The Irish Duke
The Irish Duke was my first Virginia Henley. I say this like I would say “This was my first Bertrice Small.” I have heard many love/hate stories about Henley, so what I expected was a very old-fashioned romance with oversexed people. I did not expect an awkward, quasi-factual account of a real-life couple with, frankly, not enough romance and way too much melodrama involved. This story is worthy of Dynasty and every other full-fledged soap opera that ever existed.
At the tender age of nine years, James Hamilton, Marquis of Abercorn, falls in love with seven-year-old Lady Louisa Russell. He sees her dancing a Spanish shawl dance and knows immediately that she is The One. He walks up to her, proposes marriage, and is promptly shot down by the snooty little girl. He walks away unfazed, vowing to make her change her mind.
The next two hundred pages occur around ten years later, and consist of the following events, repeated over and over with slight variation:
* Louisa’s plain sister Georgy overcompensates for her lack of beauty by fooling around with men in the hopes of getting a marriage proposal.
* Louisa goes to parties and meets real-life royalty.
* Louisa occasionally encounters James, which inevitably ends with her flouncing away in a huff and him renewing his mental vow to make her his wife.
Add in a sprinkling of Louisa face-slapping James and calling him “You Irish devil!” and you’ve got the general idea.
The story itself is incredibly boring, and its sluggishness is oddly juxtaposed with grossly graphic scenes of Louisa’s sister Georgy being promiscuous. I cannot for the life of me understand why Louisa never tells their mother about Georgy and all her problems. Her rationalization is incredibly faulty and plain ol’ stupid. When the Louisa-James relationship finally comes into play, it’s short and excruciatingly cheesy. At some point during the book, I began to tally the times Louisa called James an Irish devil, just to pass the time.
Louisa and James were annoying as heck, but worse, their love story was unconvincing. James’s childish love for Louisa is based on one stinky dance, and they don’t even see each other for the next ten years. What later makes this love, I’m sure I have no idea. Their adult encounters do not serve to deepen their relationship; his repetitive mental “She will be mine! Mine, I tell you!” ended up being slightly comical and downright scary as opposed to being stirringly romantic. I also had the impression that James’s attraction to Louisa is heavily hinged upon the fact that he really, really likes her giant family dynamic and wants to be a part of that.
Louisa is a piece of work. She is the main source of melodrama in the story; every incident in her life is punctuated by overblown dramatic thoughts. For example, she gets kissed and thinks: “I’ll remember your kiss forever. Dear God, you must never let the dominant Irish devil know the effect he had on you!!” However, while her thoughts have a melodramatic streak, her actual speech is annoyingly crude; she’s always calling people cockteases and bloody idiots and all manner of things. She’s the kind of faux-spirited heroine who is “innocent” but is actually calculating, and has a great big dollop of stupidity in her to boot. At one point, James does her a big favor, and she decides she is willing to lose her virginity to him in return. When he instead asks her to marry him, she becomes furiously offended. Because, of course, it’s more insulting to be a wife than a prostitute.
The prose is awkward, and there are many paragraphs of italicized thought; sometimes it’s hard to tell who is thinking what, especially when this italicized line of thought appears in between chunks of dialogue. The characters also have a tendency to think things that nobody thinks! One of my favorites is from James: “Like every other male in nature I’m hunting for a mate, and I have sighted my quarry, Lady Lu.” At this point, I was really, really embarrassed for James.
The Irish Duke received a D- instead of an F because I felt that it was told with a lot of emotion. I could tell that it was lovingly, painstakingly told, which makes me a little sad that it turned out less-than-perfect. Funnily enough, the book made me curious enough to look up these people and find out what kind of lives they really led.
And in case you were curious, my final tally for “You Irish devil!” came to 31 times, from the time I started counting (about 1/3 of the way through).