REVIEW: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
Dear Ms. Milan:
When your books and novellas work for me, they are among my favorite historical romances. When they don’t, it’s not always clear to me why, and often I wonder if it’s my reading approach rather than the book itself. I wanted to read your latest novel for a couple of reasons: it has received both rave reviews and DNF reactions, and it grapples with class and economic issues in mid-19th century England. I really wanted to love this book, but instead I found myself frustrated, especially by the hero, even as I was captivated by the romance.
The Duchess War is about the romance between the 9th Duke of Clermont and Wilhelmina Pursling, neither of whom is at all what they seem to be. Robert, Duke of Clermont, hates being a duke and wishes he could abolish the peerage as an institution. Since even he realizes that is unlikely, he spends his energies writing and distributing handbills to factory workers in Leicester, encouraging them to rise up against their exploitative masters. Minnie and Robert meet accidentally when both are hiding out during a musicale, and their lives soon become intertwined. Minnie has resigned herself to a quiet life, living with her aunts and avoiding the public gaze. An accusation that she is behind the handbills leads her to uncover the real perpetrator, and, fearful that her past will be uncovered, she confronts the Duke and demands that he cease his activities. In return, he offers her a proposition: he will pretend to flirt with her so that she can snag a husband, all the while continuing his attempts to rile up the workers.
There is so much going on here, even by the standards of a full-length novel. Minnie and Robert have complicated pasts that shape their personalities and adult choices. Each has friends and relatives who are important (for good or ill) in their lives, and their stories are introduced and followed to varying degrees. The plot progresses from their first meeting through their growing attraction to their hasty but willing marriage to dramatic events after their abbreviated honeymoon. Class, gender, and political issues all jostle for attention alongside the personal stories.
I understand that this is the first of three novels in a series and was preceded by a novella, but I had no trouble starting with this installment. I realize that I missed aspects of the backstory for several of the characters, but I think the book stands alone quite well, and I’m not sure knowing more about Robert’s youth would have changed my attitude toward him.
My favorite parts of the book are the interactions between Minnie and Robert. Their first meeting sets the stage, where they are both irresistibly drawn to each other and fencing for position. These kinds of relationships often don’t work for me because the bickering feels as if it’s taking over. But here, in Milan’s hands, the disagreements and sparring feel balanced and substantive, a product of two people who see the world differently even as they realize how much they want to go through it together. Minnie’s character was an interesting, complex blend. I didn’t really understand why the critical event in her life shaped her so thoroughly (especially for someone living in that era), but I accepted that it had that consequence for her. And even when Minnie was at her most terrified, she wasn’t completely beaten down, and she still retained her intelligence and her determination.
I’ve found Milan’s writing style prosaic and almost flat in other works, but her prose here is warmer and more lyrical:
“Minnie,” he said slowly. “After today’s tiring journey, I thought we might—”
She undid the tie of her robe and let it fall to the ground, and the remainder of his sentence dried up.
“You thought we might?” she inquired, smiling at him.
God, that voice. God, that body. She was wearing a gown of sheer white fabric, embroidered in white scrollwork that twined suggestively from her hips to her breasts. Which were unbound. All too visible through the fabric.
The fabric was sheer enough to show the form of her breasts. It molded to the peaks of her nipples. Dreams and fevered imaginings paled before reality. A dream conjured up a perfect half-moon of a breast, but it missed the light smattering of freckles. He might imagine smooth, pale skin. This close, he could see that her skin was pebbled with cold. And it was a smattering of colors—a light overlay of pink, where her blood pounded beneath the skin, hints of tan and white. He could even make out a pale white line along one rib that could have been a scar.
The writing is great, the heroine is unusual and interesting, the romance is yummy. The sex scenes break the mold without losing their sensuality and power (lovers of awkward first-time sex that then turns seriously hot, this is the book for you).
If only the hero had worked for me.
