Making an exception for ROMANCING THE DUKE by Tessa Dare
I keep thinking I’m done with dukes. I read a great deal of historical romance but, like many others, I feel poor old England’s been duked to death with a surfeit of fictional aristocrats. I guess I did also make an exception for Sarah MacLean’s “Killer Duke,” but only because he suited my purposes so well as an example of the “brutal” hero with a violent way of life that is both redeemed and eroticized.
Now along comes an over the top romantic cliche’ of a duke from Tessa Dare: He’s brooding, surly, half blind, and living in sulky squalor at gloomy, bat-infested Gostley Castle. Oh, and he’s also a shining example of the once and forever popular Duke of Slut archetype, with an apparently near-constant cockstand (whenever the heroine is present) and delightfully dirty repartee. (My thanks to @PennyRomance, @IsobelCarr and @SmartBitches for the assist with Duke of Slut research!) He’s joined by our equally predictable heroine, a penniless, writerly spinster who believes she’s inherited said castle and arrives just in time to save him from himself, and turn the keep into a home. It’s book one of Dare’s new “Castles Ever After” series. (The series title alone should tell you this is either saccharine silliness, or it’s going OTT).
I know it sounds too predictably ridiculous, but this book. Cracked. Me. Up. And when I was done laughing, I realized there’s also a lot going on here, some of it very cool and clever.
The Setting Regency England, the aforementioned Gothic ruin of a castle:
‘To Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight, I leave the property known as Gostley Castle.’ Is it pronounced like ‘Ghostly’ or ‘Ghastly’? Either one seems accurate.
Yet Another Duke Ransom William Dacre Vane, Duke of Rothbury
“So while I read, you’re just going to lie there. Like a matron reclining on her chaise longue.”
“No. I’m going to lie here like a duke, reposed in his own castle.”
Yet Another Penniless Spinster Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight
“Oh, but this gift isn’t the same as an ermine. This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”
“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”
“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”
The Tropes Clever Spinster Left In Poverty By Thoughtless Male Relatives; Wounded, Jilted Duke Doesn’t Trust Women; Loyal & Trustworthy Manservant Aids & Abets the Course of True Love; Female Friendship Where We Might Have Expected Rivalry (absolutely love that she pulled this off!); Spooky, Ruined Castle with Super-Romantic Turret Bedroom; Evil, Scheming Lawyers; Charming Band of Admiring Ordinary People become Main Couple’s Team Romance.
Truly Madly Deeply Romantic Comedy Romancing the Duke (Avon, January 2014) captivated me in ways I absolutely did not predict. Dare is a master at taking the tired and trite and refashioning it as something that’s somehow hilarious, sweet, and deeper than it seems at first glance. She succeeds because she’s so entirely willing to go over the top in a direction that is two parts farce and two parts sizzle, and she does it without taking anything about the enterprise too seriously. Her light touch results in a thoroughly enjoyable romance and a very satisfying, faux fairytale HEA.
So I’m glad I didn’t let my Put Away Your Dukes policy keep me from reading this. I have been a fan since Dare’s first trilogy, especially Goddess of the Hunt. I just had to google to find out what that trilogy was called, and I’m a little bemused to find … The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy ..?? But that’s the thing about Dare — she’s always winking at the reader, and with the Spindle Cove series she impressively balances compelling love stories with fun and frothy ensemble romcom.
I do have a few quibbles. It really is a feat to strike the right balance between breathless comedy and compelling romantic tension, and there are a few wrong notes for me. I don’t love horny girl virgin lust-think, especially in a historical romance. This was the chief reason I really didn’t like the Spindle Cove cross-class romance novella that consisted almost entirely of a well-bred young lady ogling and lusting after the hardworking, hard-bodied village blacksmith. And there’s a bit too much of it here, with Izzy’s inner panting about Ransom’s buckskins and boots. I’m sure this actually says more about me and my own internalized heteronormative perspectives on male vs. female maturity and sexuality than about the writing. I can handle the hero’s inner horny adolescent in most cases, especially when it’s accompanied by a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Somehow it doesn’t work for me in reverse, maybe because with this type of heroine it comes across as more clueless and breathless, instead of lusty and funny. Mostly, thank goodness however, there’s a lot of snap-crackle-pop dialogue that’s plenty lusty and funny.
“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It’s never the same twice, do you know that? It’s so intriguing. You’re like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”
“Oh, there’s a cock crowing, all right,” he muttered.
Blind to Love? And then there’s the disability theme here. I’m not sure what I think about the blindness of the hero. Ransom’s visual disability, which is partial and recent — due to an injury sustained in a fight over a woman — is a major plot hinge. There are a couple of minimal glimpses of self-pitying “you deserve better than me” nonsense, and there’s Izzy’s oddly swoony realization that he’s “overcome” his affliction through intense concentration on mapping the castle and its furnishings by feel. Plus the part about his refusal to eat in front of anyone, which causes a train wreck of a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get Ransom to “accept” help.
