A Most Unlikely Duke
My reading resolutions for 2017 included trying some new authors and reading more historical romances, a genre that is my first love but has been neglected of late. Accordingly when the opportunity came up to review Sophie Barnes’ new historical romance A Most Unlikely Duke, I decided to take the chance on this new-to-me author. As the start of her new series Diamonds in the Rough, it seemed as good a place as any to try her works. The premise is definitely one that drew my attention. Unfortunately the execution falls short.
Raphe Matthews is a dockyard worker and the sole provider for his two younger sisters. Abandoned by their mother, then mired in debt when their father committed suicide, they’d been taken in by one of his father’s creditors, Carlton Guthrie. Living in St. Giles was no picnic, but they had a roof over their heads and Raphe had been trained as a boxer by Guthrie to pay back the debts owed to him. The world championships are coming up and Guthrie will have a lot riding on Raphe. But before that happens, Raphe and his sisters receive some miraculous news. A distant relative has passed away, and Raphe has inherited a dukedom. He’s the new Duke of Huntley! Moving into Huntley House is a step up for sure, but making their way into society after fifteen years in the gutter will be no easy task.
Lady Gabriella Radcliffe has a duty to marry well after her elder sister defied convention and eloped with a commoner, but her parents have hopes Gabriella will soon be engaged to the Earl of Fielding. When the new Duke of Huntley and his two sisters move in next door, her parents are scandalized but Gabriella is intrigued. She knows these newcomers will need some tutoring to fit into society and endeavors to help them; and it’s not long before she and Raphe find ways to spend time together, too. But Raphe can’t escape his past as a boxer, not with a big fight coming up, and Gabriella knows her family will never accept him as a suitor. Can they find a way to beat the odds and get their happy ever after?
It’s a bit hard to articulate my thoughts about this story because it’s unlike any other historical romance I’ve read, and I don’t mean that in a positive way. My first concern is the idea that someone could live in St. Giles, then inherit a dukedom and be accepted in society. From everything I’ve read before, and granted I’m not an expert on the period, it just seems very improbable if not impossible. When Raphe and his sisters move in next door to Gabriella, they are just of a completely different station. It’s evident in their language, their habits, their manners. To think that they could overcome that in two weeks and then appear at a ball is ridiculously far-fetched. It’s a challenge to read the first section of the story as well because the conversations that Raphe and his sisters engage in are written in what I guess to be an approximation of the lower-class London accent typically found in that part of the city. Then within those magical two weeks, their accents are polished, all their ‘h’s’ are miraculously back in place as are the dropped word endings. The combination of all these things just made me shake my head.
As for the romance between Gabriella and Raphe, well, that’s lacking, too. Even though we get some of the story from Raphe’s point of view, he doesn’t make a memorable impression at all. Yes, he has some good qualities. He’s taken care of his siblings for years and he worries about Gabriella’s reputation should it be discovered that she’s visiting his house on the sly to tutor his sisters. A few times he and Gabriella end up alone together which leads to some kissing scenes, but nothing particularly emotionally charged. I don’t need sex scenes to make a story enjoyable but I do need sexual tension between the characters, and I just didn’t feel that here.
On the plus side, I did like Gabriella’s character, despite the somewhat lame attempt of making her a bluestocking by having her express an interest in insects, spiders in particular. The ‘bee’ incident when she was six resulted in her being somewhat shunned by others of her class and so she feels a particular affinity for Raphe’s sisters and their predicament. Despite the obvious shortcomings mentioned above regarding a two week crash course in all things High Society, Gabriella’s compassion and generous nature are the high point of this story. Her relationship with her parents is in some ways predictable for the time and in other ways not. There are times it seems like it’s a 1950s plot line (falling for the boy from the wrong side of the tracks) dumped into the early 1800s and then just fiddled with so as to make it fit into the time period, and it’s not done particularly well.
The conflict between Raphe’s old life and his new one drives the majority of the plot, with the romance thrown in for good measure. The couple gets their happy ending, complete with society acceptance after some not unexpected ups and downs. There are a few interesting surprises in the second half of A Most Unlikely Duke that I didn’t see coming but made for some nice extras. In the end, Raphe and Gabriella are a good match for each other – just not for me.