Elizabeth Loupas is the debut author of THE SECOND DUCHESS, which has been described as “The Other Boleyn Girl meets Rebecca” It interests me because it takes place in a non-British setting. We spent the last few weeks trading emails back and forth as I conducted this interview, and I must thank her for her patience, as this has been a bad few weeks for me to get through.
THE SECOND DUCHESS is available in bookstores everywhere.
First, please tell us a little about THE SECOND DUCHESS. What is it about, and what inspired it?
It’s a sort of continuation of Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.” In the poem, the duke is the speaker, and seems to be telling an envoy negotiating a marriage to a new duchess, about his previous duchess. The traditional reading of the poem is that the duke had his beautiful young duchess murdered. I began with the question: what did the second duchess think about the first duchess’s fate?
The characters, however, are not entirely fictional: Alfonso II d’Este, Lucrezia de’ Medici, and Barbara of Austria were real people. I started digging up the historical record and comparing it with the dramatic fictionalization Browning created. I wove the two together and the result is THE SECOND DUCHESS.
Here’s the brief summary from the back cover:
“In a city-state known for magnificence, where love affairs and conspiracies play out amidst brilliant painters, poets and musicians, the powerful and ambitious Alfonso d’Este, duke of Ferrara, takes a new bride. Half Europe is certain he murdered his first wife, Lucrezia, luminous child of the Medici. But no one dares accuse him, and no one has proof–least of all his second duchess, the far less beautiful but considerably more clever Barbara of Austria.
At first determined to ignore the rumors about her new husband, Barbara embraces the pleasures of the Ferrarese court. Yet wherever she turns she hears whispers of the first duchess’s wayward life and mysterious death. Barbara asks questions–a dangerous mistake for a duchess of Ferrara. Suddenly, to save her own life, Barbara has no choice but to risk the duke’s terrifying displeasure and discover the truth of Lucrezia’s death–or she will share her fate.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and presently live in Coppell, Texas, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. THE SECOND DUCHESS is my historical fiction debut; the German edition DIE ZWEITE HERZOGIN is due in April from Rowohlt and a Russian edition is soon to be scheduled from Veche. I’ve worked as a copywriter, librarian, magazine editor, and tutor. I have two beagles and actively support beagle rescue. I love reading, cooking, gardening, and stargazing. Right now I’m at work on a new novel called THE FLOWER READER, featuring the notorious silver letter-casket of Mary Queen of Scots, some lost quatrains of Nostradamus, and a girl who can read the future in flowers.
Renaissance Ferrara seems like an unusual timeframe and setting for a historical novel–you know, not in England. Although for me, the more unusual, the better. Was it difficult to sell?
I think I happened to hit a lucky moment in historical fiction–agents and editors (and to some extent readers) were tiring a little of all the Tudors, and looking for something different. DUCHESS is set at about the same time as much Tudor fiction–the 1560s–and Queen Elizabeth even has an offstage cameo. So the general “European Renaissance” setting was familiar, while the specific setting in Ferrara was different and fresh. When I started out to query, I thought the Robert Browning connection would be a great selling point, but it didn’t turn out to be that important.
Now, of course, the Italian Renaissance is coming much to the fore, with quite a few novels in Italian settings and of course Showtime Cable’s new series THE BORGIAS, which will premiere in April. My duke Alfonso is Lucrezia Borgia’s grandson, and his Borgia blood figures strongly in his characterization.
How excited were you about this awesome cover? Did you get much input?
When my editor sent me the cover art, I was afraid to open it! I called my agent and asked her to open it first and tell me what it looked like. She did (bless her), and reassured me that it was fantastic, and only then did I open it and look at it. I love the colors, the blue-greens and rich reds, and the milky pink-gold-white-blue color of the sky.
There were a couple of details that I asked NAL to adjust for the sake of historical accuracy, and they were very helpful and supportive. The artist did a fantastic job.
Tell us a little about writing about historical figures. For example, were you able to get a feel for Alfonso’s personality from the historical sources? Did you have a painting of him for you to use in his descriptions? Or did you have to imagine it all?
(Personal reason for that question: one day I want to write a historical novel based on Cicero. We know what he looked like and have much of his correspondence in the historical record. You definitely can get a feel for his personality when you read letters such as the one he wrote when his daughter died.)
There’s a fair amount of material about Alfonso in historical sources, because he was a man (of course) and a duke. In addition to sources in English, I ordered some books in Italian and had the relevant sections translated. His letters to and from his sister Anne, the duchess of Guise in France, pull no punches in expressing the Este scorn for the Medici. Other sources show his success on the battlefield and as a jouster. The jousting accident at Blois, for example, is historical, as are the rumors that surrounded it, and Alfonso was present at the joust in France where Henri II, his cousin, was fatally wounded. Alfonso as a world-class tennis player is also historical–the first book of written rules for tennis is dedicated to him. His ambition is documented, as is his love for music and elaborate masques.
There is a wonderful portrait of Alfonso as a young man:
He was indeed bearded as he matured, as evidenced by this coin, which also shows his short hair:
So I’ve tried to describe his looks essentially as they were.
There is one reasonably good portrait of Barbara here:
You can see that she was not terribly pretty, and had the long Habsburg jaw, conveniently hidden by the collar. She had brown eyes, and does appear to have had bright reddish-blonde hair. So again I based her looks in the book on an actual portrait.
