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Eloisa James – Desperate Duchesses

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Love and loyalty amongst lust and infidelity.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 382
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-060-78193-4
First Published: 2007
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2013
Rating: 5/5

Roberta needs to find a husband. Realising her problems lie in living with her eccentric father – a bad poet with an inclination towards melodrama – she decides to leave for London to stay with family. Her hope is that cousin Jemma will help her make a stunning entrance into Georgian life and improve on the reputation her father has ruined. It was love at first sight when Roberta careened into Villiers, but Villiers doesn’t favour marriage. When Jemma is asked to exact revenge on Villiers by another woman, the plans to shame him as well as marry him to Roberta come together – but then there’s Jemma’s brother Damon who does favour marriage and wants Roberta for himself.

Desperate Duchesses is a surprisingly funny novel with all the basics of a good romance. Set in Georgian England, there is plenty of time for James to poke a little fun at costumes, and opportunities to take advantage of the daring and stereotypically sexy idea of a man who refuses to wear a wig. And there is time for explorations of society to be presented with aplomb.

Roberta is the sort of character that, apart from her era-specific interests, would fit any time period. She worries about how her father’s behaviour will affect her future, she is sexually naïve but not at all reserved, and her propensity to correct the hero’s son’s grammar, though bordering on obsessive, will resonate with readers. She knows what she wants and will strive until she gets it, and her belief that she is in love with Villiers is funny rather than annoying. James never suggests that you ought to believe she is in love and truly it is a case of her believing without knowing what love is. She may not be as compelling as Jemma, who is more aware and gets to show off her intelligence due to her role, but she is a person you can root for – and you’ll be rooting for her to make that crucial realisation about her choices before long. Whether she is likeable is another question, however.

As said, Jemma is rather smart. She is also rather scandalous and the source of a lot of the comedy. Her ideas, such as having a naked woman as a table centre-piece, speak just as much of modern liberation than debauchery. In fact, despite the wide tendency of all to sleep with everyone but their spouses, the book is lacking in the sort of discomfort and lust (without love) that might put you off. It is this aspect that is one of the greatest elements of the book.

Because if the book is character-driven (and it must be said that Damon is just as wonderful a character as his sister and Roberta), then James has made a big effort to bring history into it in a way that won’t alienate. If a romance with infidelity is off-putting, then James has made sure to keep the infidelity confined to the other characters and referred to far more often than shown. Despite Damon’s prior mistresses and illegitimate child, and despite Roberta’s decision to throw caution to the wind, you will not find a faithless couple here. Whilst it might strike you as unbelievable given the setting and other characters, it is understandable and acceptable that James has left out infidelity from the development of the romantic thread.

The book asks, to some extent, what love is. Roberta wants to marry Villiers and believes she loves him. From the text it seems possible that she does indeed love him, but when Damon makes his move she finds what is obviously ‘purer’ than lust, and it is on the part of the reader to see what Roberta does not.

Bringing in something completely unrelated to sexuality is chess. Or rather chess is generally unrelated but of course James uses terminology for innuendo and suggestions. There is a great deal of information and playing of chess in the book, to the extent that a person who hates it will likely find the book boring. Most of the characters practically breathe chess and it forms the basis for other plot points, too. Indeed anyone who enjoys the game or wants to learn more about it may see its potential as a tips and trick book – there really is that much in there.

As supposed for a book where the heroine has been brought up in a house of literature, the book prizes the written word and good English. What errors there are are editing errors and James employs a believable mixture of historical and modern language. One of the characters even makes fun of the language of his ancestors.

As for the romance? Damon wants Roberta and does make decisions without her, but his weakness around her takes away any feeling of inequality and possession. You have a heroine who has learned a lot from her father’s lovers and isn’t shocked by impropriety but has no knowledge of the actual experience; therefore some of the sex scenes are lessons of sorts. There is no colourful language and the relationship begins and ends (as far as the book is concerned) with love. If not quite on Roberta’s side.

Desperate Duchesses sees a situation where the daughter of a man who adopts peculiar pets, runs to the house of her cousins who aren’t cousins, in order to get married to a man who thought she was a servant. It sees a situation where well-dressed people decide to start playing at discus with cow pats, and hilariously bad seamstresses are employed to make ball gowns for the gentry.

It’s silly, it’s stereotypical, and it’s an absolute riot.

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July 17, 2013, 9:23 am

I can’t say I’ve ever been that drawn to historical romances. Actually I don’t generally read a lot of romances unless the genre is mixed with another genre I love. But I must admit this book does sound like a lot of fun.

vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas)

July 18, 2013, 8:00 am

I have a very soft spot for this genre, esp. if there’s a bit of suspense involved too. It can be hard to find well-done ones, so I’m always glad for a reliable recommendation. Stereotypes are sometimes exactly what one wants in a comfort read.


July 18, 2013, 9:19 pm

I really enjoy Eloisa James. Her current fairytale series is fantastic.



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