REVIEW: The Secret Duke by Jo Beverley
Dear Ms. Beverley,
All right. Here we go with “The Secret Duke” the third book in this series set in mid eighteenth century England. As with the first two books, it involves hidden and/or secret identities and takes place partly on the road which allows the characters to let their hair down – so to speak – and get to know each other outside of rigid constraints of 18th century and aristocratic society. Parts of the book worked very well for me while others…hmm, maybe not so much.
The Duke of Ithorne is a man of power and consequence. Born after his father’s death, being a Duke is what he was raised to be. But occasionally, he assumes an alter ego as Captain Rose, sailing out of Dover. And it’s after one of these voyages that he first meets a young woman who will rock his world. Who is she? Well, he doesn’t know – then – as she slips away after he’s saved her virtue and possibly her life. But four years later, the two meet again, and again, cloaked in disguises and attempting to keep their identities hidden as they tack through the swirling events of London court and country life.
Those who haven’t already finished the first two books might be slightly at sea when characters from them pop up in this one. I still think that people could start here but only if they don’t mind spoilers, especially from “The Secret Marriage,” since many of the events at the end of that book overlap with the early action of this one. I found a lot of that to be slightly awkward, since I already knew about it, and very dragging as there’s a whole lot to be recapped. And while the cat-rabbit of Hesse was interesting enough for one book, I didn’t care to see her again, and for so many scenes, in this one. I think she’s got more dialogue in the book than Rothgar does.
Of more interest to me is the portrayal of the position of women at this time. The heroine, Bella Barstowe, finds out exactly how easy it was for a woman to lose her reputation and how that would blight her life. She makes a small mistake which gets compounded by the actions of the men “in charge” of her then has to face a future that pretty much sucks. If not for the legacy left to her by another woman, she would never have escaped being house bound. Then you show us, through the coterie around Lady Fowler, the other ways women could slip through the cracks and be left destitute. With no money or family, being a woman alone then would have been truly terrifying. Even a young woman such as Bella has to learn how to deal with the world of commerce outside of her home.
Yet, as precarious as you show a woman’s position to be, I’m glad that not all men are portrayed as ogres and tyrants. Women from all ranks of society could find love or at least good men to be in their lives. Otherwise, Bella’s sudden change of heart about marriage would have seemed to quick. Thank you that the Christmas at Rothgar Abbey serves a purpose other than as a sickly sweet Hallmark Card moment in showing Bella that she could live this kind of life with Thorne.
Again, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, I love that we see the power that these aristocratic people, men and women, had in society. Ithorne is well aware of his responsibilities – both day to day and over the holiday – to his people and his duties. He also knows he needs to put in an appearance when George III becomes King. Perhaps not quite the “hell for leather” charge of the court towards a new monarch as in Tudor days but still one Must Be Seen. I wasn’t aware that King had shown signs of his illness so early in his reign. And behind all the great men were the secretaries and valets. I loved the little bit about Ithorne asking his valet about the correct dress for a nobleman to wear when intervening in the affairs of distressed gentlewomen.
This is not a democratic society, heavens no, and I think you make the distinction very nicely. I would never have thought of the fact that a working class person with a silver cross and chain might be thought to have stolen it. Bella worries that the family servants who help her might be made to suffer for it. Rothgar and Ithorne show noblesse oblige toward those they feel responsible for. Ithorne worries about how Bella would fit into upper echelons of society since even being a lower level aristocrat might not be enough to make her transition to Duchess a smooth one.
In Bella’s initial appearance in the story, she’s still young and impetuous. As the book progresses, and she’s had four years to think on things, she’s grown and shows restraint in her actions. She still has her “March hare” moments but they’re tempered with experience and she thinks things through. When she has the chance to take revenge on those who did her wrong, she’s got intelligence enough to know when she needs some assistance. Ithorne, though he doesn’t change as much as Bella over the course of the story, will hopefully have learned something about the place of women in this world.
But the revenge section, as much as I was glad to see Bella get a bit of her own back, dragged for me. As I mentioned, too much cat – and this is from a person who loves cats – and too much time spent with Ithorne as a common man. Perhaps this is due to the fact that you used this plot device in all three books and maybe it’s partly because you show the aristocratic power behind the pomp so well that I want to see more of that. In any event, I wasn’t sorry to see this section end.
I am sorry that this mini-series is now over as I adore Georgian era books and am always delighted to peek into the world of the Mallorens. Poor Bryght and Portia will have to sweat out another pregnancy before their offspring are “off the hook.” And poor Rothgar, along with Robin, will have to pace through another delivery. Will we see more Mallorens? I do hope so.