Duchess By Night
Duchess by Night is the third installment of James’s Desperate Duchesses series. It features a simple country duchess who crashes a scandalous house party dressed as a man. I enjoyed settling down with this charming historical and I hope to see much more of James’s witty style.
As the story begins, our heroine, Harriet, Duchess of Berrow, is attending a costume ball at her good friend’s house. Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont, sprung the party on her guests at the last minute and Harriet is pleased with the costume she’s come up with, until she sees that her friends have managed to look sexy and gorgeous. Suddenly, the idea of going as Mother Goose, in an old borrowed nightgown and heavily stuffed bodice, doesn’t seem all that inspired. She decides right then that she’s sick of always being the staid, unnoticed person in the group, and she’s going to pursue activities that will bring her pleasure. Naturally, she’s presented with an opportunity right away.
One of her sultry friends is Isidore, Duchess of Cosway, whose explorer husband has been abroad for many years. In fact, I’m pretty sure that they’ve never met, certainly not as adults. Isidore has come to the conclusion that nothing but a scandal will bring her husband home. Harriet tells her that the most scandalous man in all of England is Lord Strange, who earned his reputation by having a continuous house party with lots of loose women. The Duke of Villiers, who is a staple in this series and is involved in the plotting, mentions that he has an invitation to Strange’s house and would be willing to bring Isidore, though duchesses aren’t exactly welcome. Harriet wants to tag along, but her friends think it’s prudent to shield her reputation and advise her to go in disguise. After some ribbing and a challenge, she decides that it would give her a good deal of pleasure to go as a man.
So, Villiers, Isidore, and “Harry Cope” show up on Strange’s doorstep. Villiers leaves the women to their own devices, because he’s still recovering from a dreadful fever. Despite Isidore’s bold statements, she’s thoroughly shocked by the sexual openness of the women in attendance. Harriet, however, finds herself waking up in a way she never has. She is given ultimate freedom in her guise as a male and because Villiers is sick, he has asked Jem Strange to look out for his young cousin and teach him to be a man. This puts Harriet in frequent company with Jem, who teaches her some manly pursuits, like riding hell-for-leather, fencing, and even picking up women. During their interactions, she grows more and more attracted to Jem, but is completely caught off guard when, during a fencing lesson, it becomes clear that he feels the same way.
I laughed a lot while reading this book. It’s clever and funny, and I really enjoyed the writing style. I also liked Jem, who is a very charming hero. While I haven’t read the previous books in the series, I understand that there have been a lot of different points of view. That is not the case here. I only remember three points of view outside of the hero and heroine, and they only lasted for a couple pages. In fact, the vast majority of the book is told from Harriet’s perspective and I would have liked a little more time in Jem’s head. But I think that this really strengthened the flow of the book; it would have been difficult to deal with such a complicated plot if we were constantly hopping through the heads of the secondary characters. Speaking of which, the secondary characters were interesting and amusing – I adored Villiers.
The main thing that I had a problem with is the male disguise. It’s cute and makes for a lot of comical moments, but it was difficult to believe that a pretty woman would be able to parade around as a man for well over a month, especially with such an intimate group of guests. Now, lots of the men apparently just thought she was gay, but that certainly wouldn’t account for everything. Jem, of course, figures out the truth, but then they keep up the charade so she can remain in the house, as both are very aware of what would happen if she were found out. She is allowed to participate in a lot of political maneuvering and bargaining, which would infuriate the powerful members of government with whom she’s dealing. I kept waiting for things to hit the fan, but it never did. Even when the two inevitably get married, I wanted some mention of how the public would react (I mean someone would have to recognize the man who is now a woman), but there was nothing. It all seemed too easy.
Aside from the implausibility of Harriet’s disguise, I wanted certain aspects of the book to be more embellished, but that’s mostly because I wanted more enjoyable details in this cute, fun read. Duchess by Night is the first book by James I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. Her style is sharp and witty, and I’m looking forward to reading the other books in the series.