Thursday, March 03, 2011

An interview with Elizabeth Loupas, author of The Second Duchess

The Second Duchess is a book I was eager to read even before it found a publisher, thanks to a note posted by Elizabeth Loupas on an email discussion list several years ago. Fresh off a re-read of "My Last Duchess," I thought the concept behind it was brilliant.  Loupas's tale is much more than a recasting of the themes from Robert Browning's famously enigmatic poem, however.  The Second Duchess situates us in the heart of Renaissance-era Ferrara, a setting fleshed out in lush, decadent detail, and the author delves into the poem's background by imagining the personalities and motivations of its characters, who were all based in history.  She also allows Barbara of Austria, a shadowy figure mentioned at the end of Browning's work, to come into her own as a powerful heroine.

By the time of her wedding day in December of 1565, Barbara has already heard countless rumors that Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, murdered his beautiful, young first wife, Lucrezia de' Medici.  Nonetheless, by her marriage to Alfonso, Barbara seizes an opportunity to begin a new life away from her brother's rigid imperial court.  Intelligent and curious, though not conventionally attractive, Barbara grows determined to discover the truth behind her predecessor's death despite Alfonso's objections.

As she finds her way through the dangers lurking at court in Ferrara, she establishes a sensual bond with her new husband even as she wonders if the whispers about him are true.  In intervening sections, Lucrezia's childlike and resentful spirit, unable to leave its surroundings, observes Barbara's actions (with occasional catty remarks) and reveals her own feelings about her former life - and toward her former husband.  Dark, romantic, and mysterious, The Second Duchess is a richly detailed historical novel that compels as it keeps you guessing.

I'd like to thank Elizabeth for agreeing to this interview, and for the pleasures of reading her debut novel, which fulfilled my expectations and then some.

Where did you first come across Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess"? Why do you think it's captured your imagination to such a degree?

I don't even remember the first time I read it, it's so much a part of me. It was in high school, possibly even junior high. The odd thing is that I always found the duke fascinating, even while I dutifully wrote school papers about how he was insane and a megalomaniac and callously murdered his beautiful and innocent young wife. It may have been the combination of the precisely elegant voice and the life-or-death power of the Renaissance prince. It was not either the first duchess or the barely-mentioned figure of the second duchess that fascinated me in the beginning: it was the duke.

I appreciated how you gave voice to two women who were of paramount importance to Browning's poem but who were denied the chance to speak for themselves. Whose narrative voice came to you first, Barbara's or Lucrezia's?

Barbara came first. I started the story in a third-person point of view, focused through Barbara's eyes, but found I wanted to get even closer to her, inside her skin. I started over in the first person and it was perfect. Lucrezia--well, Lucrezia just happened. She was not planned at all. At first I thought of using flashbacks to tell her story, but she not only wanted to tell her own story, but to express her opinion of Barbara and what Barbara was doing. That's how she became the immobila.

You write in your author's note that re-fictionalizing material that Browning had himself fictionalized (great way of putting it!) sometimes gave you an eerie feeling. How did you move past that in order to create your story?

When I began I didn't even realize Browning had based his poem on actual historical personages--I thought it was entirely fictional. I had some crazy ideas about the backstory I was going to invent and what was going to happen. But as I read about Browning and the poem itself I realized that these were real people, and deserved better. Browning had taken a few sixteenth-century rumors about Lucrezia de' Medici's death and woven the dramatic tale of the duke stopping her smiles; I started from the beginning with everything I could find about these three people--Alfonso, Barbara and Lucrezia--and wrote my own version of what might have happened, while at the same time trying to strike most of the same notes that Browning struck. The cherries, for example, that figure strongly in the book--Browning described one of the young duchess's pleasures as "...The bough of cherries some officious fool/Broke in the orchard for her...." I simply expanded that.

The lines from the poem that were at the heart of my characterization of Lucrezia are: "...and if she let/Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set/Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse..." So the beautiful young wife was not perfect! She would not let herself be lessoned, and set her wits against his, and made excuses. I loved that. It changed the entire power dynamic of the poem for me.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to incorporate a mystery subplot - having Barbara investigate her predecessor's death - as opposed to writing a more straightforward biographical novel?

Yes, I wanted it to be a mystery from the beginning. The story was always intended to address the question: "What did the second wife think of all this?" And so of course the second wife--Barbara--would have to find out what happened to the first wife. For a while I considered allowing Lucrezia to actually communicate with Barbara, but somehow that seemed too pat, like the fictionalized stories where Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots meet. So I made one of the characteristics of the immobila the fact that she cannot communicate with the living in any way.

Alfonso occasionally praises Barbara's political acumen, but because of his arrogance, it's hard to tell if he's being honest or patronizing (or both). I liked how the novel left it ambiguous, but it made me wonder: as the daughter and sister of Habsburg emperors, how exposed would Barbara have been to international affairs and other intrigues at the imperial court?

I think Barbara's political acumen is mostly innate rather than learned. She and her sisters were brought up in a very plain, almost monastic style (and three of her sisters did eventually become nuns) and not much exposed to the court. However, once Barbara arrived in Ferrara she took up the reins of the court there with every appearance of ease. She was well-liked. She managed to maintain excellent personal relations with the pope and at the same time befriend, via correspondence, Alfonso's mother Renee of France, who had been forced to leave Ferrara and return to France because of her Calvinism. So the real Barbara had the sensitivity and tact that makes good politics.

