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REVIEW:  The Accidental Duchess by Madeline Hunter

REVIEW: The Accidental Duchess by Madeline Hunter

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Dear Ms. Hunter:

It’s commonplace for the final book of a historical romance series to feature a hero who’s been something of a mystery. The Accidental Duchess goes one better, by having both the hero and the heroine be the least seen and most enigmatic characters in the series. It’s appropriate to give the heroine some of the limelight, since the previous three books have all had a theme of women struggling to achieve their goals and control their lives in a male-dominated society. Lydia is the most overtly fortunate of the four: a privileged member of the wealthy English aristocracy, with no real pressures on her to marry. Yet she is chafing at her confinement in the role of a lady.

Penthurt is a fairly typical last hero: an influential duke, he knows where all the bodies are buried, and how to get things done. He also has a secret of his own, which honor forbids him from revealing: why he killed a close friend in a duel. (Over the course of the series, particularly in The Conquest of Lady Cassandra, we’ve learned that this dearly departed was not the man his friends thought he was.)

Lydia has been an even more mysterious character. Described as once an impetuous, rebellious girl, “animated, loud, and often naughty,” she’s become quiet and self-contained. “Making her better acquaintance these days is like dragging a cart through mud,” says one of her brother’s friends. All we really know about her from the previous books is that she’s curious about sex, is an exceptionally lucky gambler, and was once shocked into quitting a game by Penthurst.

This story opens in 1799. (There were no dates in the previous books, so that’s one mystery solved immediately, thank goodness. I also appreciate that there’s no attempt at the  “oh, la!” dialect of a typical Georgian romance.) It’s a world that is “not rational at the moment.” Lydia is perturbed to receive a blackmailing letter from someone who possesses papers in her handwriting, papers that could be easily misconstrued as treasonous in the current volatile atmosphere. The blackmailer wants such a huge sum of money that Lydia feels forced to take Penthurst up on the bet that had once shocked her, feeling that with her phenomenal luck there’s very little risk:

“You suggested your ten thousand against my innocence, the winner to be determined by a simple draw of the cards.” She tried to sound worldly, as if she discussed such things all the time. She wanted him to know she was no longer the little fool who had been rendered speechless at the vingt-et-un table. His goal had been to dumbfound her. It had worked too well.
“The wager was posed knowing you would never accept it.”
“I know. However, it was never withdrawn either. How careless of you.”

Of course things don’t go as Lydia expected, and she and Penthurst wind up increasingly entangled — a problem, since she has a private reason for loathing him.

Of the two, Lydia is the more interesting character. Penthurst is intelligent, honorable, and protectively domineering in the way of Hunter heroes, but not particularly notable. (There’s a provocative mention of a reason he prefers older women, but it goes nowhere.) Lydia has more inner life. She’s suffering from a grief that no one has realized she’s entitled to, which makes her angry as well. She’s also struggling to be her own person, and gambling — and then giving away the money — is her ticket to feeling she has some independence:

She would like to claim some goodness in doing it, but she received so much pleasure that the gestures almost felt selfish. Nor were her gifts only about charity. With each one she made a little declaration to herself that she had a separate life, was a separate person, and had purpose.

(Incidentally, I had to smack my head for being an idiot when I realized the reason for Lydia’s change of personality — though not as much of an idiot as her oblivious brother. The recurring elements of the series tie together very well.)

The Accidental Duchess is smoothly written, intricately plotted, and consistently engaging, but I didn’t find it compelling or very memorable. Partially that’s because the conflict between Penthurst and Lydia has many echoes of that in The Rules of Seduction, one of my top ten favorite romances — it inevitably came off as weaker in comparison.  I like the graceful mixture of elegance and earthiness in Hunter’s sex scenes, but they have also become quite samey from book to book, always focusing on light male dominance and specific sexual acts. (This one also features an emotional deflowering scene, if that floats your boat.) As a couple, the two have some intense moments and some charming ones — their companionship by the end is delightful — but I didn’t get very invested in them. This is the curse of the voracious reader with a good memory; readers less familiar with Hunter’s work may feel more oomph than I did.

The book as a whole lacked a sense of urgency. It’s understandable that Lydia would conclude that Penthurst would not hold her to the bet; although they’re not longer close, he is her brother’s friend, as well as a gentleman. But even the blackmail plot, which is actually quite significant, feels like a mcguffin; Lydia is very good at putting it in the background of her mind and seems more exasperated by the blackmailer than anything else. There was a sense of the characters often drawing back from more exciting places the book could have gone.

