The Duke is But a Dream
The Duke is But a Dream is wholeheartedly cheesy and appealingly silly. Its romance is cute but moves far too quickly, and while its characters aren’t that switched-on in the brains department, they’re good people. Thus, I must confess that as nonsensical, ahistorical and ridiculous as it was, I was entertained as I read it.
Overprotected Miss Lily Hartley is the secret co-author of the talk of the ton,The Debutante’s Revenge, an anonymous column in the London Hearsay which scandalously encourages young girls on the marriage market to claim control of their own life and sexuality and pursue happiness in non-arranged marriages – and suggests they judge their dance partner’s bedroom prowess by how well they boogie on the dance floor. Lily yearns for the sort of heart-stopping kisses spoken of in her own frank articles, but instead can only sigh at her sister and co-writer Fiona’s success as both wife and artist (book one, First Earl I See Tonight).
To keep her reputation spotless and the marriage prospects of herself and her younger sister Sophie alive (especially after that whole nasty blackmail business Fiona had to bail her out of in the last book), Lily poses as a chimney sweep to deliver her column to her editor – of course, she does this behind the backs of Fiona and her adopted parents. Unfortunately, while strolling through the busy streets of London taking in the atmosphere du pauvre, she ducks into a tavern to get out of the rain, gets caught up in a nasty fight, is robbed, and then takes a clout to the head.
Fortunately, she has a Good Samaritan on her side. Eric Nash, the Duke of Stonebridge, is a selfless guy, recently returned to London for the first time since he was elevated to his title following the death of his father. Trying to cool off after a fight with his sister Delilah, he happens to be in the right pub at the right time and rescues what seems to be a young lad from the brawl, only to discover that beneath the mob cap lie glorious raven curls. He’s actually assisted a ravishing woman! Nash does what any sensible Duke in a romance novel would do and takes the unconscious woman home to be tended by his sister.
Unfortunately for Nash, when Lily wakes she has amnesia. That doesn’t stop her from becoming friends with Delilah, who, stifled by Eric’s tendency to wrap her in cotton wool, worships The Debutante’s Revenge and uses its advice to flirt with a man Eric dislikes for dire reasons. The amnesia also doesn’t stop Lily and Nash from falling instantly into lust with one another. Lily assumes the name Caroline and begins to seduce him. But will Nash and Lily’s love be able to survive the return of her memory?
There’s no denying that this is a very wallpapery Regency. From the language used (a few too many “shits” and “bloody hells”) to the lip service paid to propriety and feminism at the same time (while also allowing Lily/Caroline to run around unchaperoned and amnesiac). For a man so concerned with what’s socially right, Nash is thrilled to sleep in the same bed with a woman whose origins he has no notion of and whom he could be debauching. At one point Carolily even thinks to herself when she tries to leave Nash that she’s “refusing to do the work of healing and growing” – therapyspeak no one in the regency era would’ve used in those pre-Freudian days. Nash also gives her the gift of a necklace, which not the done thing for women who weren’t family members or one he was formally engaged to.
Nash has severe codependency issues. He won’t let his adult sister live her own life, nor will he let ‘Caroline’ out of his sight for fear she will die. Propriety is a must for his sister but he can wildly flout all conventions while letting Lily suck and rub his various appendages. And of course he holds Lily’s column against her for giving bad advice while he behaves like a total hypocrite.
And then we have the squicky matter of Eric deflowering a woman who’s lost her memory, and of Lily having sex while she has no idea who she is. I know love can work out instantaneously sometimes – but c’mon! She’s using an assumed name and could be a promised bride, a wily criminal or a novice nun for all he knows! Well, since her sexual curiosity and brazenness are the only real memories she’s managed to retain (aside from recalling vague things about her column), I suppose he could instantly rule that last one out. Novice nuns don’t know how to give handjobs.
Eric is instantaneously in love with Lily, and vice-versa. They literally exchange no words before he starts bargaining with God for her life; she’s known him for barely a day and gropes him while wanting to kiss him. They have zero commonalities before they’re exchanging soul-scorching kisses literally two days after Lily wakes up from being concussed. There’s no tension here – all of that is imported via Lily’s column and quasi-feminist message to debutantes that wallflower horniness is not a crime.
All of this is conflict-free ridiculousnesss of the highest order. There’s a whole recurring theme involving swans; there’s the burglar who attacks Lily, pushing her headfirst into a table. There’s a subplot about the search for her biological parentage that exists just to extend the novel and feels like an unnecessary attempt at explaining her desire for social freedom and wildness and well, horniness. There’s Nash having a fetish for Lily in breeches. And on and on, like a rolling stone.
That The Duke is but a Dream ends with Lily and Nash risking social disgrace together is no shock. My only real surprise is that they don’t make love birdie style. But maybe they were afraid of scaring the swans.