Infiltrating male society.
Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
First Published: 1st January 2007
Date Reviewed: 12th May 2015
Isidore is tired of waiting for her husband to turn up and after ten long years the suggestion of Lord Strange’s illicit house is most compelling. Harriet, widowed Duchess of Berrow and sometimes unofficial judge, agrees to play a male so that the plan can go ahead without a hitch – Isidore will have a friend with her, it just won’t be known. Harriet would like to find love but Strange’s party isn’t the place, or is it?
Duchess By Night is a great book that’s only downside is its ending.
James is on top form. The writing is very readable, the humour laugh-out-loud. The book begins on a fun note, the drunken judge whose role Harriet has taken over and a fancy dress party at which Jemma lends her a stuffed goose as a prop, and it sustains it for a rather long time.
The characters are fun. Not everyone is developed particularly well but due to the nature of the book that doesn’t matter so much. Harriet loves being a man and this shows, she takes to her role like a bird to flight and the freedom allows the story to be more involved with the male side of life. Harriet is also allowed to be a man by those who know, making polite society have less of a stake (if it ever did in this series!) This said, Harriet’s character is a little fluid, most obviously at the end which I’ll be discussing later.
Strange is best once he’s figured out Harriet is really a woman. It’s then that he comes into his own as does the romance. He’s not bad otherwise but he’s not presented as particularly eligible, and by this I don’t mean the house parties. He doesn’t read as eligible because in truth he sounds a little too old and distant; it’s after the reveal you get the sense he’s Harriet’s age and a good match for her. As such, overall he’s a rather different hero to those in Desperate Duchesses and An Affair Before Christmas, less defined, not as well written. Related to difference but not writing, as he would say, he’s a libertine, so the sex scenes are a bit different. This is not a bad thing.
There is Eugenia, wonderful literal child of fiction. Strange’s eight year old daughter is into science and maths and she’s marvellous to read about. Though kept away from the parties she’s mature enough to provide fun (and accurate) commentaries on adult songs. Her scenes are ones to look forward to. Although the book is a romance, everything else in it is just as good to read about.
There is a lot of bias against same-sex relationships as might be expected in a book set in this era. It is entirely in context and nothing is remarked upon out of it – these are 1700s thoughts, no more. The era does lend itself to an interesting semi subtext, however – Lord Strange rather fancies effeminate ‘Harry’, so what does that say of his sexual preferences? It was always going to be beyond the scope of the book to explore, but it’s interesting to speculate whether or not Strange is bisexual, or if he somehow sensed Harriet’s true identity before he really knew. It is also interesting to look at the way there is a lot of freedom in Strange’s house for affairs and casual sex – but not between two people of the same sex. Duchess By Night is almost a mini study at times.
I should mention Isidore here because it’s important – whilst Duchess By Night is Harriet’s book, the premise sets up the next, Isidore’s own book. This means that Isidore’s musings and hopes of luring her husband home play an important part. As someone there by choice but not there to ‘partake’, Isidore provides both balance to the house and a reminder of the differences in society.
The book takes a while to get to the romance but that’s okay – Harriet’s exploits are something you won’t look forward to ending. James makes up for the time Strange is confused by way of a several pages long reveal and sex scene in the latter section. It could be argued this book is the steamiest so far, though due to Harriet’s relative inexperience and Strange’s insistence it could also be argued it’s the least comfortable. James spends time making her characters take their time but keeps the balance between closed and open doors – this is to say there aren’t numerous sex scenes – barring the first they are short and a lot of the content is alluded to rather than written out. The story rests very much on the general attraction and compatibility, even if it doesn’t always read as though the compatibility is complete enough.
This book would get the top rating from me if it were not for the end. Duchess By Night is excellent right until the last 30 or so pages when it turns to mush. An illness and plight for no reason – presumably James meant to further deepen feelings but it wasn’t necessary. The very end is a gooey, sickly sweet mess in which there are sudden pointless arguments and sentimental conversations. Most notably Harriet’s personality does a 180 and it’s stated she won’t be wearing male clothing any more even though the book had shown she would. Soon after this it appears she does don breeches irregularly, but not for the freedom. In sum, the ending doesn’t fit the rest of the book and the characters aren’t the Lord Strange and Harriet we’ve come to know.
Duchess By Night is a blast; it’s an absolute riot. You’re likely to enjoy its successes even if you do have to rewrite the conclusion yourself.
May 14, 2015, 7:51 am
A riot alright! Fun read.