Jonathan Tresham, heir to the Duke of Quimbey, needs a discreet ally to help him choose a wife from the mob of young ladies eager to become his duchess. When proper widow Theodosia Haviland rescues him from a compromising situation, he knows he’s found an advisor he can trust. Theo’s first marriage taught her the folly of indulging in romantic notions, and she’s determined that Jonathan Tresham’s intended be an ideal match for him, not some smitten ninnyhammer.
When Jonathan suggests Theo should be at the top of his list of possible duchesses, she protests, though she knows that Jonathan is kind and honorable despite his gruff exterior. The last person Theo can allow Jonathan to marry is a widow guarding scandalous secrets, even if she does also harbor an entirely inappropriate attraction to the one man she can never have.
Opening up a Grace Burrowes book these days is like going to visit old friends. Even though each of her novels focuses on a different couple, the author has done such a thorough job of creating her own Regency world and peopling it with the many different families who move in the same elevated circles, that I know I’m going to meet up with at least one – and usually, several – familiar characters and enjoy their interactions with whichever of the principals they happen to be most closely involved with. My Own True Duchess is book five in the True Gentlemen series, and in it, I was pleased to become reacquainted with the Duke of Anselm (The Duke’s Disaster) and several of the Dorning brothers (Will Dorning is the hero of Will’s True Wish) as well as the Earl and Countess of Haddonfield and the youngest Haddonfield, Lady Della. While it probably helps to have at least a rough idea of who all these people are, it’s not essential; they are all secondary characters and their stories don’t really affect the principal narrative, in which a close friend of Anselm’s is out to find himself a suitable bride.
Mr Jonathan Tresham, a mathematical genius and highly successful businessman, has lived in Europe for the last decade and made himself a tidy fortune. Having recently become heir to the Duke of Quimbey, he has returned to England, knowing it is incumbent upon him to find himself a wife and set about securing the future of the dukedom. The trouble is that there’s a strong chance he’s not going to be given the time or opportunity to consider his choice; most of the eligible young ladies in London and their mamas have already scented blood and are circling the waters, some of them going to extraordinary lengths to try to secure a proposal from him. One of these enterprising young misses has managed to manoeuvre him into a deserted library, and Jonathan can feel the noose tightening – but the débutante’s hopes are dashed when a slightly older, poised and attractive woman enters the room and very politely and delicately runs her off.
Jonathan’s saviour is Mrs. Theodosia Haviland, a widow who lives in shabby-genteel almost-poverty with her sixteen-year-old sister and her seven-year-old daughter. Her late husband – who had been heir to a viscountcy – died young (from the effects of dissipation) and hugely in debt, and the new viscount used the finds that should have reverted to Theo in order to pay them off, leaving her with nothing. In addition, he refused to pay Haviland’s ‘debts of honour’ (gambling debts) which were massive and which have taken Theo years of scrimping and scraping to be able to settle.
Jonathan quickly realises that he and Mrs. Haviland can be of use to one another. His business interests take up a lot of his time and attention, and having been away for so long, he doesn’t really know who is who in society, while Theo, on the other hand, knows everyone and commands respect, in spite of her reduced circumstances. So Jonathan proposes a business transaction; he will ‘employ’ her to find him a suitable wife. Theo is not wild about the idea, but can’t deny that the money will come in very useful, so she agrees to narrow the field to a list of the ladies most likely to suit. Jonathan is pleased with the arrangement, but there’s one thing Theo won’t budge on. Having been unhappy in her own marriage, she is not prepared to consign Jonathan, a man she likes and admires, to a union with a simpering miss he won’t be able to like, no matter his insistence that he’s looking for a sensible society marriage based on practicality and not affection.
It will, of course, come as no surprise when I say that Jonathan soon finds himself comparing the ladies on Theo’s list to Theo herself, and finding them wanting. She’s kind, charming and intelligent, she knows her way around in society, she’s respectable and, as an added bonus, he’s very attracted to her. At first, Theo is reluctant to agree to his suggestion that they wed; a man who will one day be a duke shouldn’t marry an impoverished widow, but she can’t deny the pull of attraction she feels towards this this handsome, considerate man who so obviously cares for her and has earned her trust.
My Own True Duchess is typical Grace Burrowes fare in many ways. Jonathan and Theo are caring, decent people who have overcome some degree of adversity –Theo in her bad marriage, Jonathan as the product of neglectful parents – who find each other and, through conversation, discover commonalities and mutual understanding and respect. Where this book diverges from some of the author’s other recent releases is in the sub-plot; in many of her books, there’s a villain out to do physical harm (or worse) to one of the protagonists, but that isn’t the case here. There’s someone out to ruin Jonathan’s principal business interest – a prestigious London club – but that’s due to simple greed rather than any long-standing familial rivalry or grudge, which works better than some of the would-be murder plots in other books. Jonathan’s ownership of a lucrative gambling establishment does, of course, cause friction between him and his lady-love – and there were times I found Theo’s attitude to be overly judgmental – although fortunately, Ms. Burrowes redeems her in spectacular fashion, and manages to have Jonathan find a realistic solution to resolving the issues between them.
She also makes a number of very pertinent points about the situation of widows in the society of the day: The only female in all of English society who lived with a modicum of independence was the financially secure widow; while “A widow who is perceived to have fallen upon hard times soon finds herself besieged with offers, many of which are dishonourable.” At the same time, she shows some sympathy for the army of debutantes that regularly appears in historical romance as a giggling gaggle of ruthless ladies out to catch themselves the richest husband possible, pointing out that “They are taught that they are lucky – lucky to be relegated to the status of broodmares and ornaments.” So often, the marriageable misses are presented as grasping nit-wits and widows are employed merely to allow a heroine a larger degree of sexual freedom, and I appreciated the inclusion of both these less frequently expressed points of view.
My Own True Duchess is an enjoyable, character-driven romance featuring a well-matched central couple who behave like adults and communicate well, and which displays the author’s characteristic warmth and humour. If you’re a fan of her work, then I’m sure this will appeal, even if you haven’t read all the previous books in this particular series.