REVIEW: An Unlikely Duchess by Mary Balogh
Trigger warning: ableist language
Dear Ms. Balogh,
By my count I’ve read some twenty-five of your traditional regencies, those slim volumes published by Signet between 1985 and 1998. By now, I thought I knew what to expect from those books: fascinating character studies powered by psychological acuity and emotionally charged storylines. But nothing, not even The Famous Heroine, prepared me for the romp that is An Unlikely Duchess.
Paul Villiers, the Duke of Mitford, is a man who leads a staid and careful life. When Paul’s grandfather tells him about twenty-year-old Josephine Middleton, the suitable eldest granddaughter of a friend, Paul agrees to the match since “it seems to be the right thing to do.”
Among the duke’s family members, only his sister Angela expresses a concern. Shouldn’t Paul meet his bride before deciding to marry her? Paul is not a tall man; what if his wife is taller? Paul has always lived his life according to propriety; isn’t it time he pleased himself rather than others?
Paul dismisses these fears, but as the holder of the title of duke and no less than eight lesser titles, he supposes that no woman will ever see him, or want him, for himself. Nonetheless, he makes plans for a trip to Northamptonshire, where he will propose to Miss Middleton.
Soon after, Josephine Middleton is informed by her father and grandfather of the match. Jo doesn’t have the heart to puncture their bubble of joy, but she confesses to her four siblings, Bart, Susanna, Penelope and Augusta that she believes the Duke of Mitford must be stuffy and toplofty, the least suitable husband for someone like her.
A conversation with a gentleman in her neighborhood amplifies Jo’s fears. Mr. Porterhouse describes the duke as an excessively handsome, profligate womanizer who squanders his money. Jo’s only hope lies with her aunt Winifred, who defied her own father and chose her husband herself.
Mr. Porterhouse offers to escort Jo to her aunt. Jo agrees, leaving her family a note that explains she is going to her aunt’s. But Mr. Porterhouse’s carriage “breaks down” in the vicinity of the Crown and Anchor Inn on the way there.
Also at the Crown and Anchor Inn that night is the duke, staying there as “Mr. Paul Villiers.” Tired of people bowing and scraping to him, he has decided to forgo his title for a day or two. He now realizes it was a mistake to agree to marry Miss Middleton sight unseen, and wishes he could have one last adventure before settling down.
The adventure finds Paul when he hears Josephine yelling at Mr. Porterhouse that if he doesn’t leave the room, she’ll scream, and if he tries to ravish her, she will put her knee where it most hurts. Paul rushes to her aid and together they overpower and knock out Mr. Porterhouse, who was trying to force Josephine to marry him.
Josephine explains her situation and assures “Mr. Villiers” that she is not in the habit of running off with men who are not members of her family. It is only that the men in her family are intent on marrying her to the Duke of Mitford, and “Any fate would be better than that.”
The duke does not take the opportunity to reveal himself, and when Josephine’s father arrives at the inn in search of his daughter, who never turned up at her aunt’s house, Jo is terrified her father will jump to the wrong conclusion and kill “Mr. Villiers” if he sees her. She hides in Paul’s room instead, and spends the night there, while the duke sleeps on the floor.
The next morning, Jo realizes that Mr. Porterhouse left in the middle of the night, taking her jewel case with him. Rather than allowing the duke to take her home, a furious Jo insists they go after Porterhouse and her jewels, disregarding the risk to her reputation.
Meanwhile, Jo’s siblings Bart and Susanna figure out Jo was kidnapped, and decide to pursue Mr. Porterhouse’s carriage. They arrive at the Crown and Anchor a day after Jo and the duke have left it, and learn that Mr. Porterhouse left in a separate carriage from Jo, who departed the inn with someone named Mr. Villiers. Bart and Susanna continue their pursuit, heading north, accompanied by the Crown and Anchor’s ostler, who has agreed to aid them.
By the time the duke and Jo arrive at the next inn, Paul is convinced he has lost his mind. Josephine persuades him that they should register there as man and wife so that her reputation doesn’t degrade any further. But when they run into a friend of Jo’s and the friend’s parents, the stakes in their masquerade – and their chase after Porterhouse – rise higher.
