REVIEW: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
Dear Ms. Milan:
When your books and novellas work for me, they are among my favorite historical romances. When they don’t, it’s not always clear to me why, and often I wonder if it’s my reading approach rather than the book itself. I wanted to read your latest novel for a couple of reasons: it has received both rave reviews and DNF reactions, and it grapples with class and economic issues in mid-19th century England. I really wanted to love this book, but instead I found myself frustrated, especially by the hero, even as I was captivated by the romance.
The Duchess War is about the romance between the 9th Duke of Clermont and Wilhelmina Pursling, neither of whom is at all what they seem to be. Robert, Duke of Clermont, hates being a duke and wishes he could abolish the peerage as an institution. Since even he realizes that is unlikely, he spends his energies writing and distributing handbills to factory workers in Leicester, encouraging them to rise up against their exploitative masters. Minnie and Robert meet accidentally when both are hiding out during a musicale, and their lives soon become intertwined. Minnie has resigned herself to a quiet life, living with her aunts and avoiding the public gaze. An accusation that she is behind the handbills leads her to uncover the real perpetrator, and, fearful that her past will be uncovered, she confronts the Duke and demands that he cease his activities. In return, he offers her a proposition: he will pretend to flirt with her so that she can snag a husband, all the while continuing his attempts to rile up the workers.
There is so much going on here, even by the standards of a full-length novel. Minnie and Robert have complicated pasts that shape their personalities and adult choices. Each has friends and relatives who are important (for good or ill) in their lives, and their stories are introduced and followed to varying degrees. The plot progresses from their first meeting through their growing attraction to their hasty but willing marriage to dramatic events after their abbreviated honeymoon. Class, gender, and political issues all jostle for attention alongside the personal stories.
I understand that this is the first of three novels in a series and was preceded by a novella, but I had no trouble starting with this installment. I realize that I missed aspects of the backstory for several of the characters, but I think the book stands alone quite well, and I’m not sure knowing more about Robert’s youth would have changed my attitude toward him.
My favorite parts of the book are the interactions between Minnie and Robert. Their first meeting sets the stage, where they are both irresistibly drawn to each other and fencing for position. These kinds of relationships often don’t work for me because the bickering feels as if it’s taking over. But here, in Milan’s hands, the disagreements and sparring feel balanced and substantive, a product of two people who see the world differently even as they realize how much they want to go through it together. Minnie’s character was an interesting, complex blend. I didn’t really understand why the critical event in her life shaped her so thoroughly (especially for someone living in that era), but I accepted that it had that consequence for her. And even when Minnie was at her most terrified, she wasn’t completely beaten down, and she still retained her intelligence and her determination.
I’ve found Milan’s writing style prosaic and almost flat in other works, but her prose here is warmer and more lyrical:
“Minnie,” he said slowly. “After today’s tiring journey, I thought we might—”
She undid the tie of her robe and let it fall to the ground, and the remainder of his sentence dried up.
“You thought we might?” she inquired, smiling at him.
God, that voice. God, that body. She was wearing a gown of sheer white fabric, embroidered in white scrollwork that twined suggestively from her hips to her breasts. Which were unbound. All too visible through the fabric.
The fabric was sheer enough to show the form of her breasts. It molded to the peaks of her nipples. Dreams and fevered imaginings paled before reality. A dream conjured up a perfect half-moon of a breast, but it missed the light smattering of freckles. He might imagine smooth, pale skin. This close, he could see that her skin was pebbled with cold. And it was a smattering of colors—a light overlay of pink, where her blood pounded beneath the skin, hints of tan and white. He could even make out a pale white line along one rib that could have been a scar.
The writing is great, the heroine is unusual and interesting, the romance is yummy. The sex scenes break the mold without losing their sensuality and power (lovers of awkward first-time sex that then turns seriously hot, this is the book for you).
If only the hero had worked for me.
