Eloisa James’ “The Ugly Duchess” — Good Plot, Strange Romance

Long-time romance novelist Eloisa James is known for her humorous romances, many set during the Regency period of the early 19th Century.  Some of her best romances come in sets; for example, the four book set about the Essex sisters (MUCH ADO ABOUT YOU, KISS ME, ANNABEL, THE TAMING OF THE DUKE and PLEASURE FOR PLEASURE) are interlinked, with the same characters showing up again and again as each sister gets married.  And this book, THE UGLY DUCHESS, also is part of a set — alas, not an interlinked set, but one based off various fairy tales.

As you might imagine, THE UGLY DUCHESS is a take-off of the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Ugly Duckling.”  It stars Theodora Saxby, unbeautiful heiress, and James Ryburn, the Earl of Islay and heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook.  Theo is a ward of Duke Ashbrook’s and has grown up with James, thinking of him as a brother.

However, the Duke of Ashbrook has run into major money problems, and has gambled away not only his own fortune and his son’s, but part of Theo’s as well (the part he could get his hands on).  For this reason, he insists that James, who’s just turned nineteen, marry seventeen-year-old Theo without delay despite Theo’s lack of beauty.

To James’ credit, he sees Theo (who he insists on calling the childhood nickname of “Daisy” throughout) as a woman of strong character.  Because of this, James sees that Theo is beautiful in her own way, if not necessarily in society’s, and as he’s always been great friends with her, wants to protect her.  This is why he insists that Theo be allowed to make up her own mind with regards to the nuptials — but it’s also why he doesn’t tell Theo right off the bat that the Duke has gambled away everything and then some.

Once Theo realizes that the handsome James wants to marry her, her brotherly feelings for him subside; in come the romantic feelings that she didn’t even know she had.  (This despite the fact that her mother believes something is extremely hasty about the impending nuptials; Theo’s mother has a good nose.)  She kisses him, the stars collide, the world looks dazzlingly bright — really, it’s a Kodachrome moment — and the wedding goes forward.

Theo and James share one deliriously happy night, and James thinks it might work out after all.  However, in comes the blustering Duke to thank James for his “sacrifice” (that is, being willing to marry an ugly woman), and of course Theo hears it all and throws James out.  This prompts James to storm off, leave the country, and ultimately take up a most unexpected career — he becomes a pirate.

Theo, on the other hand, stays home.  She manages to forgive the old Duke before he passes away (of shame, one would hope; the death occurs mostly off-screen); she puts all of her energy and passion into the Ashbrook estate.  Ultimately, she fixes all of the Ashbrook financial problems with a goodly amount of hard work (remember, this is a fairy tale, so Theo being a financial wizard — unbeknownst to her or anyone else at the start of the book — stays right in character with the plot), buries both the Duke and her own mother, and tries to do “the good and the right.”

And they both realize they’re lonely, and of course they miss each other, but do they communicate?

No.  Of course they don’t.

Look.  This tends to happen a lot in romances (the dearth of communication between the principals coupled with a complete lack of the usual social skills).  But as per usual, a bit of communication right away could’ve solved everyone’s problems.

Of course, then we’d have no story.

Moving on, James has decided to call himself “Jack Hawk” and has taken mistress after mistress in his new piratical career, but it’s all empty.  He’s faking it.  He knows it.  And he’s most unhappy.

As for Theo, as it’s been seven years, she’s decided to have her husband declared dead.  But wouldn’t you know it?  Her husband, James, throws off his borrowed identity and crashes the “death in absentia” ceremony, proving to one and all that he truly is alive.

So at this point, we have a couple who haven’t seen each other in seven years.  Will they get along?  Will the passion they had years ago spark to life again?  Or will it all fade away to the point that Theo asks for a divorce?

(The last question is asked merely as a formality, of course.)

Here’s my main problem with THE UGLY DUCHESS: while it’s a good novel in many respects, I don’t really buy James-the-heir’s transformation into Jack Hawk the pirate.  And because I don’t buy that transformation, I have a hard time seeing Jack — er, James — coming in and being this big, lusty man who can’t keep his hands off his newly-adjudged beautiful wife (as in the meantime, Theo’s turned into an astonishingly gorgeous woman.  Of course.)

Plus, there’s something about Theo that bothers me, too.  She’s almost too nice; she’s been slighted from the beginning due to her looks, but she takes no overt notice of this.   About the only reason we do know that it hurts her (aside from her conversations with Lord Cecil Pinkler-Ryburn, the heir presumptive to the Duchy of Ashbrook due to James’ long absence), is due to an outfit Theo wears of swan’s down — a way of twitting everyone without being vulgar.  Hmph.  (In case you’re wondering, Ms. James apologizes for the anachronism of this at the end of the book, too . . . as Hans Christian Anderson’s story wasn’t published until 1834, yet the bulk of this story is set around 1815.)

So, we have a too-nice heroine with a “macho man to the extreme” hero.  What’s going to happen?

Well, considering this is a romance novel, expect a great deal of sex coupled with Theo’s absolute submission at the altar of her new-found husband.  And a few conversations to make us feel better about it all in the bargain.

However, I didn’t see the submission of Theo as necessary or even advantageous to the plot.  This is a very strong woman we’re talking about, fairy tale character or no; she’s brought back the Duchy of Ashbrook from the brink of financial ruin.  She’s had to bury two parents — the man who raised her, the old Duke of Ashbrook (reprobate though he was), and her mother — completely alone.  She’s borne up under immense scrutiny, first from being adjudged ugly, then by all the gossips whispering nastiness after her husband left so abruptly after the wedding.

But she’s just going to submit to her husband as if he never left?

I don’t buy it.

Yet the way the story is told is charming.  The humor that you’d expect from an Eloisa James novel is present and helps give this book some life.  And it’s actually drawn from a historical parallel, as Ms. James points out in her note at the back of the book . . . but my problem wasn’t with James the gentleman pirate, per se.

It was with the whole idea that Theo should submit to him and like it, instead.

Look.  Sexual tastes come in all flavors, and I’ve read things that have disturbed me far more than this.  But for whatever reason, I just did not like the way these two came together as a couple, as it did not seem realistic whatsoever.

That said, THE UGLY DUCHESS reads well and easily.  It has funny moments.  And I mostly liked Theo, even if I did think she was too good to be true.

Grade-wise, however, that adds up to a B-minus book that you definitely should get from the library rather than buy new.

And that’s a shame.

— reviewed by Barb

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