If it’s not clear from the above the description, An Unlikely Duchess is the kind of book that pokes fun at its heroine. In her bloodthirsty impulses toward Mr. Porterhouse and her growing affection for Paul Villiers, Jo ignores the potential damage to her reputation over and over, even calling attention to herself by waving to passerby from Paul’s carriage.
But for all that Jo’s ideas are described as “harebrained” and even the hero thinks of her as “basically a brainless female,” I found it impossible to dislike Jo because I was so entirely sympathetic to her motives on all counts. She was entitled to choose her own husband, and her own fate, as well as entitled to justice.
The bigger problem for me was that most of the humor comes at the protagonists’ expense (as well as from the convoluted plot, which was humor I liked a lot better). Even though I liked Jo, I found it hard to respect her thought process, and indeed, most of the other characters, including occasionally Jo herself, seemed to feel the same way. Watching Jo jump to the wrong conclusions or make unwise decisions is integral to the humor, so it is hard to know how seriously to take such a character.
Reading An Unlikely Duchess, I was reminded of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, in which the straight-laced man is dragged around on an adventure by a zany woman. I am not a fan of movies like Bringing Up Baby, but I think a reader who is might well enjoy this book.
As the straight man to Jo, Paul is mostly humorous by contrast. Although he constantly grumbles about how he should not have allowed Josephine to convince him to do X or Y, the next time she suggests something he is opposed to, he inevitably accedes.
At first I was annoyed with them both – at her for ignoring his wishes, and at him for continuing to grouse when it was clear she would just have her way in the future, and he would go along with that. But as I kept reading, I saw that this was part of the joke.
The conceit of the novel is that Jo, with her flighty, impulsive tendencies, is exactly what the formerly staid Paul needs, and Paul, who is the ultimate beta hero, will give her a great deal of freedom as well as affection. And I could see that this was the case, for both of them, but I still struggled with that some.
I struggled with it because I don’t think anyone needs someone who bulldozes over their wishes, as Josephine does Paul’s, or someone who thinks of them as brainless, which Paul does in regard to Jo. But both these things improved over the course of the book, and again, this is supposed to be the source of the humor, so I don’t know if it’s entirely fair of me to take these characters seriously.
I had another issue with the book, and that was the relatively low level of conflict. By conflict I don’t mean the friction I described above, which was certainly present, but rather, the creation of plot questions that keep readers turning the pages.
Here the major story question was “Will Josephine be ruined?” and since Paul decides quite early on to marry her to save her reputation, I felt that her future as a duchess assured she would not fall from grace.
There was nothing, then, to make me worry about the heroine, the hero, or their relationship in any serious way, and as I am a reader who likes a high level of conflict, I found myself enjoying the book while I read it, but not particularly driven to pick it back up after I put it down.
For this reason, it took me over a month to finish reading An Unlikely Duchess. Still, every time I picked it up to read, I ended up laughing out loud. I enjoyed the case of mistaken identity Paul created with his “Mr. Villiers” persona. I just wish I had more respect for the main characters – and that they had more for each other.
An Unlikely Duchess was not my cup of tea, but for what it is –
a farce – it is nevertheless well executed. I’m giving it a grade of C/C+.
I read this recently. It wasn’t my favorite Balogh book, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I’d agree with your review.
@Kareni: Thanks for letting me know that. I enjoyed it too, it just took me forever to finish it! I have Lady with a Black Umbrella to read and review as well, but I think I need to hold off on that for a while. Because I spent such a long time reading An Unlikely Duchess, I don’t think I can do justice to another frothy Balogh right now.
From your description, it doesn’t seem as much farce (was it slapsticky?) as an intentional Regency era screwball comedy, which sounds like a creative mix and rather appealing to me. If you didn’t like Bringing Up Baby, I can see how you wouldn’t like this (though the plot here reminds me more of It Happened One Night or The Bride Came C.O.D.) I haven’t read Balogh because her blurbs make her books sound boring and conventional, but I may try this one. Thanks for the detailed review.
@MY: Yeah, that’s a good point. Farce was the wrong word to use! It is more of a screwball comedy. I haven’t seen the movies you mention, so I can’t say how the plot resembles them.
Balogh has written many books that aren’t at all boring or conventional, and I’d be happy to recommend some if you are looking for that. I tend to prefer her mid-career (1991-1998) books, but she has written good books before and since then, too. She can be hit or miss and it took me a few tries to appreciate her writing, but she is now one of my favorite authors in the genre. Most of her books are more emotional and not as comical as this one.
