Because of the vast pageant of the story, it is easy to overestimate Lion Feuchtwanger’s achievement in THE UGLY DUCHESS; it is also easy to underestimate the novel. The author is not a mere showman. THE UGLY DUCHESS is a good romantic historical melodrama which pulls the reader into the orbit and times of the characters with irresistible force. Margarete’s efforts to spend herself in services that would give sublimated expression to her instincts of love and maternity are sensitively pictured. The subsequent degeneration of her spirit is portrayed convincingly. The life of the robber barons and ruthless kings in their high castles is portrayed with mordant, devastating gusto on a canvas of blood hues and dark browns and burnished golds. Of all the many characters, however, only the antiheroine, Margarete, engrosses the reader’s interest.
Feuchtwanger, a student of philosophy and history, was born in 1884. During World War I, while abroad, he was kidnaped and forced to join the German army. He wrote numerous antiwar plays and was best known in pre-Nazi Germany as a playwright. His novel POWER (1928) could find no publisher until after he had written THE UGLY DUCHESS. In 1933, the Nazis confiscated his house and fortune; he escaped to Moscow, then by way of France and Spain to the United States. His international reputation was as a historical novelist.
Feuchtwanger possessed gifts of sharp historical observation and often brought the past to life with vivid immediacy, as in THE UGLY DUCHESS. He used the same careful mastery of detail in his novels of contemporary life. His later works became excessively long and the style ponderous, but his historical romances remained popular for many years. THE UGLY DUCHESS stands as one of his best-crafted, most engrossing books, principally because he had the insight to see what a fascinating and complex person the notorious Duchess Margarete actually was. Nevertheless, the novel would have been better if he had been able to use his insight to penetrate to the hearts and souls of his other characters. As a result of this lack, THE UGLY DUCHESS misses being a great novel.