How the Duke Was Won
I was only a few pages into reading this début novel from Lenora Bell when I had to ask myself why I’d requested a review copy in the first place. It’s part of the book reviewer’s job to give new authors a try, but I think that probably the alarm bells should have started ringing the minute I read in the synopsis that the heroine’s name is Charlene. In 19th century England. Not only does that appear to be a name that didn’t originate until the 20th century, it’s not one that has really taken off here. Even the two minutes research I have just done revealed both those facts immediately.
And the rest of How the Duke Was Won is littered with similarly obtrusive implausibilities. If you’re someone who demands at least a modicum of historical accuracy – or even the briefest nod in its direction – in an historical romance, then is absolutely not the book for you.
Even though Charlene Beckett is the bastard daughter of an earl, she was born and brought up in the bawdy house kept by her mother. Opting not to become a courtesan, she much prefers to do the laundry and sundry other chores than earn her living on her back, and is desperate to protect her fifteen year-old half-sister, Lulu from the clutches of their evil landlord, Lord Grant.
James, the Duke of Harland – also known as His Disgrace (geddit?) – is quite possibly the most unconventional (and I don’t mean that in a good way) duke I’ve ever come across in an historical romance – and I’ve read a lot of ‘em. He is a reprobate of the first order, of course, and only returned to England recently following the deaths of his father – who more or less threw him out and banished him to the family plantation in Trinidad – and older brother. James’ ambition is to produce cocoa that is affordable by all (because there weren’t enough problems relating to poverty, child labour and social inequality in 19th century England) and to that end, plans to remain only long enough to find himself a wife whose father has sufficient political clout to aid James in his fight to reduce import taxes and outlaw slavery in the colonies. He wants a quiet, demure, biddable woman who won’t make a fuss when he buggers back off to the West Indies and only turns up on her doorstep when it’s time to get busy making heirs and spares.
And they say that romance is dead.
Or at the very least, and in the case of this book, it’s in intensive care and flatlining.
James decides that the fastest and best way to find such a wife is to invite the top candidates to his country house and then make his choice; so along trot four of the loveliest and most worthy ladies of the ton and their mamas, with no concern whatsoever about the propriety of an all-female house party under the roof of a single man.
Little does he know that one of the ladies is an imposter. Charlene is the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Desmond and is a dead-ringer for her half-sister, Lady Dorothea Beaumont, who is currently travelling home from Italy. Not wanting her daughter to miss out on the change of nabbing a duke, Lady Beaumont offers Charlene a thousand pounds if she will pose as Dorothea for a few days and then ensure that she and his grace are found in a compromising position so that he will have no alternative but to offer for her.
Charlene wonders how on earth she is going to carry out such a deception, being not at all the sort of shy, retiring young lady the duke is sure to want; but the money will enable her to pay off her mother’s debts, to find an apprenticeship for Lulu and to start her own boarding house for young, down-on-their-luck women who might otherwise end up on the streets, so she agrees.
Naturally, from the moment they meet, James and Charlene can’t keep their eyes – and hands – off each other, both being struck down with a severe case of insta-lust. Given that the entire story takes place over two or three days, the speed at which the couple falls in love is enough to induce a severe case of whiplash. There is no emotional connection between them and no sexual chemistry to speak of, either.
James is a crusader who believes in fair play and fair pay; everyone in his manufactories, whether in England or Trinidad, earns fair wages, and the instant Charlene stumbles across one of his factory managers trying to molest a young female worker, James has the man by the throat and gives him his marching orders. Both these things are admirable, but, as is the case in the entire novel, the sensibilities are very firmly rooted in the 21st century and the tone is way too modern. Charlene is an independently spirited young woman who insists that she doesn’t want to “be owned” by any man – which again is a very 21st century way of looking at the patriarchal nature of the society of the 19th. She also knows Ju-Jitsu (learned from their Japanese bouncer), is a vocal advocate of gender equality, and is able to turn James’ illegitimate, mixed-race and temperamental six-year-old daughter into a little angel within hours.
Romance novels are, by their very nature, escapist, and as such are bound to contain elements which stretch the readers’ credulity from time to time. This is possibly the case with historicals more than any other sub-genre, because for one thing, there were – and still are – only a handful of actual dukes in England; and while it did happen that sometimes a peer crossed class boundaries and married outside his station, it was extremely rare. So yes, there are going to be various things in historical romances that are implausible or just plain anachronistic, and I am certainly not saying that every book that dares to call itself an “historical” romance should be 100% historically accurate. But there does need to be SOME degree of historical veracity involved, and there’s almost none in this book, which has no sense of either time or place. I can accept a degree of unconventionality in an historical, and a good author will be able to craft her stories and characters in such a way as to enable me to suspend my disbelief at whatever liberties she is taking. But in How the Duke Was Won the author piles implausibility upon implausibility, stretching the readers’ credulity well beyond breaking point, and there is nothing sufficiently engaging in the writing, storytelling or characters to allow the reader to concentrate on something other than the book’s shortcomings and is, unfortunately, not a good enough storyteller to be able to paper over the cracks. The characters are flat and uninteresting, the romance is non-existent and it will therefore come as no surprise when I say I’m not going to recommend it.