She is less well-documented than Alfonso is, which was the fate of many women of the day. But she was brought up in an atmosphere of monastic simplicity (three of her sisters did indeed become nuns), she was openly described as ugly by ambassadors of the day, several marriage proposals did fall through, and then
at last the marriage with Alfonso was arranged. She ended up being much beloved, actually, in Ferrara, and founded an orphanage for girls.
Historical fiction is so endlessly fascinating–trying to keep with the historical record and at the same time imagine what MIGHT have happened in between the bits and pieces of fact. I’ll look forward to your book about Cicero!
How brave of you to write about an unattractive heroine. It must have been rather fascinating to write about a scion of such a powerful and eccentric family as the Habsburgs. Do they make much of an appearance, or is most of your novel focus on Ferrara?
Well, I fudged a little by giving Barbara very beautiful hair. But of course in those days no one saw a woman’s hair but her husband and her most intimate ladies of the bedchamber, so she couldn’t really show it off much.
The Habsburgs don’t make any direct appearance in the book (although there is a deleted scene in which Barbara’s sister Johanna comes to visit with her own new husband, Francesco de’ Medici). Barbara does talk about them to some extent, and we learn that her brother Ferdinand was involved in a somewhat surprising way in the negotiations for her marriage.
Joanna of Castile (Juana la Loca), who was married to Philip the Fair, the Habsburg Archduke (who would have been Holy Roman Emperor eventually if he had not predeceased his father), was Barbara’s grandmother, and she does play an important part in the story.
This novel has been called “The Other Boleyn Girl meets Rebecca.” What authors have inspired you?
I love, love, love C.S. Harris’s comment that The Second Duchess could be described as The Other Boleyn Girl meets Rebecca. As I was writing the book I thought about Rebecca, because of course a primary emotional arc of Barbara’s story is the influence of the dead first wife on the second wife. So Daphne du Maurier is certainly one of my inspirations. (So is C.S. Harris.) Another great inspiration is the incomparable Dorothy Dunnett. I love Rumer Godden for her artistry in playing with emotion and time–I can read In This House of Brede over and over again. Elizabeth Goudge writes about nature and spirituality so wonderfully that the pages just seem saturated with intensity–her The White Witch is one of my favorite books of all time. For historical authenticity and clean, focused storytelling, Cecelia Holland–Great Maria is another book I’d take to a desert island. There are really so many authors who have inspired me, from the anonymous writers of the Little Golden Books my mother read me to the newest, lushest historical mystery by Deanna Raybourn.
Most of us have read enough historical novels to be familiar with a setting when it takes place in England. How did you handle writing in an Italian setting and educating the reader at the same time, without slowing down the pacing? It sounds like a tall order. (I’m thinking of Clavell’s SHOGUN here, where he handled educating the reader on Japanese culture most excellently.)
Regarding the setting, I think my goal was more specifically to give a flavor of the city of Ferrara. In the sixteenth century there was no united “Italy” as we know it today, and each of the city-states was pretty much an independent entity. Ferrara was particularly well-known for its visual art and music, its performance art (Alfonso’s chivalric festivals were admired all over Europe) its architecture (the Addizione Erculea, the “Addition of Ercole,” is a unique and beautiful example of Renaissance city planning, which was an art in its infancy at the time), its ancient university. Unlike England, there was no parliament as such–the dukes of Ferrara were absolute rulers. I tried to work these elements into the ongoing story–Alfonso’s absolute power is a critical element, and so are some of the elaborate festivals–so the reader can simply be immersed in the time and place.
It’s a fine line, because both Ferrara and England were part of the overall society of western Europe of the time. In fact, Alfonso, before marrying Barbara, courted both Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots. How might history have been different if he had married one of them, I wonder??
I love SHOGUN and you’re right, Clavell does a masterful job of educating the reader right along with Blackthorne. And the differences between sixteenth-century England and sixteenth-century Japan were enormous, much much more so than the differences between England and Ferrara.
Your bio says you are an amateur historian. What are your favorite historical periods and locations?
Regarding a favorite historical period–you know, I don’t have one, and that’s what makes me an amateur. Professionals specialize, but I flit about from one time and place to another. I do tend to lose interest as history enters the twentieth century.
And finally, can you give us a little teaser about the next novel you are working on?
Right now I’m finishing up a new book called THE FLOWER READER, which grew from my fascination with Mary Queen of Scots and the casket letters. One day I found myself thinking, “I wonder where that casket came from, and what else it was used for, and what happened to it.” There is a casket at Lennoxlove House in East Lothian that is possibly the casket-letters casket, but no one knows for sure. When I began to imagine the casket, I saw flowers (I have no idea why), and from that grew my main character, Marina Leslie, called Rinette–a young woman with a talent for floromancy, which is the art of reading intentions and the future in flowers. Rinette has an intense love-hate relationship from childhood with Mary Queen of Scots, who was such a young woman herself when she returned to Scotland to rule. Only nineteen! And of course between Rinette and Mary there’s a mysterious and flamboyant Scarlet-Pimpernel-like Frenchman, Nicolas de Clerac. As in THE SECOND DUCHESS, there is history, there is a thread of mystery, and there is an unconventional love story. All the things I love!
Tia here. Mix a little fantasy with history and I’m yours. I’ll look forward to THE FLOWER READER as well!