Lost Books – My Last Duchess

Iain Crichton Smith is not unusual among writers in being defined by his first novel, Consider the Lilies, set in the time of the Highland Clearances, which made its way, perhaps fittingly given the years Smith spent as a teacher of English, into the Scottish curriculum (though less frequently taught now, his short stories remain among the Scottish Text choices). The contrast between that regularly reissued debut and his later novels, most of which have never been reprinted, is, however, stark. Of course, Smith did not primarily see himself as a novelist – according to Angus Calder, he spoke of writing novels “to fill the gap between poems.” Despite this he wrote ten (and two in Gaelic), of which My Last Duchess, published in 1971, is the third.

My Last Duchess is the first, but not the last, of Smith’s novels to deal with a man in crisis. Mark Simmons finds himself, at 42, a failure: his job as a teacher at a college is not the university post he longed for, the book he has been writing for many years is still unfinished, and his wife, Lorna, has left him:

“There had been Lorna and before that there had been his parents and now there was nothing but the statement, ‘I have nowhere to go.’”

The novel opens with what we might take as a last desperate gesture, a visit to an author he has long admired (ironically, or perceptively, one whose name was made with their first novel which they have never equalled) in the “expectation of a monologue dense with wisdom and knowledge of life.” He is, of course, disappointed, sitting in silence as he listens to the writer and his son:

“Who are these guiltless people, he wondered, what sinless world, cold as stainless steel, have they emerged from, fully formed? They speak with conviction of the profoundest matters and what they do not speak of they consider unimportant.”

Mark spends the night in a hotel room and, as he thinks back, we begin to see the tensions in his marriage. At the centre of his relationship with his wife, which we later learn began when she was a student of his, is his need for superiority (“She never read much and nothing very deep”), but with this comes a pressure to succeed, as well as a worry that, with her insight into other people, “in her own wandering disorganised way she might not be brighter than himself.” A meeting with an uncle of hers early in the marriage demonstrates the difference between them: Lorna sees the man as an individual who was once kind to her; Mark sees only his politics. At this point in the marriage she can tell him:

“Anyway your book will be good and they’ll make you a lecturer or something fabulous like that.”

As the years pass, this looks less and less likely. The next morning, in the present, he retreats further into his past, taking a train to the city and the university he once attended:

“What could he find in this place? Himself? Penetrated through and through by self-disgust he waited as for some saviour, as if out of the library directly ahead of him there should emerge a figure who might tell him that his life had not been wasted, that art and poetry were in fact still present even in the middle of this desperate winter, and that the lighted windows were sending out meaningful signals into the darkening evening.”

He visits the family where he once lodged, and the home of a woman he meets on the train, searching for comfort and understanding. “You’re very unhappy,” she tells him at the end of the first part.

In the second part we learn of Mark’s early life, and of his marriage to Lorna. We see Mark develop a contempt for those around him – Wilkinson, his superior at the college (“incomprehensible”), Lorna’s friend Mrs Carmichael (“to him she represented the bourgeois”), and her attempt (with Lorna) to help a hermit in the village:

“If he’s a real hermit he shouldn’t want you and in any case how do you know you’re making him any happier?”

A change occurs when Mark meets a young writer, Hunter, who has worked in city slums – in Mark’s eyes he has “gone into the inferno with no weapons but his concern and courage.” But as Lorna tells him: “You don’t want to help anyone. You just want a thrill.” Not only does Lorna’s belief in Mark dissipate, so does his belief in himself.

My Last Duchess can seem dated at times – particularly with references to contemporary culture such as Dixon of Dock Green and Monty Python, as well as an advert spotted at a book stall for John Updike’s Couples – but the issue it faces – how the dreams of our youth interact with the reality of our middle-age – is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Smith manages to simultaneously sympathise with Mark and shine an unforgiving light on his flaws. Unlikely now to be reprinted but available as an e-book, the novel remains worth reading for Smith’s ability to see Mark’s journey through to the end without ever entirely losing hope.

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6 Responses to “Lost Books – My Last Duchess”

  1. booklit Says:

    You don’t mention Robert Browning and his poem My Last Duchess, though it has a failed marriage, more because the narrator has her killed for daring to share her personality with others and not treat him in any special way. Is it relevant?

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, the poem is certainly relevant – Smith quotes from it as an epigraph. I had a bit in my review about it but cut it out! It presumably relates to Mark’s belief in his superiority, though, in this case, he realises he is deluding himself. Mark is also reluctant to think of his wife as a individual with agency of her own.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds really good Grant, and what a shame it’s out of print. You certainly have me interested, and the quotes are pulling me in too!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Thanks for your introduction to Iain Crichton Smith, who I had heard of (without knowing very much else) before I read your piece. This sound like the kind of reflective, contemplative novel I would enjoy, particularly given the theme of youthful dreams vs the realities of middle age. Maybe you should suggest this as a candidate for the Backlisted podcast? It sounds right up their street!

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