My guess is that readers who enjoyed the previous books in this series will likely enjoy this one to about the same degree. If you found much of the series overly familiar, as I did, the wrap up is unlikely to change your mind. It’s still a better read than many historicals I’ve tried lately. B-

Sincerely,

Willaful

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REVIEW:  The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley

REVIEW: The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley

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Kensington Palace is now most famous as the former home of Diana, Princess of Wales, but the palace’s glory days came between 1714 and 1760, during the reigns of George I and II . In the eighteenth century, this palace was a world of skulduggery, intrigue, politicking, etiquette, wigs, and beauty spots, where fans whistled open like switchblades and unusual people were kept as curiosities. Lucy Worsley’s
The Courtiers charts the trajectory of the fantastically quarrelsome Hanovers and the last great gasp of British court life.

Structured around the paintings of courtiers and servants that line the walls of the King’s Staircase of Kensington Palace-paintings you can see at the palace today-The Courtiers goes behind closed doors to
meet a pushy young painter, a maid of honor with a secret marriage, a vice chamberlain with many vices, a bedchamber woman with a violent husband, two aging royal mistresses, and many more. The result is an indelible portrait of court life leading up to the famous reign of George III , and a feast for both Anglophiles and lovers of history and royalty.

Dear Ms. Worsley,

I’ve said so many times here at Dear Author that I love Georgian romances that when this book was mentioned as one of our daily deals, I just had to get it. Realistically, I know that I would probably have lead a curtailed, shorter, more restricted life had I lived then but damn it!, I still love the look of the clothes and the idea of the elegance of court manners. When I read deeper into the blurb and realized that the focus would be on the reigns of George I and George II, I was even more excited as I know so much less about these two monarchs than George III.

Non-fiction historical books can be wonderful or dry as dust so I opened this one with high hopes but fingers crossed. To my relief I found it a pleasantly readable trip through the mores, manners, people and politics of the day. But it isn’t merely about the high and mighty, whether titled or not. Sure it goes into some detail about the people behind the names I knew but there’s so much more. One of the major redecorations during George I’s time at Kensington Palace was the redo of the King’s Grand Staircase by William Kent who decided to include portraits of some of the servants who worked there as “onlookers” of people climbing up it. I adore getting the “behind the scenes” view of those who helped keep the place running from some “Beefeaters,” to the King’s valet, to a housekeeper and even Princess Caroline’s “wild boy.” The story of the cutthroat machinations behind who was chosen to actually receive the commission is almost as interesting.

I had always thought that royal mistresses were keen for the job and ended up being court power brokers. Well not in Georgian England. George I had his “Maypole,” as the English unkindly called her, while his son seemed to almost despise the poor Henrietta Howard, the woman who endured the position for 20 years before escaping to a happy marriage. The royal marriages ran the gamut as well beginning with George I who imprisoned his adulterous spouse for 30+ years in Germany, George II who passionately loved his intellectual, intelligent wife Caroline (who loved books and had a library all her own) though he still cheated on her and finally George III who remained faithful to his wife Charlotte and began to set the stage for the staid British monarchs to come.

This era was a time of enormous change in Britain and yet old stereotypes and injustices remained. Science and reason began to replace the old Stuart mythos of Divine Right, medicine progressed with the introduction of smallpox vaccination – championed by a woman Lady Mary Wortley Montagu – who also bemoaned the fact that women were still viewed by most men as little more than “greater children” without sense, intellect or reason. And even if she had any of those attributes, she should strive to conceal them in order to be thought desirable by the men. The court itself was losing prominence as the place to “see and be seen” and advance one’s position and fortune. Yet despite all the hassles, expense and relative boredom that those who lived there and sought to join the ranks endured, many spent years haunting the rooms and palaces hungry for entrée and jobs in this exclusive set.

Georgian royal family relations were often as vicious and backstabbing as any reality show or soap opera. Kings were pitted against their heirs by politicians seeking to influence policy and in twenty years the cycle repeated itself in the next generation. Parents were estranged from their children over petty, spiteful disagreements as well as the geographic upheaval that followed the Hanoverians move to England from Germany. Their English subjects also got tetchy over the fondness these kings had for their annual vacays back home and obvious reluctance to return to London. But then neither of the first two Georges ever planned on the fate they got and I do wonder if in the end either of them wished they’d just said, ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the offer of the British crown.

Before I started this book, I knew the basic outline of the era filled in with a great deal of swashbuckling and fancy dress. I knew German George and his son triumphed over two Jacobite attempts to regain the crown for the Stuart dynasty thus giving future authors a wealth of plots for their books. I knew women’s hoops and men’s coats were wide and their wigs were white and both sexes used copious amounts of face paint. But now that I’ve finished “The Courtiers,” I know so much more – and I can’t wait to apply my new knowledge. Must go find a Georgian romance to read! B

~Jayne

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