Aug 18 2008
Dear Ms. James:
It is tempting to compare Duchess By Night with those Shakespearean cross-dressing comedies, and indeed, there are some superficial similarities among the novel, Twelfth Night, and As You Like It. But it is not fair to push the comparison too far, because Duchess By Night is a different type of romantic tale. However, I’m not sure, in the end, what the novel is really supposed to be, which made it a disappointing read for me.
Harriet, the young, widowed Duchess of Berrow, is tired of feeling insignificant. Despite the active role she plays at the local court, presiding when the judge is too deep in his cups to do anything but mutter sentences of hard labor for the pettiest offenses, Harriet feels mostly invisible. Her husband committed suicide out of despair over a loss at chess, her nephew will one day grow old enough to take over the duchy’s responsibilities, and she has just shown up at Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont’s extravagant costume party dressed as a dowdy Mother Goose. So when her friend Isidore, a duchess who cannot remember meeting the man to whom she is married, decides that she needs a scandal to bring her wandering duke home, the “endless house party” at Lord Strange’s estate seems precisely the thing. And because she cannot go without a chaperone, the Duke of Villiers, finally recovering from his terrible fever, agrees to take Isidore, with Harriet volunteering to come along as Villier’s young nephew – Mr. Harry Cope.
Once at Jem Strange’s estate, young Harry, who has been tended to and tutored by Villiers, is placed under the charge of Jem, who reluctantly promises the still ailing Villiers that he will bring the sheltered young man into the full maturity of manhood. Which means, among other things, riding hell for leather – astride – fencing, and of course, wenching. Harry’s awkwardness is easily explained away by the story Villiers has told of his coddling mother, and his femininity is easily perceived as sexual inexperience. But for Jem Strange, Cope’s demure delicacy presents a problem: Jem is attracted to Cope, which, despite his reputation as a true hedonist, disturbs Jem. Belying the debauchery he regularly hosts at his home, Jem does not partake of the fleshy bounty, preferring instead to play the Game, in which the most powerful men in England trade political favors, property, and power with the casual turn of a few cards. In fact, Jem has not been involved in a serious romantic relationship since his wife died in childbirth eight years ago, leaving behind a daughter, Eugenia, who spends her days playing alone in one of the house’s wings, protected behind a locked door from the partying but not unaware of the constant revelry. Unconventional Jem may be, but he is still not prepared for such a strong attraction to a young man, and he initially treats Harry/Harriet with alternating irritation and admiration.
The first part of novel revolves around the slow unraveling of Harry/Harriet’s true gender to Jem, while the second part is focused on the development of their romance and Harriet’s reluctance to tell Jem that she is a duchess. Believing her to be the wife of a country squire, Jem falls hard for Harriet, and she for him, and they each harbor the fantasy that the other will fit in to an existing life: Jem believes that Harriet will ultimately come to live at Fonthill, and Harriet hopes that Jem and Eugenia will come to live at Berrow. Harriet’s fantasy is considerably more fragile, though, because she has already been let down by one man who did not love her enough to stay with her, and she fears Jem will abandon her once he discovers her true rank. A tragedy intervenes during the second half of the book that seals Harriet and Jem’s mutual feelings and sets up the inevitable revelation of Harriet’s true identity and the attendant relationship fall out.
For a book concerned with identity, disguise, role-playing, and appearances, Duchess By Night is a surprisingly straightforward, if not entirely consistent, read. Unlike the other book in this series I have read, An Affair Before Christmas, much of the secondary character drama has been eliminated from this book. It is the conflicts between Jem and Harriet – and within themselves – that drive the novel, rather than external antagonists and obstacles. Harriet is burdened with the belief that she is, despite her rank and her practical authority, neither interesting nor important. The freedom she experiences while disguised as a man intoxicates her, ironically releasing her sense of feminine power, her instant equality to the men emboldening her in many ways. When Jem finally sees through her disguise, she embraces the benefits of being female by night and male by day, relishing her newfound liberty and sensuality. Jem, on the other hand, is known to be extravagant and scandalous, but at heart he is more traditional than even he understands. He has an intellect suited to engineering and a fanciful imagination, and finds a satisfying emotional grounding with Harriet.
As their friendship and then physical intimacy grow, Jem and Harriet are revealed as similarly unable to reconcile two dichotomous parts of their personality. As their relationship intensifies, we see that they are well-matched in the way they are discovering themselves as they nurture the undernourished characteristics of the other. Jem helps Harriet discover her beauty and sense of value as a woman, while Harriet helps Jem embrace the more serious man and parent within him. Both have lives that are out of balance, and their relationship is such that they begin to peel away the layers of self-doubt, self-delusion, and disguise, revealing and rediscovering a deeper and truer sense of identity.
Intellectually I understand this about Duchess By Night, but experientially I found myself alternately irritated and bored while reading the book. For the first part of the book I was a bit stupefied that anyone bought Harriet’s disguise as a young male, especially in an environment where she was in residence 24 hours a day, attended by a lady’s maid at night, and performing her deception after a mere month of preparation (which, given the duchess’ responsibilities could hardly have been full-time). Even Villier’s reassurance that “Ribaldry aside, if a person looks male, everyone assumes he is male,” is not enough to convince me, nor are his directions that, “If a bystander appears doubtful, say you’re going to take a piss. Men never expect women to know that word. Or say something about your pole.” People may, especially in a society where nobility is a matter of title rather than character, see what they want to see to some degree, but even a stable boy can see through Harriet’s disguise as soon as she gets on a horse. That Harriet should be able to go six weeks at Fonthill successfully disguised from the other guests was just not believable to me, especially since she is “a prettier man than most of the women out there,” and I was not invested enough in her relationship with Jem to suspend my disbelief.
