It’s pretty much impossible for me to not love Scarlett Peckham. Her original plots and strong characters are my catnip, my raison d’être as a romance reader. Thus, The Portrait of a Duchess pleased me to no end. There are a few hinky spots here, but it’s still a great read.
Cornelia Ludgate is an artist whose work reaches levels of infamy after she paints her friends, the self-named The Society of Sirens – Seraphina Arden (radical libertine writer and heroine of The Rakess), Lady Elinor Bell (thinker and society matron) and Thaïs Magdalene (courtesan) in the nude. Her entire exhibit is a challenge to society’s misogynistic castigation of the fallen woman, and the show turns her into a scandal. Cornelia is fine with this and satisfied to spend the rest of her life éparter la bourgoisie as a single woman. Then she learns about a codicil in her uncle’s will that requires her to be married to inherit a five thousand pound bequest.
Cornelia has an answer for that, She is in fact married, and has been for the past twenty years, to the wonderfully named Rafe Goodwood. She and Rafe knew each when they were younger, back when he was a horse trainer member of the Equalist Society, one of her uncle’s beloved cronies and she was a young maiden trying to emerge into society. The marriage was a hasty Gretna Green union sealed to keep her uncle from interfering in her plans to travel abroad, but Rafe caught feelings and tried to make their union acceptable by writing to her uncle to inform him of it, which caused a rift between them. Cornelia and Rafe have not seen each other for twenty years. But bad luck and multiple dead cousins have resulted in Rafe inheriting her uncle’s dukedom, and Rafe is now the Duke of Rosemere.
It turns out Rafe is just as interested in helping the poor now as he was years ago. He definitely wants to dive back into politics with Cornelia at his side, but he’s determined not to allow himself to fall in love with her, and Cornelia is interested in her freedom. Clearly their marriage can be made one of convenience to them both… right?
It’s a Peckham, it’s rated Hot, you know where this is going. A Portrait of a Duchess hits all of my favorite buttons: artists and activists finding love and romance featuring older characters.
Probably the hinkiest spot is the age gap. Rafe is fifty when we pick up the narrative, and Cornelia was eighteen when they first met. Do the math and you realize that Rafe was thirty when they began their relationship, which may discomfort some readers.
Cornelia is your typical stiff-necked Peckham heroine who’s very invested in her independence and very invested in her principles. In Cornelia’s case, this means overthrowing the bourgeoisie. Since she’s biracial Black woman living in late eighteenth century England, her position is all the more tenuous, but life, art, fairness and the truth are all things she thinks are worth dying for. Peckham does decently with this material, but there are a couple of frustrating gaps where she doesn’t quite manage to get across how dangerous a prospect this is for Cornelia.
Rafe is tender, roguish and intriguing – a great hero. His bisexuality is well-handled and he has to work hard to convince Cornelia that he actually does love her, and she has to bend as well by seeing that commitment doesn’t mean death to her ideals. The union they strike is a fair one and I love it.
The friendship between the Sirens, naturally, is incredibly memorable and the setting is divine and well-captured, too.
The Portrait of a Duchess isn’t entirely perfect but it’s easy to love.
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