In the 30th chapter of the second book of Don Quixote the Don and Sancho encounter a certain duchess who thereafter plays a considerable part in their adventures. In The Duchess's Diary Robin Chapman imagines her to have been an actual person, who had met not the fictitious Quixote but the real Cervantes; and the diary, supposedly translated from the original MS, tells her story. The first book of Don Quixote came out in 1605, the second book did not appear till ten years later. It is in this interval, in 1608, that Robin Chapman supposes the duchess and her husband, the Duke of Caparosso, to have entertained Cervantes, already famous for the first volume of his romance. What is more, although the duchess is a very young woman and Cervantes already an elderly man, she falls in love with him. They do not meet again: but she eagerly awaits the second volume of Don Quixote, in which, she does not doubt, she will find a romantic tribute to herself. It arrives in December 1615, on the shortest day, and it is a bitter disappointment. The duchess who appears in the romance is a slightly-drawn figure, a mere part of the machinery of the plot, who manages Don Quixote and his squire quite callously for her own entertainment. Maria Isabel - that is the real duchess's name - feels this as a betrayal. She feels it so deeply that the balance of her mind, never very secure, is completely upset. At an Epiphany feast she runs spectacularly mad; and at the time the diary begins her husband has left her and she is shut up in his hunting lodge, with only her maid for companion, under the care of a frightful chaplain.
LRB 22 January 1981 | PDF Download