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REVIEW: Duchess By Night by Eloisa James

Dear Ms. James:

book review 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.

“Waa-”

“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-

~ Janet

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

14 Comments

  1. Jill Sorenson
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 17:06:32

    I am an Eloisa James fangirl and I absolutely adore the “hero perplexed by his attraction to a man (who is really a woman)” theme. I find myself disappointed if he realizes she’s a woman right off the bat. There is something so delicious about his initial confusion.

    I will definitely read this one.

  2. SonomaLass
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 18:25:08

    Gender disguise is a tricky plot to pull off, and it almost always requires huge suspension of disbelief (see Shakespeare). I think Janet makes a fascinating point when she notes that she had trouble believing that Harriet could pull this off for six weeks, and yet the period when Harriet was successfully deceiving Jem was the most interesting part of their relationship. I think that interest is what should motivate the suspension of disbelief, and clearly that didn’t work here, at least for Robin.

    I do have to say, though, as a specialist in cross-gender performance, that my research supports the “people see what they expect” premise quoted by one of the characters in the book. Cultural signifiers of gender are extremely powerful, particularly in a culture that draws hard and fast distinctions between the genders in terms of dress and behavior. There are multiple accounts of British and American women in the 18th and 19th centuries successfully passing as men, including joining the Army or Navy. In one account (which I don’t have the time to dig out right now for the exact reference), a woman sailed across the Atlantic successfully disguised as a man (complete with a small tube in her trousers for pissing over the rail), only to be outed upon reaching Jamaica where the natives (not raised with the same cultural signifiers) recognized her immediately as a woman.

    I haven’t read this book, so I can’t speak to why this didn’t work for Janet. But it sounds to me like it will work for some other readers, because the basic premise is actually sound.

  3. MCHalliday
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 18:38:57

    At times I felt I should be reading the novel as a farce…

    That is exactly how I felt from your descriptions of Harry/Harriet. It reminded me of the whimsey of British farce wherein men are falling in love with an extremely tall, broad, five o’clock shadowed, large nosed man in female costume.

    Film or teleplay may be a more viable means for this to really work in modern times. Steven Fry was a hoot doing this on an episode of Jeeves and Wooster…sorry, don’t recall which one. But then, we know from the offset that all the PG Wodehouse tales are farce.

    Perhaps a reference to ‘farce’ should be made in the logline or blurb for Duchess By Night that readers might be inclined to go with the illusion?

  4. Jill Myles
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 19:48:48

    I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a fan of the cross-dressing plot, but it worked very well for me in the context of the story. The only thing that bugged me was that the hero was named Jem, and we already have a Jemma in the series.

    Other than that, thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait for the next one. :)

  5. raveonette
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 19:51:15

    I just started thisbook- it’s my first James and actually my first “cross dressign heroine” book, though I’ve always wanted to read them and Twelth Night IS my favorite Shakespeare. :) I can’t really give a full opinion since I haven’t read the whole thing, but I do enjoy the tone and think it is in a farcical vein- with the duke suffering from chess withdrawal to even the hero being named “Lord Strange”, I’m just having a lot of fun with it. Strange’s young daughter is also a big bright spot in the story.

  6. Robin
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 20:32:38

    Jill S: it may seem like longer to you, because there are a number of pages that account for those days.

    Sonoma Lass
    : I am aware of some of those RL disguise stories, but the problem here was two-fold: first, Harriet was super feminine in appearance, even as a man, so she was already an object of a certain amount of speculation (as a “molly,” for example) about her sexuality. Second, there were people who picked up on the illusion (the stable boy, Jem’s daughter), and people who IMO should have been able to (actresses, courtesans, women in general). I would most definitely think that actors and actresses would have been more keen (especially because of the class difference), and it bugged me, especially since Harry worried that she would be found out, and once Jem did find her out, he would grope her under the dinner table. It just irked me, and I was not able to read the book as pure farce because too much was made of the consequences to Harriet’s reputation should she be discovered. There were, in fact, a number of pretty serious elements in the novel that grated against the farce, highlighting more brightly those things that didn’t work for me.

