His Scandalous Duchess
This book reminded me of a song in the musical A Chorus Line: “Dance Ten, Looks Three.” The story was terrific, but the writing just didn’t cut it. Too elaborate, too long-winded, and I couldn’t even skim it because the writer has the habit of hiding important information in the middle of densely-packed paragraphs that made me tired to look at, let alone read.
Lucius Keene, Duke of Traherne (and surely first cousin to the Duke of Slut), repairs to one of his minor estates and, discovering that he’s got a beautiful neighbor, sets out to seduce her. Althea Wintergreen is the scandal of the neighborhood, living as she does in seclusion with only a few faithful retainers and a little girl named Effie, who everyone knows is her bastard daughter. But is she? Traherne is astounded to find, in the most irrefutable manner, that Althea cannot be Effie’s mother. He determines to do the honorable thing and wed her; Althea, however, refuses him. She is more than willing to become Lucius’s mistress, but she won’t let her reputation sully the glory of the Keene name.
Several attempts to kidnap Effie convince Traherne, and eventually Althea, that the marriage is the best way to protect the child they both love, and Althea reluctantly marries her duke. Before they know it, the pair finds themselves embroiled in an elaborate plot of political intrigue and deception, forcing them to rely on each other more than they’d imagined. Althea confesses her love for Lucius almost immediately, but he’s more guarded, which leads to all sorts of mental anguish for his wife. If only she knew that he loved her, she might feel better about being the black sheep of her new family. There’s already one skeleton in the Keene closet, though, and Lucius’s pride won’t let him do anything to straighten out the mess that dates back to his childhood.
I really liked these characters, even as I was digging through pages and pages of repetitive, heavy prose to find them. Althea is an independent spirit with a propensity toward mechanical invention: her first meeting with Traherne involves one of her creations, a wind-up toy that lands the duke in a pond of water. That said, while she’s intelligent, she’s also very much a nineteenth-century woman, reflective of her times, and not a modern woman dressed in Empire-waisted clothes. For his part, Lucius has a few demons to overcome, and he eventually comes to the conclusion that he needs Althea’s help to become a whole man. Their love scenes are inventive and funny, and they actually talk while they’re making love, so that it’s more than just “pant, thrust, writhe – unnnh!”
The plot is an intricate one, and I almost lost sight of it more than once because of the heavy-handed writing. Paragraph after long paragraph does little more than re-state what the reader’s already been told, when suddenly an important piece of information is thrown in. More than once I had to backtrack to re-read a passage I’d impatiently skimmed over, in order to pick up a clue or clarify a sequence of events. Moreover, I was uncomfortable with what I thought was the author’s over-reliance on repetitive internal monologue. While there was a lack of gratuitous head-hopping, point of view shifted enough to keep me unbalanced in places.
When there’s as much plot in a story as there is in this book, judicious adherence to basic writing principles is more crucial than ever. If Blayne had pared down some of the more long-winded passages in His Scandalous Duchess, I would have enjoyed it much more. If you’re not put off by lines and lines of narrative, and dialogue that’s interrupted by exhaustive introspection, you may enjoy the book more than I did.