Thank you, Janine. I do like unconventional in both historical and contemporary romance, and it doesn’t have to be humorous. Just any story that veers away from the predictable. I’ve read too many romances that feel entirely interchangeable.
@MY: One of the reasons I read Balogh is that many of her books have fresh plots. She has a long backlist so I’ll just recommend a handful in order not to overwhelm you with suggestions, and you can tell me which of these sound like they might interest of you.
A Precious Jewel (1993) feels fresh to me because the heroine loses her fortune and becomes a prostitute. She actually works in a brothel and this isn’t romanticized in any way. The hero is one of her regular customers and prefers sex to be perfunctory. One day he visits her at the brothel after a customer has abused her. To get her out of there, he makes her his mistress, but that’s all either of them expects she’ll be. Slowly, things begin to change. One of the other things that is really different is that Gerald, the hero, isn’t handsome and Priss (the heroine) is more intelligent than he is, a fact of which he is aware.
Longing (1994) is interesting and different because of the setting, a Welsh mining community. The heroine, Sian, is a miner, as well as the illegitimate offspring of an English aristocrat. The hero, Alexander, is the new owner of the mine and an aristocrat himself, albeit a liberal minded one, and sympathetic to the miners. Sian is engaged to another man, one who is involved in the miners’ movement to gain concessions like safer working conditions from the mine owners. Alexander hires Sian to teach his daughter and they get closer, creating tension between Sian and her fiance. Balogh is originally from Wales and she brings this setting to life really well.
In Dark Angel (1994) the heroine, Jennifer, is caught between two men. Lionel, her fiance, is gorgeous and magnetic, and Jennifer has waited forever to marry him. Gabriel is a cad, a man who is said to have impregnated his own stepmother, bringing about his father’s death. But Jennifer is helplessly drawn to Gabriel nonetheless. But the reader knows, as Jennifer doesn’t, that Lionel is the true villain, while Gabriel is bent on revenge. What makes this book outstanding to me is the plot twists I was unable to foresee, and the way Jennifer is unknowingly a pawn in a battle between the two men. This is also the start of a four book series I enjoyed immensely. My review is here, but it is spoilery.
Indiscreet (1997) was reissued very recently. While visiting his brother in the country, Rex, the hero, is attracted to Catherine, a widow who lives in the nearby village. But Catherine’s reputation is unimpeachable, and his brother warns him not to try to seduce her. Rex does so anyway. It is only after they get caught that he learns the reasons why Catherine has maintained her good reputation so carefully. I don’t want to spoil it, so I’ll just say that this book veered in a direction that I wasn’t expecting when I read it.
The Temporary Wife (1997) is one of my absolute favorites. With this one, what made it feel fresh to me was the outlandish premise, as well as the writing itself. The hero, Anthony, an heir to a duke, had a falling out with his father years earlier, so when his father orders him to come home and marry the bride he has chosen for his son, Anthony decides to marry the most drab, mousy woman he can find and bring her home with him to spring her on his father and siblings. He advertises that he is seeking a governess, and Charity applies for the position. What Anthony doesn’t realize is that Charity has made herself as unassuming as she can in order to get the governess position. My review is here.
A Christmas Promise (1992) is another favorite of mine. The hero (an aristocrat) and heroine (middle class) are forced to marry, he due to debts he inherited, she because her wealthy, “cit” father is dying of cancer and this is his dying wish. Both of them are in love with other people when they marry and each thinks the other sought the marriage they were forced into. The wedding night is pretty awful as a result, but they have also promised the heroine’s father that they would celebrate Christmas as they always do, by hosting a house party for the heroine’s middle class family. As they get ready for the house party, they start to see neither is what the other first thought and that despite the class differences, their marriage might just work out. But what really elevates this book is the examination of loss and grieving. Sunita and I reviewed this book together.
@MY: Not a huge Balogh fan, though strangely More Than a Mistress is one of my all-time favorite romances.
Is it in the vein of some of Marion Chesney’s regency comedies? I really enjoy those as long as I don’t think too deeply about them.
@Bronte: I’ve never read Chesney but maybe someone else can answer that?
@Bronte: @Janine: I’ll give it a try. I don’t think I’ve read this Balogh but I read some of her earlier comic trads years ago. I’d say that Chesney is earthier. This sounds a bit more like Heyer’s madcap stuff, but with less complicated language. So maybe related but not too closely?