I think Alfonso is being both honest and patronizing. He's intelligent enough to see Barbara's understanding of people and motivations, but arrogant enough (and enough a man of his times) to consider it something rather unusual in a woman.

The lush descriptions you've included provide wonderful illustrations of upper-class life in the Italian Renaissance: from interior design and fashion to cuisine, fine art, dance, women's hairstyles and more. What parts did you enjoy researching the most?

Oh, all of them! I loved the physical objects I came across--I have folders crammed with examples, furniture and tapestries and clothing from museums. The chess set is real... it's in a museum in the Netherlands. Alfonso's poignard d’oreilles is real, and really belonged to Henri II... it's now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (The real one never belonged to Alfonso, although Alfonso and Henri II were cousins and good friends.) Lucrezia's rock crystal flask is real... it's in Topkapi Palace. I did love the food as well, and tried out many of the recipes myself... the pampepato, the ciupeta, the torta di tagliarini. I listened to the music and tried out the dance steps. (Fortunately in private.) I could never choose one favorite.

I see you have a degree in library and information science and used to work as a reference librarian. As a reference librarian myself, I can't resist asking: can you reveal any more about your library career? Do you feel your training came in handy when writing The Second Duchess?

My actual work as a librarian was in what's called a special library, a corporate library. Not much opportunity, I'm afraid, to revel in Renaissance delights. But my training as a librarian was indispensable to my research. It taught me how to find things, how to track down sources, how to choose and combine search terms. Searching is an art unto itself, as elegant and complex as any sixteenth-century dance.


The Second Duchess (isn't the cover gorgeous?) was published by NAL in March at $15.00.  For more information, visit the author's website; her agent, Diana Fox, has also posted the original query and submission letters that led to the novel's publication.


  1. I have this book in the mail, on it's way to me -- I can't wait. Marvelous interview -- I'm doubly excited now!

  2. I saw this on twitter so had to come on over and read the interview :) The book is on my wishlist

  3. That is indeed a gorgeous cover! I remember reading and analyzing Browning's poem in my AP English class. I really liked it, but I had no idea it was inspired by actual events. Now I want to read this novel.

  4. What an enjoyable interview, thank you! I feel compelled to go and re-read Browning's poem. Years ago, in the days when I regularly read poetry, he took a backseat to my interest in Elizabeth Barrett, but this inspires me to take a fresh look at Browning's work as well as pick up The Second Duchess.

    If Ms. Loupas is reading this, I would be interested in learning how writing this novel affected your perception of the Duke - whether you began to think of him differently or came to conclusions about him that you had not originally considered. And perhaps what the most rewarding perspective of writing this particular story was?

  5. Really great interview--I'm hoping to have time to scope out my local bookstore today for THE SECOND DUCHESS! (I might not be able to wait for San Diego...)

  6. I don't know that I have read the poem - maybe it sounds vaguely familiar - I will have to go and look this up now! But anyway - I was interested in this book before but this interview has thrown some more hooks for me - I like that it has a mystery type plot. Thanks for this!

  7. I'd say knowledge of the poem isn't a requirement, though it does add a lot to the reading (and it's printed in the book, for those who want to flip back and forth - something I found myself doing often). It was a lot of fun to spot correspondences between the poem and the novel.

  8. Hi, and thanks to everyone for your wonderful comments!

    Danielle, it's interesting that you ask if writing the book changed my perception of Alfonso, because it did, very much so. The way Browning himself said he intended the poem to be read, and which a million students and critics have expounded, is that the duke is a madman and that he had his first duchess murdered. There’s something to be said for it--it’s compelling drama.

    The other way to read the poem is with the genuine historical personage in mind. Duke Alfonso II d’Este was a soldier, a sportsman, a musician. He fought in the French army with his cousin Henri II of France. He was a world-class tennis player--the first written book of rules for modern tennis is dedicated to him. He was the patron of the first professional female singers in Europe, the Consort of Ladies. So although he was indeed vain, arrogant, and ruthless, he was a sixteenth-century prince and it was expected of sixteenth-century princes to be vain, arrogant and ruthless.

    Alfonso would have read Machivelli--Cesare Borgia, whom many say was the model for Machiavelli's The Prince, was Alfonso's great-uncle. When you put Alfonso in his proper context, he is not a madman at all.

    Did he kill his first wife? Well, that would be a spoiler...

  9. Thanks for a very nice interview.

  10. Sarah, you're right, it is a lovely cover--one of the first things I noticed.

    Anyway, after reading this, I had to go look up Alfonso--and Lucrezia, and Barbara, and Margherita, his third wife. By the time I got to the end, I wondered if he was mellowing a bit in his later years. He seems to have gone to quite some trouble to give Margherita pleasure, forming the concert of ladies for her benefit and allowing her to dance in private ballet performances. Of course, she was very much younger than he.

    By the way, if you go to Wikipedia for a view of Lucrezia's portrait


    and compare it to Alfonso's, you can understand them not getting along--the lady looks as if she'd have some fairly strong opinions of her own.

  11. Thank you for the intriguing comments, Ms. Loupas. It sounds as if the disconnect between the commonly accepted view of Browning’s Duke and the Renaissance prince of actual history created a dynamic, inspiring tension as you shaped your own version of the man. I look forward to "meeting" your creation.

  12. Anonymous1:52 PM

    This book was an excellent book very intriguing and the story line was very entertaining

  13. Mario Hamameh10:56 PM

    A great interview, a great book, and a great era.