In her latest novel, Betrice Small – long known for her seemingly gleeful tendency toward shocking readers with highly erotic and often kinky (and always very purple) love scenes, in romances usually set in exotic locales and time periods – has done perhaps the most shocking thing of all: she has written a Georgian novel, very nearly a Regency. And more astonishing yet, she has written a novel that merits only a warm rating, perhaps as a bow to the time period and to traditional Regency Romance traditions. Whether or not it was a good idea remains to be seen, but I would guarantee none of her readers saw it coming!
Allegra Morgan is the daughter of the richest man in England, although her blood is just barely blue. She’s in London for a Season with the eminently practical goal of marrying the highest title she can bag with her fortune and her looks, as long as she gets on reasonably well with the gentleman in question. Allegra does not believe in love – or rather, she believes in it, but wants nothing to do with it. It was love that had compelled her long-forgotten mother to leave her father when Allegra was only two years old, and it has caused her father nothing but pain. Love, too, was the cause of her brother’s demise in France but a few years before, as he chose death with his aristocratic beloved rather than life without her. No, love is just the thing to avoid, Allegra has decided, and she will do so at all costs – particularly in marriage.
Quinton Hunter, Duke of Sedgwick has the bluest blood in England, but the least money. He is quite straightforward about marrying for money. He, too, has no use for love, as his ancestors all married for love, and ran the family fortune into the poorhouse in the process. Then, too, he watched as his father drank himself to death rather than live without Quinton’s mother after she passed on. Thus, it seems logical to him that the best solution for all concern is for him to wed Allegra, so that they can get on with their happily loveless lives together.
Of course, that doesn’t last long, and before they know it, Quinton and Allegra are quite in love. Their next hurdle is not as easy to overcome, however. Allegra, not having seen examples in her youth, really has no concept of true love, and when her fortune is threatened, she believes Quinton will feel he has been cheated, and cease to love her – and all his assurances to the contrary have no effect.
The problems with this book stem from the plot structure; it seems that for all Small’s years of flouting traditional romance storylines, she may not actually be able to execute one satisfyingly. The result is a book that remains interesting, but somewhat lacking in direction. In addition, there is a sense of absolute security to the novel, as can be seen in what should have been a major plot point, but ended up being only a minor subplot – the excursion into France to rescue a besieged noblewoman from La Revolution. In France, as everywhere else in the book, the course runs just a bit too smoothly, which isolates the reader from any sense of danger or tension, and detracts from the overall quality.
Small’s powers of description, however, are as apparent here in the familiar setting of pre-Regency England as they have been in Byzantium, Ottoman Turkey, 17th century India, or the desert fringe of Ancient Roman holdings. While she touches on the conventions of the era – Almack’s, Prinny, Beau Brummell, Tattersall’s – she doesn’t rely on them. Instead, she reaches deeper into the historical era, providing details and descriptions that make the setting come alive, making the scenery more reality than backdrop. And in terms of historical accuracy, Small shines here, as ever, adding that touch of authenticity so easily ruined by faux pas in even the best of other author’s works. For me, I would say that I have never seen this era as well-painted.
And as for Small’s infamous purpleness, readers may be surprised to note – for the most part – only a bit of lavender about the edges, and only a single scene of skanky villain sex. This may stem from the relative lack of focus on sexuality in the novel, but doesn’t detract any from the story. Not to say that the story doesn’t have its problems, as mentioned above, but they don’t seem to be related to the lack of kink or multiple partners, for which Small has been both known and criticized in the past.
The plot and its poor execution in this book are balanced by the well-drawn setting and descriptions that make for some of the most realistic historical scenes. However, the characterization borders on stiffness, despite a generally likable cast. You’ve seen these people before: the beautiful and independent heroine, the proud and unbending hero, the powerful grand dame of the London season. There is nothing new to be found in the characters, although they are all likable enough, and refreshingly consistent. The story doesn’t quite have the tension it should, and despite the exquisite setting and good writing, it falls just below average – which still outshines Small’s last several releases by a long shot. I give the book a C-, and the reader a better suggestion: go find Small’s earlier works – particularly Skye O’Malley, Love, Wild And Fair, or Beloved instead. They are remarkable, and The Duchess, for the most part, is not.