@Sunita: Thanks! “Madcap” is a good description, and there is a definite Heyer influence, though it doesn’t have Heyer’s wryness.
I’m suffering from Historical overload (despite still loving it — does that make sense?) and am not sure if I’ve read this one or not (I’m pretty sure I have). Mary Balogh is hit or miss for me as well — I LOVE her Survivor’s Club series (all characters with disabilities that aren’t magically solved by true love!), but some of her other books I’m a little mehh on. Silent Melody is another not-sure-if-like-or-meh and I’ve read it twice! It’s the mix of “Yay representation of people with disabilities in different places and time periods!” and “Wait, lip reading doesn’t work that way”.
Goofy comedy books like this are again, hit or miss for me. Sometimes I love a good romp, but sometimes they fall flat. I think the ONLY Tessa Dare book I’ve ever disliked was a similar road-trip comedy in her Spindle Cove series (okay, they’re all a little rompy!), which was odd as I love Miranda as a character. I guess part of it is that people get hurt in them and I don’t find it funny when they hurt peoples’ feelings? I stopped being able to watch slapstick comedy a while ago and most rom-coms are worse for the amount of pain a Big Misunderstanding usually causes and urgh I get uncomfortable even writing about it. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.
I read something recently where I was great up until the last 20 pages where the hero said something absolutely unforgivable to the heroine, and… never even apologized. But suddenly, HEA, and it’s totally forgotten! I swear, I don’t throw books at the wall very often, but that right there, oh my goodness. Not okay!
I like romances as a safe way to be emotionally invested in characters, even cry when they’re sad, because I know it’ll be okay in the end… UNLESS IT ISN’T, augh. Then I just feel stung and betrayed.
Thank you for all the recommendations. Some of those sound good. I’m going to take a closer look at Balogh.
@MY: I second Janine’s recs of Longing, Indiscreet, Dark Angel and The Temporary Wife and will add Lord Carew’s Bride and A Matter of Class to the list :)
@Lindsay: I’ve only read one of the Survivor’s Club series, Only Enchanting. The romance was quite good, but to me the book felt ableist in the way that Flavian’s friend who was blind seemed to feel sorry for himself even years after he was blinded.
@MY: You’re welcome!
@Jo Savage: I almost mentioned Lord Carew’s Bride. :) Since it’s a sequel to Dark Angel I decided that summarizing the plot would spoil Dark Angel a little, but I’m glad you listed it. I need to read A Matter of Class. There are also some classic Baloghs I love that have yet to be reissued, like Snow Angel, A Chance Encounter, and the controversial Dancing with Clara.
@Janine: Oh yes, I really liked Snow Angel, too. Another one for the rec list!
@Jo Savage: I am so glad she is working on digitizing her entire backlist.
@Janine: Sorry for the late reply! I think that it works better if you read The Arrangement first, which is that character’s book — he’s definitely not all sad-sack but is busy avoiding his family because they want to “help” him through daily life. The heroine is almost saccharine sweet but I liked the two of them together, so their little bit there in Flavian’s book worked for me because it was pretty out-of-character but also reflected how I feel about “every time I have a handle on my disability/condition, something new pops up and surprises me with ALL THE FEELS”. But that’s just my take on it! I think that The Proposal and The Escape were my absolute favourites from that series, and the rest fell on the “enjoyed it but can’t recall enough to say why” spectrum ;)
I gorged on the Survivor series recently, A lot of it was great representation. The hero realizes that using a wheelchair didn’t make him weak! A neurogenic stutterer who talked and engaged and was a bit flamboyant! Mental illnesses being treated with the same amount of respect!
The only thing I couldn’t get over was that every book seemed to start out with one of them saying to the guy or gal they’re going to end up with “I suffered horribly, some other people did too, some guy went blind, this guy went crazy. We all stayed at this house for three years and now we call ourselves the Survivor’s club!” It’s the goofiest, most cliche name ever and to hear it trotted out each time…and to near strangers! Almost randomly!
I did have to toss Only a Kiss (gently, library book) against the wall because the hero kept going on and on about how the heroine really wasn’t moving on from her husband’s horrific torture and murder. If she was really happy, what wasn’t she remarried already?