of actions than upon the workings of minds.
Since I have heard it said that you can find out a lot about people’s characters from their bookshelves, I thought it would be interesting to put it to the test. Books have always formed a kind of parallel universe in my life; I can usually remember how I came by them and what else I was doing when I read them. This is probably why I find it so difficult to discard them; a recent cull produced only four volumes to send to the jumble sale.
I have homed in on one of my bookshelves at random to see if the books that it contains say anything about me. I should perhaps add that it is one of thirty-six bookshelves in my dining-room, some of them stacked two deep, and there are others in most of the other rooms. This may dilute my objective somewhat, but still it provides a bit of fun on a snowy Saturday! I should also confess that, despite my husband’s best efforts, there is no logical order to the way in which my books are arranged.
- The Gunpowder Plot, Antonia Fraser. I read this in a hotel in Scotland, just after I handed in my notice to go to another job and my old boss was trying to persuade me not to leave. Great account, well-told, in which I was able to lose myself completely.
- Mrs Keppel and her daughter, Diana Souhami. Took this on holiday to France in 1996 and read it in the garden of a gite miles from anywhere (a place called Measnes). Excellent period piece that answered some of my questions about Violet Trefusis (a writer who intrigues me).
- The Bicycle Book, Geoff Apps. Not mine! Bought to support one of my son’s enthusiasms, circa 1999 (at a time when the author could have had no idea how topical his last name would become!).
- Condition Black, Gerald Seymour, and eleven other Gerald Seymours, all dutifully signed by the author, who presented them to me after I organised an author event for him (as a library supplier) in 1991. I have to confess that I haven’t read any of them, though my husband now tells me he has read them all, and I know that they have been popular with visitors.
- Waking: An Irish Protestant Upbringing, Hugh Maxton. I bought this in the late ‘90s from the bookshop at Goldsmith’s College (London) and read it on the train on the way home. My old supervisor, Bill McCormack (see Sheridan Le Fanu article) was teaching at Goldsmith’s at the time. He writes poetry as Hugh Maxton.
- In Praise of Folly, Erasmus. Given to me as a sample by Wordsworth Classics when the imprint was launched. I haven’t read this, either.
- Nothing Except My Genius, Oscar Wilde. A slim volume containing a selection of Wilde’s sayings and aphorisms, for dipping into. Not sure where it came from – maybe a Booksellers Association Conference ‘goody-bag’? Precious wit from one of my favourite writers.
- Restoration, Rose Tremain. In my view, the best novel by another author whom I much admire. A present from colleagues. I read some of it when I couldn’t sleep while staying in a dive of a hotel after a party to celebrate Hatchard’s 200th birthday (which both Princess Margaret and Salman Rushdie, at the time under the threat of the fatwa, attended. Security was tight!).
- Damned to Fame: the Life of Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson. A long and sombre book; well-researched, but for me it fails to capture the essence of Beckett’s genius. I have certainly read all of it, but (unusually) I don’t remember when.
- The Battle of Bosworth, Michael Bennett. One of a small collection of titles published by Alan Sutton about the Wars of the Roses, all of which I have devoured. I acquired them in the 1990s but have read them all again much more recently.
- Nature is Your Guide, Harold Gatty; Dowsing, Tom Graves; Flowering Bulbs, Eva Petrova: None of these is mine. With the exception of Dowsing (an interest of my husband’s for a while) I have no idea where they came from.
- The House, Deborah Devonshire. This is an account of Chatsworth by the Duchess of Devonshire and was given to me in at the launch which took place at Chatsworth. The occasion was memorable for two reasons: Harold Macmillan, the Duchess’s uncle, then a nonagenarian, gave a very witty speech; I fainted – it was a hot thunderstormy day – and had to be carried outside and deposited on one of those pieces of Victorian wicker garden furniture that is half chaise-longue, half bath-chair. (My son was born eight months later.)
- Back to Bologna, Michael Dibdin. A recent read that I much enjoyed, by a favourite author.
- Balzac, by Graham Robb. I was reading this book in 2006 when, by a wonderful piece of serendipity, I found myself sitting next to his wife, at the British Book Awards ceremony (she is a librarian).
- British Greats, John Mitchinson. Another BA Conference goody-bag acquisition. I’ve not opened it before; now I come to do so, it is interesting, in a coffee-table, lazy-afternoon sort of way.
- Kennedy’s Brain, Henning Mankell. I read this while in bed with ‘flu, Christmas 2008. One of Mankell’s most serious novels, it is about Africa, a continent on whose behalf he is a well-known crusader. I enjoy and admire all of his books.
This row of books gives a fragmentary account of some of the things that have happened to me. I’m not sure what it says about my character or brain, except that it certainly exposes me as a magpie! It also suggests that my husband and son are inextricably entwined, for better or worse.