Eloisa James – “Duchess by Night”

10 Sep

GENRE: Romance / Historical
PUBLISHED: Avon Books, 2008

WHY THIS NOVEL: Part of series

The back blurb:
“Harriet, Duchess of Berrow, is tired of her title and the responsibilities that come along with it. Enough with the proper tea parties and elegant balls; what Harriet really wants is to attend an outrageous soiree where she can unleash her wildest whims and desires. But to attend such an event – especially if the event in question is Lord Justinian Strange’s rollicking fete, filled with noble rogues and rotters, risqué ladies and illicit lovers – would be certain scandal. That’s why she must disguise herself …

Looking forward to a night of uninhibited pleasure, Lord Strange is shocked to discover that beneath the clothes of a no-good rake is the most beautiful woman in the room. Why is a woman like her risking her reputation at his notorious affair? And can he possibly entice her to stay … forever?”

I was a bit wary when I opened this book because of the woman-disguised-as-man plot line. I’m not very fond. Too often, the woman is described as too womanly to make it believable and this non-belief carries over to the whole story, making it too “silly” for me. In Eloisa James’s Duchess by Night, the first thing is certainly true. Harriet often comes across as womanly and she’s described as having a rather womanly figure. As she herself says:

The only problem was … her rear. Harriet turned around and peered back there again.
She could hardly believe that she was even contemplating walking through the door like this. Her breeches fit her body like a glove. That was one thing from the front, but when she craned her neck to see her behind, she felt palpitations coming on. Her bottom … her bottom was exposed. Very exposed.
It was round. She had a very round bottom, as it turned out. Who knew that? With all the petticoats, and panniers, she’d never given her bottom a second glance. But there it was.
She tried to think about men’s bottoms but couldn’t remember that she’d ever seen any that where quite as – as curvy as hers appeared to be.
Would everyone know the moment she walked into the dining room? If they discovered her secret, she’d have to go back to wearing a huge wig and panniers. The very idea struck ice to her backbone. She couldn’t do that yet. Not when she felt beautiful and powerful and free – for the first time in her life. (p. 71)

While I never thought that Harriet could believably pull off the disguise for several weeks like she does in this story, this non-belief didn’t carry over to the rest of the story. In fact, what I probably enjoyed most about this novel was the first half with Harriet in full disguise mode. This plot line worked for me because James didn’t just use Harriet’s disguise to write a few (and cheap) scenes where the hero wonders why he is attracted to a man, although that’s there, like when Strange wonders why he should know the eye color of a man; she also used Harriet’s disguise as a way for Harriet to get a clearer image of herself (as a woman). So although it begun for a rather silly reason IMO and wasn’t very convincing, the disguise turned into something more and I enjoyed Duchess by Night more than I expected given the premise.

Unlike the previous two novels in the Duchess series, Duchess by Night is strongly focused on the romance. The overarching (and sometimes scene stealing) plot line of this series about chess, Jemma and her husband is nearly non-existent and the setup for the next novel, featuring Isidora and her husband, is very subtle. Unlike the other novels by James I read so far, there are fewer POV characters in Duchess by Night which also gives the story a more cohesive structure. It also helps that apart from Harriet, Isidora and Villiers, non of the established characters play much of a role since the story mostly takes place at Jem Strange’s house.

Harriet starts the story as a rather dowdy woman who’s unsure of herself – I mean, she turns up as Mother Goose at one of Jemma’s parties. In the course of the story, she learns a lot and I enjoyed reading about her discovery of herself. Jem Strange is an interesting character. He seems very unconventional, there’s the ongoing party and revelry at his house with questionable people, but he also has a rather conservative streak. For example, he’s more interested in The Game, than making use of all the opportunities offered at his home. Both Harriet and Jem learn from each other: Harriet learns to see herself as an attractive woman, and Jem learns to be a better parent.

I had some problems with the second half of the novel, after Jem knows of Harriet’s disguise. The focus shifted and the story slowed down a bit, IMO. Jem and Harriet begin an affair while keeping Harriet’s disguise as a man during the day. Jem’s daughter falls seriously ill and it’s that what makes him realize that no matter what precautions he takes, the way he lives affects his daughter. It’s also the time where Jem, Harriet and his daughter come really close. The story picks up again when it’s time for the big conflict: Jem discovers that Harriet has a title and – oh horror – she’s a duchess. Both thought the other would fit in his or her life and they would stay together. But after that revelation, this dream is over and Harriet leaves.

I don’t know, this part just didn’t fit comfortable with the first half, and the motivations and behavior of the characters were also a bit problematic, IMO. I wondered especially about Jem’s reasoning at the end, and some reflection on Harriet’s side would have been welcome there too. The big conflict seemed artificial because I didn’t really understand why Jem had such a big problem with titles. And I have to mention Jem’s daughter: the way she’s used in this story, she’s more a plot device than a real character. I thought her much to precocious to be really believable, even taking into consideration her rather unconventional upbringing. And the things she spouts reminded me of the chorus in an ancient play in that she knows or sees things her father doesn’t.

So, where does that leave me? Well, despite all the problems I could see, most of the time I still had fun reading this novel. And since I really liked how James used Harriet’s disguise, I’m torn between 3,5 or 4 – for this one (and it doesn’t help that I finished this novel exactly one month ago).

Would I recommend this novel? Probably yes.

Would I read this novel again? Probably yes.

Grade 4 – / 5 (because that’s what I thought first)


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