REVIEW: An Unlikely Duchess by Mary Balogh
Trigger warning: ableist language
Dear Ms. Balogh,
By my count I’ve read some twenty-five of your traditional regencies, those slim volumes published by Signet between 1985 and 1998. By now, I thought I knew what to expect from those books: fascinating character studies powered by psychological acuity and emotionally charged storylines. But nothing, not even The Famous Heroine, prepared me for the romp that is An Unlikely Duchess.
Paul Villiers, the Duke of Mitford, is a man who leads a staid and careful life. When Paul’s grandfather tells him about twenty-year-old Josephine Middleton, the suitable eldest granddaughter of a friend, Paul agrees to the match since “it seems to be the right thing to do.”
Among the duke’s family members, only his sister Angela expresses a concern. Shouldn’t Paul meet his bride before deciding to marry her? Paul is not a tall man; what if his wife is taller? Paul has always lived his life according to propriety; isn’t it time he pleased himself rather than others?
Paul dismisses these fears, but as the holder of the title of duke and no less than eight lesser titles, he supposes that no woman will ever see him, or want him, for himself. Nonetheless, he makes plans for a trip to Northamptonshire, where he will propose to Miss Middleton.
Soon after, Josephine Middleton is informed by her father and grandfather of the match. Jo doesn’t have the heart to puncture their bubble of joy, but she confesses to her four siblings, Bart, Susanna, Penelope and Augusta that she believes the Duke of Mitford must be stuffy and toplofty, the least suitable husband for someone like her.
A conversation with a gentleman in her neighborhood amplifies Jo’s fears. Mr. Porterhouse describes the duke as an excessively handsome, profligate womanizer who squanders his money. Jo’s only hope lies with her aunt Winifred, who defied her own father and chose her husband herself.
Mr. Porterhouse offers to escort Jo to her aunt. Jo agrees, leaving her family a note that explains she is going to her aunt’s. But Mr. Porterhouse’s carriage “breaks down” in the vicinity of the Crown and Anchor Inn on the way there.
Also at the Crown and Anchor Inn that night is the duke, staying there as “Mr. Paul Villiers.” Tired of people bowing and scraping to him, he has decided to forgo his title for a day or two. He now realizes it was a mistake to agree to marry Miss Middleton sight unseen, and wishes he could have one last adventure before settling down.
The adventure finds Paul when he hears Josephine yelling at Mr. Porterhouse that if he doesn’t leave the room, she’ll scream, and if he tries to ravish her, she will put her knee where it most hurts. Paul rushes to her aid and together they overpower and knock out Mr. Porterhouse, who was trying to force Josephine to marry him.
Josephine explains her situation and assures “Mr. Villiers” that she is not in the habit of running off with men who are not members of her family. It is only that the men in her family are intent on marrying her to the Duke of Mitford, and “Any fate would be better than that.”
The duke does not take the opportunity to reveal himself, and when Josephine’s father arrives at the inn in search of his daughter, who never turned up at her aunt’s house, Jo is terrified her father will jump to the wrong conclusion and kill “Mr. Villiers” if he sees her. She hides in Paul’s room instead, and spends the night there, while the duke sleeps on the floor.
The next morning, Jo realizes that Mr. Porterhouse left in the middle of the night, taking her jewel case with him. Rather than allowing the duke to take her home, a furious Jo insists they go after Porterhouse and her jewels, disregarding the risk to her reputation.
Meanwhile, Jo’s siblings Bart and Susanna figure out Jo was kidnapped, and decide to pursue Mr. Porterhouse’s carriage. They arrive at the Crown and Anchor a day after Jo and the duke have left it, and learn that Mr. Porterhouse left in a separate carriage from Jo, who departed the inn with someone named Mr. Villiers. Bart and Susanna continue their pursuit, heading north, accompanied by the Crown and Anchor’s ostler, who has agreed to aid them.
By the time the duke and Jo arrive at the next inn, Paul is convinced he has lost his mind. Josephine persuades him that they should register there as man and wife so that her reputation doesn’t degrade any further. But when they run into a friend of Jo’s and the friend’s parents, the stakes in their masquerade – and their chase after Porterhouse – rise higher.
If it’s not clear from the above the description, An Unlikely Duchess is the kind of book that pokes fun at its heroine. In her bloodthirsty impulses toward Mr. Porterhouse and her growing affection for Paul Villiers, Jo ignores the potential damage to her reputation over and over, even calling attention to herself by waving to passerby from Paul’s carriage.
But for all that Jo’s ideas are described as “harebrained” and even the hero thinks of her as “basically a brainless female,” I found it impossible to dislike Jo because I was so entirely sympathetic to her motives on all counts. She was entitled to choose her own husband, and her own fate, as well as entitled to justice.
The bigger problem for me was that most of the humor comes at the protagonists’ expense (as well as from the convoluted plot, which was humor I liked a lot better). Even though I liked Jo, I found it hard to respect her thought process, and indeed, most of the other characters, including occasionally Jo herself, seemed to feel the same way. Watching Jo jump to the wrong conclusions or make unwise decisions is integral to the humor, so it is hard to know how seriously to take such a character.
Reading An Unlikely Duchess, I was reminded of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, in which the straight-laced man is dragged around on an adventure by a zany woman. I am not a fan of movies like Bringing Up Baby, but I think a reader who is might well enjoy this book.
As the straight man to Jo, Paul is mostly humorous by contrast. Although he constantly grumbles about how he should not have allowed Josephine to convince him to do X or Y, the next time she suggests something he is opposed to, he inevitably accedes.
At first I was annoyed with them both – at her for ignoring his wishes, and at him for continuing to grouse when it was clear she would just have her way in the future, and he would go along with that. But as I kept reading, I saw that this was part of the joke.
The conceit of the novel is that Jo, with her flighty, impulsive tendencies, is exactly what the formerly staid Paul needs, and Paul, who is the ultimate beta hero, will give her a great deal of freedom as well as affection. And I could see that this was the case, for both of them, but I still struggled with that some.
I struggled with it because I don’t think anyone needs someone who bulldozes over their wishes, as Josephine does Paul’s, or someone who thinks of them as brainless, which Paul does in regard to Jo. But both these things improved over the course of the book, and again, this is supposed to be the source of the humor, so I don’t know if it’s entirely fair of me to take these characters seriously.
I had another issue with the book, and that was the relatively low level of conflict. By conflict I don’t mean the friction I described above, which was certainly present, but rather, the creation of plot questions that keep readers turning the pages.
Here the major story question was “Will Josephine be ruined?” and since Paul decides quite early on to marry her to save her reputation, I felt that her future as a duchess assured she would not fall from grace.
There was nothing, then, to make me worry about the heroine, the hero, or their relationship in any serious way, and as I am a reader who likes a high level of conflict, I found myself enjoying the book while I read it, but not particularly driven to pick it back up after I put it down.
For this reason, it took me over a month to finish reading An Unlikely Duchess. Still, every time I picked it up to read, I ended up laughing out loud. I enjoyed the case of mistaken identity Paul created with his “Mr. Villiers” persona. I just wish I had more respect for the main characters – and that they had more for each other.
An Unlikely Duchess was not my cup of tea, but for what it is –
a farce – it is nevertheless well executed. I’m giving it a grade of C/C+.