Robert Blaisdell is introduced in the first sentence of the novel as the 9th Duke of Clairmont. That means that eight dukes have preceded him, and the last, his father, was a truly horrible person. (The 8th Duke was a key player in The Governess Affair, which I have not read.) But Robert’s father is the only one of his predecessors who appears to have had any effect on him whatsoever, and what an effect it is. Robert hates being a duke, feels isolated and unloved, and wants to empower the working class. He is scarred from his years of parental neglect and believes he is unworthy of love. Reassuring Robert of his worth and good qualities is an ongoing task for those around him.
I would have found Robert a more convincing character if he had been consistent about his attitudes, but there are just too many contradictions. (I call him Robert rather than Clermont or His Grace because that’s what he is called by everyone who knows him). I can accept that for a given individual, being neglected by one parent and watching another’s abuse could be traumatizing well into adulthood, but I would have appreciated some recognition that absent and neglectful parents were not unusual among the aristocratic English of the 19th century. Especially since Robert was sent to Eton, where he could reasonably have met quite a few other boys who were growing up in similar conditions.
Along the same lines, there is a scene early in the book where Robert and his estranged mother argue over whom he should marry. Robert seems to reject the idea that a socially appropriate marriage is part of his ducal responsibilities:
The last time they had talked had been two months ago. He had, in fact, agreed when she’d said that as a man approached his thirties, he ought to consider marrying. It had seemed an innocuous enough statement at the time. It had been talk that was not just small, but miniscule.
“You agreed to do your duty,” she said calmly.
“I said I would marry,” he said carefully. “I don’t believe I spoke a word about duty.”
Robert may be taking a contrary stand to irk his mother, but no point in the novel do we ever see Robert thinking about his presumably vast estates and dependents, for whom he has a responsibility, and, yes, a duty.
Robert’s hatred of the peerage and his chafing at his own privilege was under-motivated and annoying. If we accept that as part of his personality, the next logical question for me is, what did he do to lessen that privilege gap? We see him doing only one thing: distributing handbills to encourage worker action. But Robert is a duke, for heaven’s sake. There are any number of things someone with his power and resources could do. He could create a model factory (rather than just anonymously providing annuities to workers his father exploited). He could join forces with other radicals organizing for worker rights. He could seek out sympathetic colleagues in Parliament.
Robert complains that Parliament moves too slowly. But this was the era of great political transformation and democratization. The Whig party broke up and was succeeded by the more reform-minded Liberal party. The book is set five short years before the passage of the Second Reform Act, which extended the franchise to most urban male workers. This didn’t happen in a vacuum or all of a sudden; it was the result of many decades of social pressure and political conflict. Real political actors were engaged in robust and interesting debates over issues of worker rights and democratization of politics. In The Duchess War, I am never even told with which political party this committed radical hero is allied.
And finally, there is Robert’s inconsistent attitude toward his privilege and power. Robert is endlessly guilt-ridden about his ducal privileges, but he doesn’t hesitate to use them when they serve his purpose or help those he cares about. He distributes handbills because he thinks they are the correct strategy (he is apparently ignorant of the existence of trade union organizations, never mind Robert Owen). He knows he will not be prosecuted, but he doesn’t spend much energy thinking about the potential negative consequences for the workers. Minnie’s marriage to him negates the scandal in her past precisely because of his aristocratic stature and power, and he unhesitatingly wields that benefit of privilege. Robert’s guilt comes and goes, depending on the circumstance.
What is most frustrating to me about Robert’s characterization and the historical aspects of the novel are that the real world of Leicester and this particular period of Victorian social and political change were lively and fascinating. Had the character been more firmly grounded in the details of the era I would have found him both more admirable and more complex. We don’t have to wonder about what aristocrats were like in 1863; we know what many of them were doing. And some of them were sitting in Parliament and pushing for reforms that Robert would have approved.
This is a difficult book for me to grade. The historical context and the liberties taken with the period reduce rather than enhance the effectiveness of the story. But The Duchess War succeeds for me as a romance, and I can see why so many readers have found it satisfying. Grade: B-