The Duchess' Lover
Overwrought and overwritten.
How can I even begin to describe the writing style of The Duchess’ Lover? I could, I suppose mention the fact that every noun has many adjectives – many, many, many adjectives. It’s enough to make Kathleen Woodiwiss envious. Then there are the characters. They are larger than life, and never calm. They muse, they anguish, they toss, they turn, they pace, they wring their hands, they feel smothered by their clothes, Society with its expectations and snobberies is closing in on them. AHHHHHH!!!! must get out! The artist hero (hunky as all get out, but lower class, alas) spends hours in front of his canvas – trying desperately to capture the essence of the duchess who is his muse, his beloved, his soul, his mate, his inspiration, his model, his ideal, his – (dang, she’s got me doing it). The villian sulks and drinks and smokes and plots his nefarious plans – at one point exhaling a lungful of smoke into a glass of brandy and then brooding while imbibing the smoky brew.
It was at a point very early on in the book, where one character read a note and as he did so, his corneas contracted, that I realized that there was no way I could take this book seriously, and I set out to enjoy it in all its overwrought splendor. So I popped myself some popcorn, curled up on the couch, and laughed myself silly, turning down a corner whenever I came to a particularly ripe passage.
Olivia, the Duchess of Brandhurst has been freed from a horrid marriage (wait till you get to the part where she describes it – talk about way over the top!) by her husband’s death. She meets Willoughby Barnes, the son of a gardener as she is wandering one night, unable to sleep. Will is an artist as well as a gardener and has been chosen to design the landscaping for the Duke’s burial plot. He and Olivia have one night of passion during which she finally knows what it is to be a woman.
After her year of mourning, Olivia takes on a couple of projects. One of them is to re-do the Duchess’s garden. The gardener hired is – yep, Will, who has spent the year obsessing about the Duchess and trying to paint her. As well as resdesigning the garden, Will is to paint a landscape of the house. The other project involves Olivia and former governess Clara Peabody planning to help the factory girls in the slums.
Did I mention the writing was lush? Here is Will as he is painting.
“The carmine of a rooster’s head, the azure sky before a storm, the green of moss under a leafy forest bed, the yellow of a lemon, and the peach pink of a virgin’s nipples all magically moved from his thoughts to the canvas in a brilliant swirl of colors. Once blended, they arranged themselves into a lush semblance of reality.”
It was the part about the virgin’s nipples that made me almost choke on my popcorn.
Then when Olivia sees his painting, we get this choice bit of dialogue.
Olivia: “My God, you’re good!”In the meantime there is a shadow over the Duke’s death – could he have been murdered?! He does have a sinister Italian valet after all. Then there is the man who is the second in line to the Dukedom, Neville (the man who drank the smoky brandy). He is plotting against the heir to the title, an American straight out of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, complete with six shooter and hick accent.
Will: “You mean in bed?”
Will is younger than Olivia – she is 40 he is 25. He loves her, she loves him…but they are from Different Worlds. Can their love prevail against custom and Society?
Well of course it can – don’t be ridiculous. It only takes John Ruskin approving Will’s portrait of the Duchess to make him the current hot painter. And they live happily ever after “as a flock of starlings took flight from a nearby grove, drowning the ageless cries of ecstasy that came from the Duchess’s Garden.”
I know some of this may seem like a parody, but I swear I am not making any of it up. I ended up with a book filled with turned down corners and a prime candidate for the Purple Prose Award for 2002.
Memo to self: If you ever decide to re-read this book, do not do so while eating popcorn. Too messy.