Robert Blaisdell is introduced in the first sentence of the novel as the 9th Duke of Clairmont. That means that eight dukes have preceded him, and the last, his father, was a truly horrible person. (The 8th Duke was a key player in The Governess Affair, which I have not read.) But Robert’s father is the only one of his predecessors who appears to have had any effect on him whatsoever, and what an effect it is. Robert hates being a duke, feels isolated and unloved, and wants to empower the working class. He is scarred from his years of parental neglect and believes he is unworthy of love. Reassuring Robert of his worth and good qualities is an ongoing task for those around him.
I would have found Robert a more convincing character if he had been consistent about his attitudes, but there are just too many contradictions. (I call him Robert rather than Clermont or His Grace because that’s what he is called by everyone who knows him). I can accept that for a given individual, being neglected by one parent and watching another’s abuse could be traumatizing well into adulthood, but I would have appreciated some recognition that absent and neglectful parents were not unusual among the aristocratic English of the 19th century. Especially since Robert was sent to Eton, where he could reasonably have met quite a few other boys who were growing up in similar conditions.
Along the same lines, there is a scene early in the book where Robert and his estranged mother argue over whom he should marry. Robert seems to reject the idea that a socially appropriate marriage is part of his ducal responsibilities:
The last time they had talked had been two months ago. He had, in fact, agreed when she’d said that as a man approached his thirties, he ought to consider marrying. It had seemed an innocuous enough statement at the time. It had been talk that was not just small, but miniscule.
“You agreed to do your duty,” she said calmly.
“I said I would marry,” he said carefully. “I don’t believe I spoke a word about duty.”
Robert may be taking a contrary stand to irk his mother, but no point in the novel do we ever see Robert thinking about his presumably vast estates and dependents, for whom he has a responsibility, and, yes, a duty.
Robert’s hatred of the peerage and his chafing at his own privilege was under-motivated and annoying. If we accept that as part of his personality, the next logical question for me is, what did he do to lessen that privilege gap? We see him doing only one thing: distributing handbills to encourage worker action. But Robert is a duke, for heaven’s sake. There are any number of things someone with his power and resources could do. He could create a model factory (rather than just anonymously providing annuities to workers his father exploited). He could join forces with other radicals organizing for worker rights. He could seek out sympathetic colleagues in Parliament.
Robert complains that Parliament moves too slowly. But this was the era of great political transformation and democratization. The Whig party broke up and was succeeded by the more reform-minded Liberal party. The book is set five short years before the passage of the Second Reform Act, which extended the franchise to most urban male workers. This didn’t happen in a vacuum or all of a sudden; it was the result of many decades of social pressure and political conflict. Real political actors were engaged in robust and interesting debates over issues of worker rights and democratization of politics. In The Duchess War, I am never even told with which political party this committed radical hero is allied.
And finally, there is Robert’s inconsistent attitude toward his privilege and power. Robert is endlessly guilt-ridden about his ducal privileges, but he doesn’t hesitate to use them when they serve his purpose or help those he cares about. He distributes handbills because he thinks they are the correct strategy (he is apparently ignorant of the existence of trade union organizations, never mind Robert Owen). He knows he will not be prosecuted, but he doesn’t spend much energy thinking about the potential negative consequences for the workers. Minnie’s marriage to him negates the scandal in her past precisely because of his aristocratic stature and power, and he unhesitatingly wields that benefit of privilege. Robert’s guilt comes and goes, depending on the circumstance.
What is most frustrating to me about Robert’s characterization and the historical aspects of the novel are that the real world of Leicester and this particular period of Victorian social and political change were lively and fascinating. Had the character been more firmly grounded in the details of the era I would have found him both more admirable and more complex. We don’t have to wonder about what aristocrats were like in 1863; we know what many of them were doing. And some of them were sitting in Parliament and pushing for reforms that Robert would have approved.
This is a difficult book for me to grade. The historical context and the liberties taken with the period reduce rather than enhance the effectiveness of the story. But The Duchess War succeeds for me as a romance, and I can see why so many readers have found it satisfying. Grade: B-
I really enjoyed this book. I agree that the trappings surrounding the idea of Robert being a duke were inconsistent but I did love his character. The inconsistency that annoyed me the most though was the spelling. Decide if you are going to use British English or American English. Don’t use organize instead of organise, then use gaoler instead of jailer. Grrr. Took me right out of the story. Having said that I really like this series and I’m looking forward to the next installments.
