The Decadent Duke
The Decadent Duke by Virginia Henley fails to quite an amazing degree. In its conception, it is actually quite an ambitious and potentially interesting project. Instead of making up the umpteenth Duke of Ravenhawk, his brother Lord Devlin Hunter and the beauteous Lady Samantha de Vere, desired by both, Virginia Henley chose to write about the real-life Duke of Bedford, his brother Lord John Russell, and Lady Georgina Gordon, whose love triangle unfolded around the year 1800. (Note to reader: Don’t google the characters unless you want to find out in advance how it ends.) It is a great pity, therefore, that the book does not deliver, being too inaccurate for a biographical novel and too sleep-inducingly boring for a romance.
Eighteen-year-old Lady Georgina Gordon is the youngest daughter of the infamous matchmaker, the Duchess of Gordon. After the wedding of her next-eldest sister, Georgina knows she comes next in line, and the candidate her mother seems to favor most is the rakish Duke of Bedford, mostly because of his titles. Francis, Duke of Bedford, has no plans to marry although he is already 35, having three heirs in his brother’s sons, but when he sees Lady Georgina he instantly desires her and determines to enjoy her sexual favors (as he did with one of her elder sisters). During a visit to her oldest sister, Georgina also meets the duke’s brother Lord John Russell, aged 33, who is an MP with great political influence, father of three boys and married very unhappily to a woman addicted to laudanum. John and Georgina take an instant dislike to each other, and then Georgina is presented to Society by her mother, meets everyone who is anyone, and has several more encounters with both Russell men. That’s it for the first 120 pages.
The book would have been DNF for me at about page 50 if I hadn’t undertaken to review it; as it was, I had to force myself to carry on reading, and only succeeded with many interruptions. Here is why:
First of all, Virginia Henley obviously read a number of biographies and histories about the period, and she includes short (but not short enough) vignettes about virtually everyone Georgina encounters: who they are, who they are connected to, what they did prior to 1799 and where they stand politically. As Georgina encounters a great number of people, and most of them are called William, John or George, I got confused very quickly, especially as Virginia Henley then takes turns in calling them by their titles and their family names. You’d need an encyclopedic memory to keep these minor characters apart, and more patience than I possess to actually enjoy them.
Then at some point, the author realized that these extended third-person historic narratives might bore the reader, so she has characters recount to each other what happened to third parties although the characters should have remembered all events perfectly well without needing to have them retold. I am sure there is a rule like this somewhere in most How to Write Fiction handbooks: “Never insert background information by having characters tell each other what they all know anyway.” Virginia Henley ignored it.
Third, the author never managed to make the characters come alive for me. This is remarkable, as their originals did live interesting lives, and one might think they could become excellent fictional characters. Maybe it was the information overload. Maybe it was the attempt to fill in some psychology that felt very late 20th century (Georgina as the lost girl neglected by her estranged parents, for example). Maybe it was the way that Georgina was portrayed as both innocent and sensual (and proud of it), and Lord John as both caring and potentially violent. I’m not saying this can’t be combined in a fictional character, making him or her more interesting, but the inconsistencies must be bridged somehow, and it doesn’t happen here.
In addition, I took issue with the way the hero and heroine’s early interest in each other is expressed. They quarrel during their first encounter, and from then on, during each and every further encounter, they think as follows: “He is a hateful, domineering man, and I must provoke him.” – “She is a coquette, and she needs to be spanked.” There is not even much verbal variation. This got old so quickly it was painful to read. Yes, I get it, they are interested in each other! But am I to believe it’s True Love from this? In addition, references to domination and spanking might be racy enough to titillate some readers, but to me it just seemed cheap. The sex scenes, which technically rank as hot, left me entirely cold, They were not badly written, instead they were just not interesting.
And then there are those annoying historic inaccuracies. I am not a student of history, so I won’t get into those instances that felt dodgy to me but which I am not sure about, but there were still several obvious ones I caught. To avoid having too many major characters sharing the same first name, Virginia Henley changes names on them. Thus John’s first wife is Elizabeth instead of Georgiana, and Lady Georgiana Cavendish becomes Lady Dorothy. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the first Lady John Russell, but “Dorothy” grated, as Lady Georgiana is a well-known historical personage and has appeared in any number books I’ve read, always under her real name. Other names and forms of address are employed wrongly. What the characters wear and how they dress their hair also sometimes struck me as off. When Georgina puts on a high-waisted gown, for example, it is referred to as an “Empire gown,” but Napoleon, after whom this period is named, didn’t crown himself emperor until 1804, after the novel ends.
Lastly, the novel’s style is both wooden and long-winded. There are extended passages of telling, very few of showing, and all characters tend to speak in numerous four-syllable-words, including during highly emotional moments. To spice matters up, the author has all characters use rather coarse swear-words at regular intervals, which did not fit the rest of the style either.
As I dragged myself from page to page, I discovered the only gain I had from reading The Decadent Duke (besides finally getting it over with for this review) was the interest I took in some figures from history. I looked them up at Wikipedia and asked my mother to lend me her copy of Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which is partly set during the same period. This, of course, I could have done without forcing myself through 400 pages of utter boredom.