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News > Alumnae > "Queen's Reads" - 'Diva' by Daisy Goodwin (OQ 1977)

"Queen's Reads" - 'Diva' by Daisy Goodwin (OQ 1977)

11 Jul 2024
Written by Julia Rank

OQ Daisy Goodwin is known for gilded historical escapism that’s set among the upper echelons of society. Her previous novels include My Last Duchess, about the American ‘dollar princesses’ who married into the British aristocracy, and The Fortune Hunter, set in the court of the Empress Elisabeth (‘Sissi’) of Austria. Goodwin was also the creator of the lavish ITV costume drama Victoria, which starred Jenna Coleman as a young and vivacious Queen Victoria.

In her latest novel, Diva, Goodwin turns her attention to Maria Callas, the most celebrated operatic soprano of the twentieth century, renowned for her exceptional artistry and who continues to make headlines regarding her turbulent personal life. At the height of her powers as an artist, she was embroiled in an almost decade-long affair with Greek shipping oligarch Aristotle Onassis, the only man who saw her as ‘Maria’ rather than ‘Callas’. She was a mistress but never a ‘kept woman’ (‘I always paid my own way’, she reminds him). Eventually, however, he threw her over for Jackie Kennedy.

Goodwin has written an absorbing novel that has all the pace and gloss of an addictive Netflix drama, filled with cameos from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (‘We divas need to stick together’, she tells Maria when she makes her first public appearance after being deserted by Onassis) and Richard Burton, Winston and Clementine Churchill, Marlene Dietrich, Noël Coward, and many more. It’s topped off with sumptuous descriptions of couture gowns and priceless jewels.

Underneath the glamour is Maria’s troubled relationship with her mother, who was happy to monetise her talent but never showed her any affection, and the hardscrabble reality of coming of age in Nazi-occupied Greece. Having transformed herself into the physical ideal of what a diva should look like, the pressure of maintaining the considerable weight loss that may have contributed to the premature deterioration of her voice took its toll.

Most fascinating is Maria’s vocation as an artist and her affinity with her signature role, Bellini’s Norma. In a touching exchange, Grace Kelly, who has discovered that being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, longs to return to acting and urges Maria not to walk into the same fate. In Goodwin’s hands, Callas isn’t a tragic heroine but a figure of enormous resilience, making the most of her gift until ‘each coin is spent’, as her mentor, the Spanish soprano Elvira de Hidalgo, puts it.

It’s also worth noting that among the cast of characters, there are several connections with QCL:

Onassis’s daughter, the unfortunate Christina, attended Queen’s for a year between 1968-9.

As did Mary Soames, daughter of the Churchills, in 1940. Mary doesn’t appear in the novel but after Churchill, an opera ignoramus, snubs Callas, Clemmie tries to smooth things over by saying that Mary has one of her records.

A slight stretch but Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, sister-in-law of Jackie Kennedy (who remains an off-page presence throughout), attended Queen’s in the late 1930s (though she died in a plane crash in 1948, five years before Jackie married into the Kennedys).

Those of us from less eminent backgrounds can take solace in the fact that such wealth and privilege tends to be a mixed blessing. If a Mediterranean cruise on a billionaire’s yacht isn’t on the cards this summer, this novel is the perfect way to experience such luxury vicariously.

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