I love Courtney Milan and I really enjoyed this book. It was slow and meandering in parts, but I liked both Minnie and Robert and wanted very much to see them get their HEA. I disagree with Sunita on one point – Robert wasn’t trying to get the workers to organize. He had discovered many former workers in the Leicester factory had been convicted of sedition for speaking out about working conditions and trying to rally the workers. He was trying to uncover the person responsible for the unjust convictions by distributing the handbills. He did sit in Parliament, working for reforms in any way he could. Robert was a very unusual duke, but that really was the point.
I agree with you that Robert is inconsistent, but that’s one of the things I liked about him in this book. I basically think that all of us are inconsistent to a greater or lesser degree, and especially those with privilege. You’re right that there’s a lot of other, more productive things he could have been doing, but I didn’t find it unrealistic that he’d take his instinct to work for change and settle on the first action that came to mind. I don’t think he has the strategic mind of a politician to see how change needs to happen across the whole of society and how to make that happen. I think he just sees the particular injustices for which his family has been responsible (and perhaps not all of those) and wants to do what he can to set them right. Maybe Minnie will help him towards a grander vision.
My only real frustration with the book was that Minnie was sidelined at the end. I felt that she had been set up throughout as the great strategist and when they were confronted with a situation that needed strategic handling, Robert didn’t even give her a chance.
@Bronte: Good point. The dialogue and the internal monologues use non-period and American terms (e.g., “figure out” for work out or make sense of) as well as “bloody” as a no-big-deal swear word. But Milan’s hardly alone in that.
@Lynnette: The handbill that brings Robert and Minnie together:
I consider that an exhortation to organize, and if he’s only doing it to smoke out the person pursuing unjust convictions, that’s even more reprehensible to me because the workers have far more at stake materially than he does.
I’m all for unusual aristocrats. The 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne refused a dukedom and he and the 5th Marquess were powerful forces for reform in the Whig and Liberal parties, respectively (the 5th was Viceroy and Governor-General of India and Governor-General of Canada).
I would have been fine with Robert working in Parliament as a member of a political party and chafing at the speed of reform, but the combination of inciting workers to protest and/or strike during a period of unrest (with harsh consequences for participants) and no on-page evidence of his “statesman” qualities was unbelievable to me.
I saw Robert as a naif who wanted social change, but was totally ignorant of how to go about carving his own path to it. He was at the beginning of his journey and therefore zigging when he should zag, as most of us do when we’re embarking upon a new venture. I felt his inconsistency was compounded by his feelings of privilege-guilt. My feeling of him as naive was solidified when he and Minnie got down to the nut-cuttin’ and we find out Certain Things.
@Ros: I agree we’re all inconsistent. But I don’t cut 9th Dukes of anything much slack, I guess; if you have that amount of privilege I expect to shoulder your responsibilities. It comes back to the isolated hero factor, too; in the real world aristocratic scions with horrible parents had other adults around them to learn from. I was also thinking, after I finished the book, of Heyer’s The Foundling. It’s an excellent portrait of a duke who is frustrated by his responsibilities coming to terms with them.
I agree that Minnie was really shortchanged at the end. She was to my mind the more grown-up of the two, despite her terrors, and she deserved to participate.
@Moriah Jovan: Naive is a good way to put it. Perhaps if I’d been prepped by the previous novella he would have made more sense to me.
I did read the previous novella but, strangely, found it forgettable. I had to dig around in my memory and consult Goodreads and then read a little bit of it to remind me what it was about. So I’m not sure it would’ve helped at all.
I enjoyed this book, but it did feel a little on the not quite right side of things. I think there were just so many different things going on: her improbable past, his father’s villainy, her great-aunt’s secret lesbian relationship, the redemption of his mother, the poor working conditions of the factory-workers, the dastardly deeds of the local constabulary, her best-friend’s dark secret and many more. It was like a Dickensian plot in half the space required.
