The Ugly Duchess
I enjoy Eloisa James’ books because she is so innovative and tends always to surprise me with her dialogue, characters, or plot, even when using well-known fables. Surprisingly The Ugly Duchess didn’t do that at least in the first half of the book, leaving me underwhelmed. However the persuasive conclusion with her trademark wittiness and exquisite emotion-filled scenes turned the tide.
After the Duke of Ashbrook feathers his pocket with his ward’s money, he informs his nineteen-year-old son James that he must marry her to conceal the embezzlement. James, the Earl of Islay, is scandalized by his father’s unscrupulous actions and initially refuses. He and seventeen-year-old Theodora Saxby have been brought up together. Adamantly, he refuses to betray his best friend. Still he can’t conceive of any other way out of this disaster.
Theodora may be an heiress, but she is not perceived as a pretty one. With strong features and a boyish figure she is having a difficult time attracting any suitors except the fortune hunting ones. Her looks aren’t helped by her mother’s and society’s notion of how a debutante should dress. She has her eye on satirical Lord Geoffrey Trevelyan and finagles James into acting like he is wooing her in order to gain Geoffrey’s attention. But the fictitious courtship has surprising results when an intoxicated James kisses her behind a tall Chinese screen during the Prince of Wales’ musicale. Discovered by her mother and a host of others, James makes a very romantic proposal, informing her that she is his. With a sense of certainty, Theo realizes it is true.
Interest in their wedding is ignited not only by their rank but the quixotic proposal. The scandal rags take that spark of interest and by embellishing the true love aspect turn the wedding into a momentous occasion creating expectations worthy of a royal wedding. Most of the tabloids’ writers initially plan to be diplomatic about Theodora’s lack of looks, but one rag prints what they all think – she is an ugly duchess, and the rest soon join in.
James realizes that he truly meant what he said, but still the cloud of guilt lays heavily on him. Their wedding night is filled with bits of nervousness, yearning, and ineptness since of course Theodora has no experience, and James has almost none. Theodora discovery of the rags’ slander leads to a passionate homily from James telling her how perfect she is for him resulting in poignant, intimate sex. Touchingly and enthusiastically, they spend the next two days exploring earthly delights, but like all fairy tales the truth must come out.
This book evoked such varied reactions while reading it. I loved the young Theodora and James with their exuberance and lack of cynicism. However, with the hero and heroine getting together at the beginning of the book plus their young age, I spent most of that portion waiting for the other shoe to fall.
The couple does spend time apart, not my favorite plot device by a long shot, and when they do reunite they are mostly different people, having learned control and restraint. While it sits well on James it has made Theodora rigid and aloof. And I missed the girl that she was.
As someone who at times is easily bored with sex scenes, I tend to adore Ms. James’ – I think mainly because she has the perfect balance of lust, description, and humor. And in that aspect she definitely doesn’t disappoint in this book. There is one scene that is just about worth the price of the book.
While I don’t see this becoming a favorite book, I can see myself re-reading the second half because of the delight it generates.