The most interesting phase in Jem and Harriet’s relationship occurs while Jem fears that he might actually be attracted to a man, heightening and twisting the sexual tension between them:
Jem ground his teeth. Cope practically coo’ed his little retort.
He should go upstairs right now and tell Villiers that there was no way he could turn a moon-calf into a bull. But Cope was walking up the stairs. And the odd thing was that Jem actually liked him.
He liked the stickler way that Cope made it through that ride, even though he was obviously one of the least experienced riders ever put on the surface of the earth. He didn’t complain, though. And he didn’t look too sissy in a riding jacket. He looked delicate in some lights, but he had a good strong chin. The real problem was his eyes. What man had eyes of burned velvet brown?
But in a matter of days Jem discovers the truth and that interesting drama disappears from the novel. And despite Harriet’s fears that she will be discovered, she convinces others easily, even the women of easy virtue, at least one of whom is intent on seducing Harry/Harriet. How those women could have bought Harriet’s disguise is especially incredible to me, and it made this aspect of the book seem somewhat ridiculous to me, and not in a way that seemed intentional or revealed any deeper truths about the characters or life in general.
Once Harriet’s gender is revealed to Jem, their relationship is more conventional, and conflict attaches to the obstacles they face in being together happily ever after. The main obstacle is Harriet’s rank (and her deception, of course), the revelation of which is catalyzed by a heavily dramatized episode involving Jem’s daughter, Eugenia, and the bonding that occurs among the three characters. By this point in the novel I was feeling extremely disengaged, and the calculating predictability of this plot element moved me to impatience rather than empathy. By the time the full truth of Harriet’s identity is revealed, I was downright disinterested in the way the characters’ old insecurities re-emerge, with Harriet’s feeling that Jem does not love her enough to change his life for her (like her husband) and Jem’s believing that he is not good enough to receive the heart of a duchess. I had to stop myself from skimming the final scenes, especially the “Therapy Ending” (TM Smart Bitches), which diminished rather than heightened the emotional intensity of the reconciliation.
One of my main problems with the book was Jem’s characterization. Throughout the novel we learn that Jem’s now-dead father continues to exert his powerful influence. Known to Villiers as “a perfectly respectable baronet” (which confused me because Jemma refers to Strange’s “low birth” and Villiers calls him “a gentleman born and bred”), the senior Strange was also a worthless parent and an advocate of the position that “a house full of loose women, a brothel, is a man’s paradise.” So, of course, Jem creates just that, even though he never indulges himself, a self-conscious act of defiance and capitulation. While that principle makes sense in and of itself, the way it played out in the novel just didn’t completely square for me. For example, in losing Harriet, Jem is devastated because she “was the only person he’d ever met who thought that he was worthy of a better place than a brothel.” However, a man who believed this would have to be extremely un-self-aware, something I just could not buy with Jem, a man whose daughter adored him and came across as at least four times her age of eight, who was clever enough to figure out Harriet was a woman when most of the other men in the novel could not, and who had been so careful about keeping his daughter separate from what was happening in his house (based on a terrible family secret that itself should have made him a bit self-reflective).
I had the sense that I was supposed to see Jem’s blindness to human relationships as a way to set up the insecurity that almost destroys his relationship with Harriet. But here’s the problem for me with accepting that dichotomy: in order to see Jem that way, as so lacking in self-awareness, as positively immature next to his very rational daughter, I then have to see him as a bad parent, as a man whose own daughter could not inspire maturity, who could be captivated to the point of rapture by a woman he knows for a mere several days, and who is, to some degree, exactly the kind of man who abandoned Harriet. That his transformation into perfect parent and partner is completed within a month or so either makes him incredibly shallow or Harriet’s powers incredibly potent, but either way both the extreme self-delusion and the almost magical transformation into another man come off as unreasonable to me, not merely unrealistic, even within the context of a fairy tale.
At times I felt I should be reading the novel as a farce, especially with Eugenia’s characterization, which can be summarized in this exchange with her father:
“Love is a matter of the heart,” Eugenia said. “Shake-speare says that nothing should stand between true lovers.”
“We agreed that you wouldn’t quote Shakespeare to me for at least a month,” Jem pointed out.
“I didn’t quote. I merely condensed.”
“I’m not certain that Mrs. Mahon is talking about that kind of love,” he said, more cautiously still.
“Well, of course, Mrs. Mahon is a concubine. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she occasionally plays the concubine,” Eugenia said promptly.
“I see her as a character in a play. There’s an old play called Cupid’s Revenge in the library, and a very naughty woman named Bacha says in Act One that she means to ‘embrace sin as it were a friend, and run to meet it.’”
Jem started thinking about some suggestions he might give Eugenia’s governess as regards reading materials the next time he saw her.
But Eugenia didn’t even pause for breath. “Mrs. Mahon is embracing sin as a friend. Because really, what else can she do? She must eat.”
Could I see the book as pure farce, I would be able to put some of the absurdities – Harriet playing Cyrano in reverse, for example — within a different, more forgiving, context. But that would force me to ignore that dramatic episode involving Eugenia, the tragic story of Jem’s sister (although her own ending seemed pretty fanciful), and the circumstances of Harriet’s life, which were very compelling, even if they were handled a bit superficially. Instead the book read to me as an uncomfortable pastiche of farce, fairy tale, and melodrama, the elements more in conflict than confluence. I was not seduced by the witticisms, and I missed the multiple points of view from An Affair Before Christmas, although I have to say that Isidore’s duke made an impressive entrance in prelude to their story. In the end, though, I enjoyed Duchess By Night less than An Affair Before Christmas, and am thinking that I am just not a good match for this series. C-