All in all what I wound up enjoying the most was his mother’s story arc which really didn’t begin till halfway through the book.
Thanks for the review – from your description, I would have found this intensely frustrating. I have no patience for those born in the lap of privilege with education and power to be naive. It’s understood with privileged women of that age due to how sheltered they are, but not men, and certainly not dukes.
I would really really recommend Brust and Bull’s FREEDOM AND NECESSITY as a great novel that deals with those issues, and the ideas behind them, very well. It was the 18th/19th centuries that gave birth to political philosophy and many of the ideas that still govern the way we think about power and society, and it’s a fascinating period to delve into because of that. FREEDOM AND NECESSITY has also got one of the most amazing romances I’ve ever read, and one of the best responses to a marraige proposal ever…
I find the different reactions to this book quite intriguing, but I’m not sure I’ll read it. I have a feeling I won’t like it much. I read the entire Turner series, but Milan is one of those writers I want to like much more than I actually do–I have trouble connecting emotionally with her characters.
@CD: I have Freedom & Necessity in my TBR. I really need to read it sooner rather than later! Thanks for the reminder.
@pamelia: I agree that the mother’s storyline was intriguing, and I wonder if we’ll see more of it in a later installment. I hope so.
The first two lines of your review sum up my feelings for milan perfectly.
Its the same feeling i had during this book. I felt i should love it but i could not. There are parts of it that were fabulous – their initial interactions, the mother son sidestory, the train convo but overall minnie and robert did not stay with me after i finished reading. With milan i think her heroines are “kickass” but the heroes are hit or miss. Some of them are great like gareth in pos and some like robert felt completely flat.
Sunita is right, there is so much more he could have done given that he was a duke but he does not. I dont think he was a radical duke who truly wanted a change in the social order. I think he just wanted to be the complete opposite of his father. And undo the harm his father might have caused. That was pretty much his only motivation. plus he was desperate to be loved. But i think lorraine heath in just wicked enough, did a much better job abt a man just wanting to be loved.
The hero just did not workfor me. And by the end minnie too was shortchanged. Major disappointment bec i always wait eagerlyfor milan
@Moriah Jovan: Yes, either naif or maybe even simply not as bright as his future wife. Well educated but not able to grasp subtleties.
@Ros: The bit about not even using Minnie’s brains at the end, even though he had acknowledged them before (and copied from her :P) – that was a real annoyance to me, too.
I literally just finished this book and rushed here to read the review. I had been holding out. :) Having said that, I think I am more forgiving of Robert that it seems here. I took it that he was 28 and though maybe not new to being the Duke, trying to figure out how to best meet all the responsibility it while at the same time not losing his political fervor, which may have stemmed from the relationship he had had with the peerage thus far. I don’t know if 28 is too old in Victorian numbers to be figuring out how to reconcile what his father did with the dukedom and what he wants to do with it, but maybe he had spent this time trying to figure out the house of Lords and go about social change through those means. Finding it slower than he wanted (impetuous youngster) he found an opening to do something more when he found of the misdeeds at this plant.
I don’t know if I am reading too much into it, but that is how I took him. And being at that age where I am trying to figure how to reconcile what I want to accomplish with my responsibilities as a new adult, I could relate more, too.
I did love the romance and the unique characters. The only time I was particularly pissed at Robert was at the end and not talking to Minnie about any of it. I guess I could chalk that up to him having no experience nor positive role models in how communication within a relationship works, but that doesn’t make it less frustrating. Overall, I did enjoy it.
I think it’s funny that you found Robert hard to accept, since Minnie is the one with the implausible backstory. I recognized Robert’s type, I guess; I know quite a few folks born to privilege who feel guilty about it and yet don’t know how to deal with those feelings. Alternately claiming they reject the system, making largely useless gestures against it, and then using it without thinking about it because that’s what they know — Robert was certainly inconsistent, but I didn’t find that inconsistency unbelievable. I saw it as a need for growth, and Minnie as a catalyst for and source of some of that growth. The fact that there’s a reform movement he can join in Parliament, rather than just acting like some sort of class-war vigilante, is all to the good from my perspective, but I agree that the book seemed to call out for a more detailed and nuanced view of the period political situation than it made room for.
