What’s The Archduchess all about?:
The Archduchess is the story of a fictional kingdom called Ronda that appears to have everything one could ever want, including the secret of eternal youth but is brought to revolution and broken apart by two men’s envy and greed.
What did I think?:
Oh my Lord, how much do I love Daphne du Maurier? (Answer: A lot!). This fantastic story which is slightly longer than the other tales so far in this collection is beautifully imagined and had me gripped throughout. The author describes a fictional country called Ronda where the inhabitants go about their day in what can only be described as utter bliss, without being influenced by any external influences, holding no ill-feeling or ambition and respecting/loving their ruler the Archduke without question or worries. This is all they’ve ever known after all. So what is the secret to their joie de vivre? The water which flows through their country is quite magical and when tourists who are visiting drink it they appear to be revitalised:
“easily recognisable, on their return, by the very special bronze on the skin, by the dreamy, almost faraway expression in the eyes, and by the curious attitude to life that nothing mattered. “He who has been in Ronda has seen God,” was the well-known phrase, and indeed the shrug of the shoulder, the careless yawn, the half-smile on the faces of those….suggested some sort of other-world intimacy, a knowledge of secret places denied to those who had remained at home.”
For the royal family, especially the Archduke, the waters combined with a secret formula passed down through generations to each heir, appears to give the monarchs the appearance of eternal youth – after all, which royal subject wants to be placed in their grave with wrinkles and grey hairs? Each night, with remarkable precision, the Archduke would appear on the balcony in front of their adoring nation and curious tourists in a crisp, white uniform to the sounds of the national anthem while bats are released around the monarch. Ronda as a country is all about peace and pleasure, the wine from the Rondian grape is particularly potent, the fish from the magical waters are as rich as you’ve ever tasted and the women are amongst the most beautiful in the world.
The arrival of two men to Ronda changes everything, opening the Rondese eyes which leads to the first murmurs of discontent:
“Here lies the tragedy. Western man is so constituted that he cannot abide contentment. It is the unforgivable sin. He must forever strive towards some unseen goal, whether it be material comfort, a greater and purer God, or some weapon that will make him master of the universe. As he becomes more conscious he becomes more restless, more grasping, forever finding fault with the warm dust from which he sprang and to which he must return, forever desirous of improving and so enslaving his fellow-men. It was this poison of discontent that finally infiltrated to Ronda, bred, alas, by contact with the outside world, and nurtured to maturity by the two revolutionary leaders, Markoi and Grandos.”
The two men are both citizens of Ronda, but for their own different reasons seek to ruin their country. Markoi was born lame with a twisted foot (therefore not as perfect as the usual Rondese offspring) and was determined to hit back at his country because of his deformity. Grandos however was described as being “born greedy.” There were rumours that he was not pure Rondese and his conception was the result of his mother coupling with somebody from across the border. He was blessed with exceptional intelligence that led him to feeling superior to all his other country-men.
Both men after becoming friends, visit other countries then return to Ronda with the intention of sowing the seeds of discontent into the Rondese population. Grandos starts his own business after discovering that the backbone of the Rondese fish can also be used as a breast supporter and that the oil of the same creature can be used as a very successful face cream. Markoi finds work as a journalist in the Ronda News and begins changing minds almost immediately at first by poking fun at the old Rondese customs like treading vines, spearing fish and gathering the Rovivula flower. Grandos in turn, posts advertisements for his breast supporters and face creams in the same newspaper, beguiling women who have never had any need for these material items in the past.
Slowly but surely, the first murmurs of discontent start occurring, mainly amongst the Rondese youth who are transfixed by the information they read in the papers about a new way of life previously alien to them. Soon the Rondese begin to understand how they are viewed from outside their little bubble and are unhappy to be looked upon as fools. The knife is twisted yet further when it is suggested that the Archduke keeps the secret of immortality for himself – what, after all does he use it for? And are the rumours really true that he can control the waters of the country? Could he flood the land and wipe them all out?
The Archduchess is the current Archduke’s sister and only living heir and also has the appearance of eternal youth. Legends have been passed down from Rondese to Rondese about her beauty, wit, intelligence and strength and she becomes beloved to all the people. Just before the riots begin and the monarchy is overthrown, rumours suggest that the “evil” Archduke wants her all to himself instead of letting her marry her cousin, whom she is in love with and that she is being held as a prisoner in her own home. As the people take over, the Archduke is eliminated i.e. brutally killed but he passes on the secret formula to his sister who so far, has refused to give up the secret to the rulers of the new republic. She is now in her eighties yet looks as young and beautiful as a girl and saddest of all, still performs the old dances in the square if some money is thrown her way. Markoi keeps this one member of the monarchy alive “not for purposes of adoration, but as a human scarecrow.” In the end, Ronda becomes a country and a people completely changed through the efforts of two (wicked and greedy) men and once changed in such a drastic fashion, it becomes impossible to return to what was. Don’t they say ignorance is bliss?
There is so much more I could say about this story but I fear I’ve already gone on a bit too long already in this review! I loved that the author told it in the guise of a fairytale/fable and appreciated the clever way in which she went about it, revealing quite succinctly how external influences (like media) can affect our ways of thinking. This is especially true today in our modern times when we think about how we are all influenced by what we read, hear etc. consciously or sub-consciously. Again, the writing is pure genius and I was effortlessly transported to a different world of beauty and happiness. I’ve read a few negative reviews of this story and to be honest, it quite surprised me because I felt I understood exactly what Daphne du Maurier was trying to say and for me personally it was just a wonderful, enriching reading experience.
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):
NEXT SHORT STORY: The Oversoul by Graham Joyce from the collection Tales For A Dark Evening