Book Review: Memorial to the Duchess
Jocelyn Kettle, Memorial to the Duchess. Coronet Books, London, 1974 (first published 1968) (Pbk)
While we are on the topic of Alice Chaucer, here is a look at another novel on this fascinating historical character.
Alice Chaucer, Duchess of Suffolk, was a fascinating person, but I have yet to find any in-depth analysis of her life, preferably non-fiction.
However, you would think that she would also make the perfect protagonist for a work of fiction. As seen, she is frequently a minor character (not that there is anything minor about Alice!) in the Sister Frevisse novels by Margaret Frazer, like for instance in the short story The Stoneworker’s Tale. There is one full length novel about her, Memorial to the Duchess. I had been warned, but I was still prepared to give it a try. I should have headed the warning!
It’s not that Memorial to the Duchess is outright bad, but it could have been so much more. I was rather underwhelmed. Neither Alice nor her husband, William de la Pole, or any other character really comes to life. The reader is left fairly baffled why William should have caused so much hatred that he would eventually be murdered. The claim of the blurb that the novel is “historically authentic” seems to mean that the general setting is authentic, but that’s about it.
As for Alice, I found her rather boring and nondescript – hardly the impression I got from any of the other glimpses of her. As far as I can make out Alice was an intelligent woman, who knew what she wanted and how to get it. Here she is too passive and reacts to events, rather than taking charge.
Of course, Memorial to the Duchess, first published in 1968, is older than for instance Margaret Frazer’s books, but it does not seem to have aged gracefully. The characterisation as well as the language seem to reflect an earlier time rather than the late 60s.
For my taste, when it comes to fiction, I rather stick with the Alice you meet in Margaret Frazer’s novels. Or better still, wait until Rowena Archer, who wrote the ODNB entry on Alice Chaucer, has finished her (non-fiction) biography of Alice Chaucer.
Alice Chaucer would have deserved a more impressive memorial!