The Very Daring Duchess
Wounded hero, starved for love but refusing to recognize the fact; mysterious heroine with an undeserved reputation; Big Secret; coerced marriage that both parties agree will never be consummated; things that happen, not because of characterization, but For The Sake of The Plot. Ho-hum, been there, read that. The only things that set this book apart are an offbeat setting and the sheer readability of Ms. Jarrett’s writing.
On his tenth birthday, Edward Marsden, fourth son of the Duke of Harborough, was cast aside by his unloving father and shoved into the service of the Royal Navy. Now, twenty years later, Edward has risen to the rank of captain and is in Naples enjoying some shore leave. A shipmate talks him into visiting the studio of Signora Francesca, an artist with a reputation for showcasing some rather risqué paintings. Things get off to a bad start when skeptical Edward, hardly a connoisseur, notices that the “unique” objets d’art the curvaceous signora is offering for sale are all fakes and forgeries. Chagrined that he’s seen through her ruse, yet desperate for the cash she swindles off unsuspecting British sailors, Francesca tries to win Edward over with her charming smile and promises of a peek at the wicked art all of Naples is talking about. Needless to say, he doesn’t fall for it.
In spite of his surface chilliness, Edward is attracted to Francesca; he learns that she’s the illegitimate daughter of an English artist, now deceased. Francesca has no desire to leave Naples, but the approach of Napoleon’s army leaves her little choice. There’s only one small problem: Lord Nelson refuses to allow her to leave on a British ship, since she’s half-Italian, and not of the nobility. With a little prodding from Nelson’s mistress Lady Hamilton, Edward offers to marry Francesca – just for the voyage, you understand. Both parties agree they’ll have the marriage annulled as soon as possible, on their arrival in England.
Right. Uh-huh. Sure.
One of the things that disappointed me the most about the book was its title. The reader learns on the first page of the story that Edward is the fourth son of a duke, and the title of the book is The Very Daring Duchess (emphasis added). So it won’t take much deduction to realize that either: a) Francesca’s going to end up with someone other than Edward; or, b) Edward’s going to experience a major change in social status pretty soon. Even more disappointing to me was the fact that the heroine turns out to be yet another “faux ho,” the female equivalent of a fake rake. Frankly, I was not convinced by her act, and I doubt very much that the other characters in the book would have been, if The Plot hadn’t called for it.
In fact, the characterizations of both Francesca and Edward struck me as inconsistent. Edward blows hot and cold, burning with desire for this woman and disdaining her all on the same page. Francesca is presented as a fairly intelligent woman who’s survived on her wits since her father’s death, yet she makes a couple of fundamental errors in judgment. She’s taken a piece of flawed advice her father gave her years ago and clung to it, based her life on it, despite all the evidence to the contrary. She ignores reality For The Sake of The Plot. Moreover, the Big Secret Francesca’s harboring is pretty trivial, given all the angst she suffers over it, and her internal conflict was not very compelling for me.
In the book’s favor, I’ll say that Jarrett’s prose is very readable; her writing has a nice flow to it. I’ve read some of her other works and enjoyed them. The change of setting was also a nice surprise for me. Even the most dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile needs to get off the island once in a while. These two factors kept me going, even as I was rolling my eyes over some of Edward’s more insufferable thoughts and Francesca’s bird-brained leaps of logic. Oh, and those supposedly “wicked” works of art? Hardly worth the wait.