His last Duchess


A story of purity and desire in the 16th century. This book is inspired by Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’.  In the poem the duke shows an emissary a painting of his former duchess. The emissary is pressing the suit of the next duchess at this time of dynastically arranged marriages.  

The duke narrates how his former wife was loved by all and sundry for her easy going charm, then comes the chilling line “I gave commands; and all smiles stopped together.”


Kim imagines the story behind this brief outline.  The duke is Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara in the sixteenth century.  He marries Lucrezia de’ Medici, the sixteen year old daughter of a neighbouring ally.  Naturally, the marriage is arranged.  But Lucrezia welcomes the match with the older, darkly handsome and intellectual duke. 

Although Lucrezia arouses Alfonso’s passion, he is unable to consummate the marriage.  He has no problems with his mistress but Lucrezia’s purity seems to nullify his desire.  But when Alfonso employs Fra Pandolf, a famous painter, to paint a mural, Lucrezia’s loveless life changes.

But this is not just a love story; the complicated balance between sixteenth century city states and the pope is part of the plot.  Alfonso’s lack of an heir could cause him to lose his territory, so he must take steps to rectify the situation.

This is a well researched historical novel; fast moving and captivating, which compliments Browning’s wonderful poem.

Book review by Meg Mckenna


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