I don’t know if it’s because I read the earlier novella or not, but I had a much stronger sense of the level of Robert’s problems with his parents. Being used as a pawn, thinking that his mother didn’t care about him at all and knowing that his father wasn’t really capable of caring, feels worse to me than the typical aristo absent parenting. The complexity of realizing that a boy at his school was his bastard half-brother played into it as well; it wasn’t as tidy as a lot of romance hero psychology, but I actually liked it better for that. I’ve read a few too many romances lately where the main characters seem to understand their issues all too well, making me wonder what’s keeping them from addressing those issues.
@Julia: I think you make a great point about the way the reader’s perception of Robert is shaped by how mature we expect him to be. For me, a 28-year-old scion of a dukedom in the mid-19th century is old enough to know better, so to speak. But for other readers, the expectation that he still has a way to go on the maturity front will make him more sympathetic and make his behavior seem more likely to change over time.
@SonomaLass: Oh, I agree that Minnie’s backstory was implausible; but that implausibility fell within the standard romance suspension of disbelief for me, whereas Robert’s was problematic within that framework.
I should have been more precise. Robert’s inconsistency gave me trouble because that is something that I expect a protagonist (especially a hero) in a romance novel to be aware of and to work on. Telling everyone (including yourself) that you hate possessing great privilege at the same time that you use it freely is hypocritical, and at the very least I would have liked him to be aware of it. Instead, half the trait (concern for workers in his factory) was presented as admirable while the other half (use the ducal privileges for personal gain when handy) was unremarked upon. This contradiction was not acknowledged, nor did it alter, over the course of the novel. If readers finish the novel believing that marriage to Minnie was going to change that aspect of his character, great. I didn’t feel that way.
I believed that Robert’s parental issues were indeed severe, and within the context presented I could understand why they had shaped him so thoroughly. What I found lacking was the explanation for his isolation. Aristocratic parents of that time were a lot more than absent and neglectful, and children of uncertain parentage could be found within one’s own family. I would categorize the depiction here as part of the isolation of the main characters I find problematic in historical romance. We see no one else in Robert’s extended family apart from his aunt. Who was the heir presumptive, for example? A nine-generation dukedom probably had one, and if it didn’t, that would have been remarked upon. Again, had I read the earlier story (as I mentioned above), perhaps I wouldn’t have had those questions. But if the answer was that Robert was basically alone, it would have been similarly problematic for me.
[email protected]: I yield to no one in my affection for the Duke of Sale, but Gilly wasn’t learning to come to terms with his ducal responsibilities, he was gaining an understanding of his capabilities as a person, what he could do as plain Mr. Dash of nowhere in particular. And with his Uncle Lionel, Lady Lionel, and cousin Gideon, Gilly has much, much more in the way of a supportive, affectionate family than Robert ever had. Lord Lionel may be overbearing and wrongheaded, but he’s motivated by a genuine affection for his nephew (and, one presumes, his dead brother), and over the course of the novel, Gilly comes to appreciate that, even as he asserts his independence. And of course, it turns out that Lionel’s choice of a bride for Gilly is exactly the right one. The eoverall thrust of The Foundling is deeply conservative.
By contrast, Robert is rightly at odds with his ancestry, which has never done him personally a bit of good. You can’t credit Robert with eight previous Dukes of Clermont, as if they’re some asset to him, when the only one he actually has ever known is his father, who is a deep, deep discredit to his line, in a way that none of the Dukes of Sale are presented as being. Maybe lots of nineteenth-century aristocrats had cold and indifferent parents, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t genuinely damaged by their upbringing, or that Oliver is wrong when he says he is much better off than Robert because he has a family who loves him. Like Oliver, I don’t think “You’re rich and powerful, suck it up,” is the right response to someone who’s had the childhood Robert had.
