Miss Darby's Duenna is a funny, clever story and beautifully written to boot. In spite of this, it was a tough book to grade. Despite its delightfully dry wit and elegent manner, it's not very romantic. At times it seems as much a takeoff on a Regency Romance as it is a Regency Romance. The hero is in drag throughout much of the book. Though Cary Grant managed to pull off wearing a frilly nightie in Bringing Up Baby, to paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bensen, I remember Cary Grant. Cary Grant was an idol of mine. And Sir Harry Hawthorne, you are no Cary Grant.
Our story opens with the extremely unromantic proposal of the thickheaded Sir Harry Hawthorne for Miss Olivia Darby. Harry has been unofficially betrothed to Olivia since childhood and takes her agreement for granted. His opening words are, "Well then Livvy, what is it to be?"
Olivia, who really does love Harry, agrees to the marriage but tells him that she is to have a Season in London before the marriage. Harry makes few plans to be with her. He is far too busy with his own entertainments, such as going to his clubs and theater with his friends. Like a teenage boy who has "gone steady" too long, Harry has never given much thought to being in love with his intended. Those feelings he has kept for the likes of a red-haired actress by the name of Violetta. It does not occur to Harry that he has feelings for his bride until a rake by the name of Lord Mannerly begins to pay her court.
When Harry, who has been an extremely neglectful suitor, complains about Lord Mannerly's attentions, he finds that Olivia will not listen. Harry comes to the conclusion that the only way to have an influence on Olivia is to ensure that she gets good advice from someone she can trust, an older female. None being handy, Harry comes up with one. He dresses up as his own grandmother (to whom he bears a striking resemblance) and becomes "Miss Darby's Duenna."
The exchange between Harry and his faithful valet on this matter is worth the price of the book.
"Upon the morrow, Higgins, I shall require you to carry out a few errands. I need a wardrobe suitable for a lady of say, seventy years."
"According to what measurements, sir?"
"My own, you nodcock! Who else would I be purchasing clothing for? Now I shall need undergarments, and...."
This gets even better, but retelling would spoil it.. Harry disguises himself as his grandmother, and, much like in old I Love Lucy episodes, Olivia doesn't suspect a thing. Harry escorts Olivia on all kinds of outings. Silly as this may sound, Sheri Cobb South is a good enough writer to pull it off. She uses the situation to gently poke fun at all of the tried and true Regency Romance conventions: the ride in Hyde Park, the waltzing rules at Almacks and the obligatory visit to Vauxhall Gardens.
To anyone who reads Regencies regularly, Miss Darby's Duenna, is hilariously funny. The book's only problem, romance-wise, is that Harry, the hapless hero, really is a dolt. He ignores his betrothed and only begins to appreciate her when another man takes interest. Then there is the problem of the clothing. A man in drag can be funny but unless he really is Cary Grant, he's not going to be sexually appealing at the same time.
As for Olivia, she is crazy about Harry. Despite his neglect, she misses him terribly while she is forced to spend time with his homely "grandmother." Olivia actually, is not much brighter than Harry, a fact that becomes obvious when she fails to recognize her beloved in a well-stuffed corset, gown and wig.
Though Harry didn't seem like great marriage material (if he was a contemporary hero he'd spend his time watching football on TV with a beer), the reader doesn't care as the book is more a comedy than a romance. The upshot is that this is a book you can give to friends who don't read romance but enjoy the wit of Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. As for me, I'm putting in my order now for Sheri Cobb South's first book The Weaver Takes a Wife.
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