    MC: I agree with you about the way in which these devices seem well suited to dramatic performance (see my comment above for a more general response to the farce aspect of the book). There were obviously elements of farce, but as I said in my review, there were things in the novel that were not farcical, and the way the farcical elements met with the non-farcical ones created dissonance for me as a reader. For me, reading James is like listening to a song that’s just a bit off key. Everything is a near-miss. For example, there is a line at the end of the book about Jem being on his knees ‘because that’s where a man should be,’ and I knew I was supposed to laugh, but instead I felt pandered to (even as I admired the more woman-centric world James is trying to imagine). Plus, when I start looking closely at her books, things break down, and I’m not the kind of reader who can ignore those things unless I’m really entertained. And obviously, I’ve not been really entertained in the two books of hers I have read. I still might try an older book, but I suspect that those things that interest James about the genre are not the same things that interest me.

    Jill M: the reviewer at AAR liked the novel quite a bit, as well, so I’m clearly not in the majority here. There was enough to interest me about An Affair Before Christmas that I wanted to like this one (especially because I like some of the secondary characters, especially Jemma and Villiers, whose stories I am sure will be last, lol).

    raveonette: People talk all the time about how funny James is, but I am clearly not the best subject for her wit. And that’s the thing about hunmor — it works or it doesn’t, despite our intellectual understanding.

  7. SonomaLass
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 21:23:31

    I have my own issues with James. I get a lot of her humor, but too often I can’t buy into the drama — her heroes run perilously close to TSTL for me, and I got really tired in her “Pleasures” trilogy of men needing to have their wives practically die before they realized that they had been idiots. I usually find her a pleasant read, and I like the way her characters connect within each of the series I have read.

    Robin, you might try the Essex sisters books; I liked those best of what I’ve read so far in her backlist. I agree that she tends to juxtapose almost farcical humor with life-threatening (or at least reputation-threatening) drama, and I can see why that irks you. I do like the way she writes secondary characters, some of whom eventually become central in later books, and her characters and relationships are consistent over the series, which is a problem for some authors.

  8. Robin
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 22:28:02

    Sonoma Lass: I was so surprised that the secondary stories were soft-pedaled in this book, because that’s one of the things I enjoyed most about the last one. Oh, well. I know this is going to sound weird, but when I read these two books I kept feeling that they just weren’t well thought-out — that the characters, the motivations, the consequences of things given weight in the story weren’t thought through. That’s only my feeling as a reader, of course, and not a statement implying intent on James’s part. But it does frustrate me, because I keep thinking that if x were a bit different, or if y were a bit more fleshed out, this could be a really good book, lol.

  9. Janine
    Aug 18, 2008 @ 23:44:58

    Robin, you might try the Essex sisters books; I liked those best of what I've read so far in her backlist.

    I was thinking of recommending Much Ado About You (the first book in the Essex sisters series) to Robin. I’ve only read that one, which I liked pretty well and would give at least a B, and then Kiss Me Annabel, which didn’t work nearly as well for me. But I’d be curious to hear your opinion of Much Ado About You, Robin.

  10. Catherine
    Aug 19, 2008 @ 01:34:53

    Robin, I find it a little funny that you were disappointed that the secondary characters were less prominent whereas I read it and said thank God they aren’t having sections of their own anymore! That definitely proves that what works for one doesn’t always work for another.

    I like having the characters all tied together in a series because it makes me anticipate their story even more, but that doesn’t mean I want to focus on them until it’s actually their book. The last one in this series that I read (besides this one) was Desperate Duchesses. So much time was devoted to Jemma that it drove me insane. I resented the intrusion of the other characters in such prominence when it almost made the actual leads seem like shallow caricatures.

    I actually liked this book although I had to severely suspend my disbelief at the fact that no one saw through her disguise. I would have found it more believable if she didn’t seem so girly whenever a so called ‘man’ topic was brought up. I kept expecting her to titter and every retarded male around her to excuse it because her/his mother coddled her/him.