Nor did I read the events in Leicester as the sum total of Robert’s social or political efforts. The story isn’t about his being the statesman and politician he’s presented to Minnie as at the beginning of the book, but about his developing relationship with her. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been active in Parliament, and we’re explicitly told that he has been. If I wanted to read a detailed story about mid-Victorian aristocrats engaged in political maneuverings, I’d read Phineas Finn, or The Duke’s Children. I expect something different from a romance novel, and this one delivered. I think it’s Courtney Milan’s best novel so far.
@etv13: I’m not saying that parents aren’t important or that horrible parenting can’t shape children’s psyches, obviously they can. I’m saying that in an era where aristocratic families were large and extended relations were more likely to play a role, the isolation of the main character is something to be explained rather than assumed. And one’s predecessors don’t have to be alive to provide an alternative. Robert would presumably have lived in a ducal home filled with memories and representations of the lineage from which he was descended. Families pass down stories of their ancestors, and this was a period in which blood, lineage, and the belief that people were part of a family line shaped how they thought about themselves. I talked a little about this in my opinion piece on Indian Harlequins and it applies equally to family relations and attitudes in this period in Britain
Of course I’m not asking that reading a historical romance be like reading an installment of Trollope’s Parliamentary Novels. As I said in my review, The Duchess War is primarily a romance (the part of the book I enjoyed most) and I evaluated it that way. I am asking, however, that if a historical romance features a politically motivated character, his or her motivations should be consistent with the behavior of a political actor of the same type in the era in which the book is set, unless the book is explicitly set in a fantasy-level England rather than the historical one.
A lot of people agree with you. I expected, when I wrote my review, that mine would be a minority view.
So I wrote this long comment, and then I did something wrong with my mouse and the whole thing disappeared. But the gist of it was, (a) I have the greatest respect for your opinions, Sunita; and (b) I think both Robert and Minnie are quasi-Gothic characters, and Robert’s isolation in particular has a lot to do with the Gothic underpinnings of the book. He’s a Romantic with a capital “R” isolated individual, whose guardian isn’t an Uncle Lionel or Cousin Bertram or whoever, but just an unnamed “guardian.” His lack of a family, and fantasies about sharing Oliver’s, are a key part of his characterization. He doesn’t have, and by definition can’t have, the kind of family that Gilly or Hugo Darracott or indeed most Heyer or Trollope characters have. One can’t imagine his father telling him about the people in the portraits, or how the family came by a particular manor, or which mistress of Charles II they’re descended from, or much of anything at all. The only lessons Robert learns from his father, as the text makes clear, are negative ones. He apparently doesn’t have the benefit of any contact with his industrialist grandfather, either. What’s really amazing, and which I guess he owes to Sebastian and Oliver, is that he[‘s as decent as he is.
Another Heyer hero suddenly came into my mind: Gervase Frant of The Quiet Gentleman. His mother abandoned him, and his father certainly didn’t love him, and Heyer makes sure we know that, but she deals with it with a very light touch. I don’t think it’s so much that Gervase has a stiff upper lip that Robert lacks, but that they’re the hoeroes of very different kinds of books.
@etv13: I feel the same way about your comments on reviews and analyses of points, so I’ve been thinking a lot about your (and other commenters’) arguments. Your observation that Robert is a gothic-type hero is an interesting explanation, and that may well be why I saw him the way I did; I didn’t see the storyline as gothic, but I think I see what you mean.
I still come back to my basic problem, though, which is that if you want to create this kind of character, making him a duke in the mid-1800s, and a political duke at that, is going to require you to traverse about as much distance in characterization as can be imagined. But maybe that’s my shortcoming in imagination, because I find the interaction of the political aristocrats and the emerging haute bourgeois politicians during that time to be fascinating, and someone like Robert is such an outlier compared to the ones whose histories I know. And, finally, I am still really tripped up by the lack of his sense of lineage. That really is unusual.
@SonomaLass: I agree with you and Ros. Robert is perfectly plausible to me. I’m currently listening to The Raven Boys and there’s a character in it of very much the same type — extremely embarrassed by his wealth and privilege, yet also often unconscious of it. And of course, sometimes using it.
I also agree that Robert not asking for help from a master of strategy was highly annoying.