The Accidental Duchess
To start off with a positive, Jessica Benson has what certainly seems to me to be a pitch perfect Regency voice: A discordant word never mars her dialogue. On a less positive note, there is way, way, way, w-a-a-a-y too much of it.
Her heroine talks to her new husband, to her mother, to her father, to her closest friends, to her new husband, to her mother, to her father, to her closest friends again and again and on and on. In fact, the first 100 pages (and a good three-quarters of the book in total) consist mainly of conversations – all about exactly the same thing. Admittedly, the subject of all these exchanges is momentous (the heroine discovers her marriage to the “wrong” twin only after the vows are made) but, gee, can’t we just get on with the story here without endless discussions of what the heroine should do before she actually gets around to doing it?
Pledged since childhood to a feckless younger twin, heroine and narrator Gwen (the story is told in first-person) is stunned to discover that she has, in fact, walked down the aisle with her betrothed’s older brother. Even more disconcertingly, she learns after the big revelation by new husband Harry that the substitution was made with the full knowledge and consent of her parents and that Harry believed Gwen to be aware of the exchange. As if all that weren’t enough, Harry wants her to call him Bertie (the name of the fiance who has been off “soldiering” for a few years) in public.
Bertie, it seems, can’t be located, and, since the date of their marriage was put forward to quiet a minor scandal involving Gwen and another man on a ballroom terrace, everyone (except Gwen, who isn’t consulted) decides that going ahead with a replacement groom is the only answer. And since her new groom happens to be both much richer and the heir to a duke, the delight of Gwen’s parents is hardly unexpected.
Gwen’s confusion about the identity of her groom is easily enough explained by Bertie’s long absence and by the fact that their betrothal was hardly a love match. Gwen feels affection for Bertie (they’ve even shared a few kisses) and, in the manner of those times, is content enough about their marriage. But, while Gwen’s reactions to Bertie were always a bit on the lukewarm side, her feelings for older brother Harry are both a bit more complicated and a bit more intense.
Not surprisingly, Gwen is infuriated at Harry and her parents and – also, not surprisingly – more than a little attracted by her manly new husband. But, nevertheless, despite her developing feelings for her groom, big questions loom: Where is Bertie and why does Harry insist on keeping the truth a secret?
In any first person story, the feelings and thoughts of the narrator usually take front and center and this story is no exception. I liked Gwen a great deal and could certainly relate to just how flummoxed she is by her situation. But, I honestly can’t help but feel that I knew a shade too much about Gwen’s feelings, since virtually every thought and reaction she has is discussed again and again and over and over. Harry, on the other hand, is more of a mystery since we see him only through Gwen’s eyes. He’s clearly a good guy – the reader, of course, knows the real reason behind his wedding Gwen – and, considering the relentless interruptions meeting his every attempt to make love with his wife, also an extremely patient one.
There is one additional quibble I just can’t let pass. Gwen’s bombastic mother remarks at one point in the story that she is on her way to a meeting of the Greater London Suffrage and Reform Society. As someone who’s read literally hundreds of Regency-set books, I was taken aback by this reference since I was under the impression that the women’s suffrage movement came about a number of years later. Sure enough, a two-minute Google confirmed that the first British women’s suffrage committee was formed in Manchester in 1865. Since Ms. Benson’s story takes place in 1815 – though an additional Google, using the passage of the Corn Laws as a clue was required to pin down the date – she’s more than a bit off here. In a “wallpaper” history novel, this wouldn’t even rate a mention, but since the author obviously cares a great deal about accuracy, I’m at a loss to explain something so glaring.
But, with all that said, there is quite a bit to like here, chiefly Ms. Benson’s spot-on Regency voice and her likable heroine. In fact, lovers of traditional Regencies who can’t quite make the jump to European Historicals may well find The Accidental Duchess to be an especially welcoming introduction to the latter. As for me, I’d like to see the author embrace her new format a bit more enthusiastically and feature a lot more “doing” and a lot less “talking” in her next book.