A beautiful duchess mourns for her beloved.
A sun-bronzed merchant returns to claim a birthright.
Disparate souls in need of love and renewal.
Paths cross and the journey begins…
Hampshire, England, 1777: Antonia, Dowager Duchess of Roxton, has been mourning the loss of her soul mate for three long years. Her despair is all-consuming until into her life steps a devilishly handsome younger man. Unconventional and self-assured, wealthy merchant Jonathon Strang will stop at nothing to convince Antonia she can love again, and deeply.
Rating: A for narration; A- for content
One of the things I really like about Autumn Duchess is the way in which Lucinda Brant has upended a number of different romantic tropes all in the one book. Firstly, her central couple are a bit older than usual – the heroine is (by my reckoning) forty-eight – and not only that, but the hero is ten years her junior. And THEN, there is the fact that the eponymous duchess is a widow still mourning for the loss of the love of her life. There are plenty of widows in historical romance, but not so many in which the marriage was a happy one. And this particular widow was also the heroine of a previous book in the series, (Noble Satyr), which tells the story of her relationship with that beloved husband – who has subsequently died. But please don’t be put off by that, because Autumn Duchess is a lovely story about finding love again, and about the strengthening of family relationships which have been deteriorating under the strain of grief.
Antonia, Dowager Duchess of Roxton, lost her husband three years before the book begins, but continues to mourn, wearing unrelieved black and attending very few social gatherings. Her eldest son Julian (hero of Midnight Marriage) is now the Duke of Roxton, with all its attendant responsibilities, a growing family, a vast dukedom to manage – and he also worries constantly about the mother he loves but has no idea how to reach.
At Julian’s urging, Antonia has attended the annual April Ball, but keeps to the sidelines and the company of her two attendants, until a handsome, strapping, sun-bronzed man steps into her path and determinedly asks her to dance. Knowing that her refusal could lead to his social ostracism, and reluctantly admiring his audacity, Antonia agrees, to the astonishment of everyone present.
Born in India to British parents, merchant Jonathon Strang has recently returned to England because of the impending demise of a distant relative and in order to discuss some business concerning lands and property misappropriated by a previous Duke of Roxton. One of these properties is Crecy Hall, which is currently home to the dowager duchess, and which, unlike the other properties, can only be disposed of by its inhabitant. Believing the lady in question likely to be “a cantankerous old widow”, Jonathon plans to ingratiate himself into her good graces, and then to charm the old dear into signing the house over to him. Discovering that the elderly dowager is in fact much younger than he had expected and incredibly beautiful to boot throws him for a loop, but he is still determined to regain his property. He just decides that there are other benefits to be had along the way.
Appalled by Mr Strang’s complete disregard for the proprieties, his lack of deference and his outspokenness, Antonia is not pleased when he appears – uninvited – in the grounds of Crecy Hall. Unable to avoid conversing with him, she quickly discovers him to be the only person who has ever understood the nature of her grief and her need to maintain a connection with “Monseigneur”. For his part, Jonathon is thoroughly captivated by the little glimpses he gets of Antonia’s previously playful nature, and soon abandons his plan to charm her into giving up her home. His initial assessment – that she needs someone to talk to and a shoulder to cry on – proves accurate, and his care and understanding starts to thaw Antonia’s somewhat frosty exterior, gradually helping the widow to realise that she still has a life to live and to enjoy.
The gently moving love story between the couple is a true delight. Tender and poignant, but not without its heated moments, it is underscored beautifully by their growing friendship and their shared understanding of what it means to love, to lose and to grieve. The familial interactions between Antonia and her eldest grandson are heart-warming, and it’s heart-breaking to witness Julian’s despair at what he perceives to be his failure in his duty to his mother.
Ms Brant has once again seamlessly integrated her knowledge of the historical background and her love for the fashions and customs of the period into a multi-layered and thoroughly entertaining story. There is a sub-plot concerning one of Julian’s cousins and his possible involvement with American revolutionaries, and also some truly disturbing scenes during which Antonia undergoes “treatment” at the hands of a (supposed) specialist in the treatment of melancholia in women. The story-telling and characterisation is excellent all-round, although my one niggle here is that the scenes towards the end in which Antonia visits her former maid draw out the ending a little too much. But that really is my only reservation about the story.
Narrator Alex Wyndham – who also narrates Ms Brant’s Alec Halsey mysteries – is on board to record all of the books in the Roxton Family Saga, and delivers a very fine performance indeed. It is perhaps unusual for an audiobook with a female protagonist to be performed by a male narrator, and the success of this one was always going to hinge on Mr Wyndham’s performance of Antonia, a Frenchwoman who has a distinct speech-pattern and accent. Listening to Midnight Marriage, I made particular note of his interpretation of her, knowing Autumn Duchess would be released next – and was very impressed with his presentation of her. Speaking as someone whose day-job often involves spending time with French nationals, I am used to listening to French-accented English, and Mr Wyndham is spot-on with that aspect of his characterisation. He skilfully voices female characters without making them sound screechy, but I imagine finding the right intonation and accent for Antonia and then sustaining it was a bit of a challenge. If that was the case, however, the listener would never know it, because he makes it sound absolutely effortless.
The narrator’s portrayal of Jonathon is equally good, his natural baritone expertly conveying the character’s good sense, wit, kindness and sensuality; and his interpretation of recurring characters like Julian and Deb are entirely consistent with their characterisation in the previous book. The narrative is well-paced and smoothly enunciated, and all of the supporting characters, from Jonathon’s cousin, the foppish Sir Thomas, to the poisonous Countess of Strathsay and the horrible Sir Titus Foley are all very clearly defined and differentiatied.
The combination of Lucinda Brant’s storytelling and Alex Wyndham’s delectable voice once again proves to be absolutely irresistible, and I have no hesitation is giving the audiobook of Autumn Duchess a wholehearted recommendation.