    I think the one thing that really irritated me about this book was the argument that led to the separation of Jem and Harriet. Now I admit that the lifestyle Jem led wouldn’t appeal to me in the long run but I still thought she was wrong for demanding he change for her. Because she has some issues about her first husband if Jem doesn’t follow along with her plans then he doesn’t love her enough and is choosing something else over her? What? That drove me insane and I thought it was so asinine. When she started having her little drama about how ‘no one loves her best’ all I could think was… Aren’t you doing the same thing to him? Does that mean you don’t love him best because you won’t accept his life how it is? Then of course her leaving leads to the realization that she’s right and he does need to change. Bleh. Worst part of the book for me. It dropped it from a B down to a C- for me.

  11. FanLit
    Aug 19, 2008 @ 12:25:30

    I agree with Catherine. Harriet spent weeks at Jem’s house party and never complained about the atmosphere. She did mention that it was inappropriate for Eugenia, but she never gave any indication that she was personally uncomfortable. Then suddenly Harriet confesses she’s a duchess and expects Jem to give up his lifestyle and follow her. Perhaps if she hadn’t spent 6 weeks masquerading as a boy and giving every indication she loved the freedom, Jem wouldn’t have assumed she would stay.
    Overall, I much preferred Lord Strange to Harriet. At least he wasn’t pretending for 3/4 of the book. I also thought Harriet disguised as a boy went on way too long.

  12. Robin
    Aug 19, 2008 @ 13:32:41

    Janine: If and when I ever give James another shot, I will try Much Ado About You. I have an older James around here that I picked up somewhere used, but I don’t think that’s it. But since I know your taste (and with back up from Sonoma Lass), MAAY is definitely where I’d go next. Thanks!

    Catherine: Thank you for bringing up that last argument, because it’s one of the things I didn’t dwell on in the review but that also frustrated me. I got the sense that James was trying to set up Jem’s Game as the counterpart to Benjamin’s chess, but you (and FanLit) bring up a very good point about how Harriet was unwilling to accept from Jem what she expected OF him. I was actually able to buy Harriet’s insecurities because of her husband’s suicide, but where that whole conflict got me was in the way she worried desperately about scandal surrounding her disguise, a concern that apparently disappeared once Jem hightailed it to her estate to grovel. That made her worry feel contrived, and yet it had been so persistent throughout the book (and likely warranted, especially because she was a woman). And honestly, I was pretty bored by then, and found the whole argument very anti-climactic and not emotionally compelling.

    FanLit: I think your point about Harriet relishing her freedom as a man and then expecting Jem to hook himself to her duchy is compelling. Again, it comes down to that issue of character consistency that has plagued my experience of both this book and the previous one in the series. Also, it was strange (har har) that Harriet ended up in the position of the righteous one, with no apparent reason to apologize. Her deception *was* unfair, IMO, and, as Catherine said, she ends up betraying Jem despite the fact that betrayal was one of her big issues with her husband. Of course, she had also thrown herself at Villiers when she didn’t feel wanted during her marriage, so she definitely had a passive aggressive streak, IMO.

  13. MCHalliday
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 16:47:54

    …there were things in the novel that were not farcical, and the way the farcical elements met with the non-farcical ones created dissonance for me as a reader.

    It is true that farce must be played out, or in other words, consistent. Otherwise, the reader (or viewer) is in a quandry. One of the main reasons pantomime works so well is the expected drag.

    If a tale is written with a serious tone, I am inclined to agree that unless the author makes the assumed gender believable with conducive surroundings and assurance in the heroine’s disguise, it would be difficult to swallow.

  14. REVIEW: The Courtesan’s Wager by Claudia Dain | Dear Author: Romance Novel Reviews, Industry News, and Commentary
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 12:05:35

    […] play on substance and appearance.  In fact, I was thinking about how the criticism I had about the last Eloisa James novel I reviewed had its counterpoint in Dain’s book, which had some of the same intertextual, cross-genre […]

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