The Ugly Duchess

A Blessed Companion Is a Book

by Lion Feuchtwanger. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir. New York: The Viking Press. 1928. 12mo. viii+ 332 pp. $2.50.
THE first filing that nine out of ten people will want to know about The Ugly Duchess is how it compares with Power. In his earlier book, Dr. Feuchtwanger employed an elaborate and effective method, quite his own, to depict the rise and fall of Josef Süss Oppenheimer. Court Jew to an eighteenth-century German Duke, Although the atmosphere of the period was brilliantly conveyed, it was incidental to the main theme Süss’s own character and the Nemesis that pursues any son of Israel who attempts to compromise with the Gentiles.
The Ugly Duchess achieves no such unity. The story, which is laid in the fourteenth century, centres upon Margarcte Maultasch (SackMouth). the hideous but efficient Duchess of the Tyrol whose career culminated in the Habsburgs acquiring her rich little mountain country. At the age of twelve she married the son of King John of Bohemia, but the union was unhappy an I fruitless in every sense of the word. Twelve years later, Ludwig of Brandenburg, the Holy Roman Emperor, declared that since Margarcte and her husband were cousins, and since their marriage had never been consummated, it was therefore dissolved, his idea being to have her marry his own son. No sooner was his plan carried out than the Pope put all the Tyrol under his ban, which was not lifted for seventeen years. During this time Margarcte bore thrree children, two of whom died during the great plague that was popularly attributed to her evil genius and to the Jews whom she had introduced into the country’s administration. She was also aided by a repulsive albino with whom she felt, a strange affinity of ugliness, but in spite of all her intelligent efforts the people insisted oil disliking her and in worshiping her beautiful licentious rival, Agnes von Flayon. Later, Margarcte gradually succumbs to the materialistic philosophy of her albino; she intrigues with Austria, has her husband poisoned, her son dies, and she retires in favor of the Habsbnrgs, while Agues scores a final triumph in the hour of her death.
This bare outline of an intricate plot does not indicate two other motifs that the author introduces. The first of these is the character and tragedy of a repulsive woman who tries to release her thwarted ambitions in higher spheres only to succumb in the end to the coarsest fleshly pleasures. The other theme is the social and economic change from feudalism to commercialism in which Margarcte assisted, though she possessed no understanding of it. And these three strands plot, character, and atmosphere Dr. Feuchtwanger has blended into a book considerably shorter than his less elaborate Power. It is no detraction from the author s ability to say that another hand might have turned the trick in the space he uses which, by the way. is nearly half again as much as that occupied by the average novel. The point is that, his method demands ample scope — his painstaking choice of adjectives, his crowded canvases, and his active mind inevitably fatten every book he writes without making the reader wish for less. In the ease of The Ugly Duchess, the reader wishes for more, for the complete satisfaction of Power is absent., though many of its other distinguished qualities, on which it is idle In enlarge here, remain. The Ugly Duchess is decidedly one of the books of the year to read, and, if it is not quite up to its predecessor, we can only be thankful to its author for having, even once, given us such substantial pleasure. Willa and Edwin Muir have as usual provided an admirable translation.