On the up side, there’s a whole back-and-forth theme running through the novel, about who, exactly, is “saving” who. She’s penniless and fainting from hunger as the novel opens, and he picks her up in his strong arms and revives her in dashing romance-hero style. At the end of the story she is saving him emotionally, from himself and his wounded isolation. He’s saving her, emotionally and sexually, from an oppressive and repressive public image as “England’s Storybook Girl” (more about that anon). She’s also, with his permission, “rescuing” him from the aspects of his disability he truly cannot overcome without aid (she reads and scribes for him), and which almost lead to a disastrous end (his lawyers have been skimming funds and selling property out from under him, while he’s been moping around ignoring his mail).
It’s frankly hard for me to tell whether all this comes across successfully as part of the ironic exploration of over-used romance conventions, or merely re-produces an unwelcome set of disability dynamics. Unlike other disabilities, blindness also works as an easy metaphor in romance — he can’t see her, but in the end, when he acknowledges his love for her he’s the only one who really sees her… for who she is… her inner beauty…. etc etc. I did like the fact that neither his blindness nor Izzy’s “plainness” are reversed in order for them to love or to HEA. And the question of Izzy’s appearance remains open-ended, which is also refreshing — there is no cheesy miracle recovery enabling Ransom to see her with his eyes and tell her, and us, that she’s really actually a paragon of beauty.
The Enduring Appeal of Gothic Tales Overall, I think the first half of the novel is cracking good fun and I loved the blend of frankly bawdy banter with burgeoning awareness between Izzy and Ransom of each other’s isolation and deep loneliness. In spite of the apparent effervescence, there are difficult emotions surfacing and real shadows lurking — poverty, neglect, exploitation.
Things decelerate and get more sentimental after they start having actual sex and figure out that someone is out to steal the duke’s fortune and title by having him declared incompetent. The final section of the story is a bit like a caper, as they join forces with Duncan (the trusty manservant) and Abigail (the friend from the village) and a roving band of enthusiastic LARPers, to prove the lawyers are defrauding the estate and the duke is neither insane nor unfit.
And yet in spite of the sentimentality, this is where I really got hooked. It was the nutty LARPers that did me in. You see, our heroine, Izzy Goodnight, is not just any old penniless, bookish spinster. She’s a celebrity. She has a dual identity as both the inspiration for a leading character in England’s best-selling serialized fairytale, and the daughter of its wildly famous author (recently deceased). The Goodnight Tales are the 19th-century equivalent of, say, a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings phenomenon, set in the fictional world of Moranglia, and featuring a princess in a tower, a dark brooding hero, and a Shadow Knight villain. Izzy is ambivalent about her public image as “England’s precious innocent.” She lusts, she’s pissed off at the injustice of her financial situation (her male cousin got everything), and she’s more steel than satin, with a hidden history of strength and unheralded accomplishment. Yet she is never cynical, and neither is this novel, in spite of the element of farce.
The existence of a massive Moranglian fandom, complete with LARPing knights and maidens, could easily have been the big joke here. Ransom is amused and mocking at first, while Izzy drops into character (“Good Sir Wendell, please be at ease. I’ll come thither anon!”) to welcome the clankingly costumed Knights of Moranglia and Cressida’s Handmaidens, who’ve tracked her down on the way to a re-enactment and encampment. The “fancy-dress fools” are figures of fun, but in the end, it’s a shared belief in doing the right thing – sheer old-fashioned honor and loyalty – that forge bonds of trust and mutual respect between the ill-tempered duke and his newfound fans.
“Make up as many stories as you wish. Just don’t make me the hero in them.”
Of course the Moranglians, like the reader, can see plainly that he’s the romance hero — I loved how cleverly and yet simply Dare accomplished all this, without over-writing or over-thinking it.
“Even if you did read my father’s stories, I doubt you’d enjoy them. They require the reader to possess a certain amount of…”
“Gullibility?” he suggested. “Inexperience? Willful stupidity?”
“Heart. They require the reader to possess a heart.”
There are knowing winks and nods to medieval romance from Lord Tennyson to Laura Kinsale, but the meta-story is an unabashed appreciation and celebration of gallant deeds and happy endings.
“You don’t have to admire my father’s stories,” she said. “But don’t disparage the readers, or the notion of romance.”
Defaulting to the Duke? I so appreciate a book that can make me laugh, even as it’s teasing out something fundamentally important about the nature of fiction and fandom, romance and reading. I don’t even mind so much about the surfeit of dukes anymore, at least not in the context of a book that’s thoughtful and genuine. I recognize Euro- and Anglo-centric romances about white aristocrats offer a privilege-reinforcing fantasy for some readers. There’s no doubt the genre will be better off as we see more and more historical romances about other kinds and colors of people.
Bitch Media published a great interview with the Love in the Margins team from last week that provided an interesting foil – and rich array of other options – as I pondered the pros and cons of the mainstream dukely regency, which has become such a dominant default in the genre. I’m still ambivalent about it overall. But a cleverly told fairytale is always welcome, and who wants to live in a world where readers are disparaged for the books they enjoy — as long as those readers, and the writers of such books, are willing to interrogate their choices?
ROMANCING THE DUKE is available from Avon in the usual formats and places. I received a copy from the publisher as part of the Avon Addicts program, in exchange for an honest review.