Oxford, 1879. A beautiful bluestocking is about to teach a duke a lesson . . .
Brilliant but destitute Annabelle Archer is one of the first female students at Oxford University. In return for her scholarship, she must recruit influential men to champion the rising women’s suffrage movement. Her first target is Sebastian Devereux: cold, calculating and the most powerful duke in England.
When Annabelle and her friends infiltrate his luxurious estate, she’s appalled to find herself attracted to the infuriatingly intelligent aristocrat – but perhaps she’s not the only one struggling with desire. . . Soon Annabelle is locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own. She’ll need to learn fast just what it takes to bring down a duke.
Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke is the first book in the A League of Extraordinary Women series, and is a very strong début from someone who promises to add a much-needed fresh voice to historical romance. The writing is sharp and clear, and displays a really good sense of time and place; the characters feel true for the time period, and I was particularly impressed by the heroine, who is forward-thinking and progressive without being one of those contrary-for-the-sake-of-it, look-at-how-unconventional-I-am types who annoy the crap out of me.
Annabelle Archer has lived under the roof of her cousin, a country clergyman, since the death of her parents. She’s an unpaid skivvy; she keeps house, looks after his children and endures his continual complaints about the fact that her father over-educated her – why on earth would a woman need an education? So when Annabelle is offered a place at Lady Margaret Hall (in 1878, LMH was the first Oxford college to open its doors to women) he’s far from pleased, but when she says she’ll fund the cost of a replacement housekeeper (somehow), he begrudgingly allows her to go.
Some months later, we find Annabelle in London with a group of her friends, like-minded young women who, under the leadership of Lady Lucie, secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, are planning to approach various men of influence with a view to getting them to support changes to the Married Women’s Property Act. The strategy – identify a man of influence, approach him firmly, but with a smile, and deliver a pamphlet boldly declaring The Married Women’s Property Act makes a slave of every wife! – isn’t difficult to grasp, but at this period, just walking up to a gentleman unannounced and unchaperoned wasn’t the done thing and could lead to worse things than a refusal to listen. Annabelle is understandably nervous, but nonetheless determined to do her bit when she notices a man who appears to be exactly the sort of man of influence she needs to approach.
Sebastian Devereux, thirteenth Duke of Montgomery, is one of the most powerful and respected men in England. He has a reputation for being cold and severe, and devotes most of his time to the running of his numerous estates and is particularly concerned at present with regaining possession of his family seat, Castle Montgomery, which his profligate father lost in a card game. The Queen (who was, sadly, one of the biggest opponents of female emancipation) promises her support for his cause if he will take on the role of chief strategic advisor for the Tory party in the upcoming election – a job he doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to perform. But he can’t refuse what is tantamount to a royal command.
When news of his new appointment reaches Lady Lucie’s ears, she realises a change of strategy is required, and that she needs to know more about the duke. To his end, she hatches a plan whereby she, Annabelle and a couple of other ladies will be invited to the house party being held at Claremont, the duke’s country home, with a view to finding out as much about the duke as they can in the attempt to ‘know thine enemy’.
Of course, the house party offers the chance for Sebastian and Annabelle to meet again, and to get to know each other. The spark both felt at their initial meeting really flares to life, and the author does a fantastic job building their romance in a believable manner that enables them to stay true to themselves. Their conversations and interactions are delightful; their flirtations via philosophical discussions and the way Sebastian shows the degree to which he really sees Annabelle through his selection of books for her are completely swoonworthy, and the longing they feel for one another is palpable.
Their romance is a delicious slow-burn, which fits their characters and situations perfectly. Both of them are well aware of the difficulties which lie in the path of a relationship between a duke and a commoner, and unlike so much historical romance, which just sweeps those things under the carpet, the author handles this aspect of the story in a way that feels completely authentic for the period. That said, however, I really don’t like that whole ‘I can’t marry you because I love you too much to ruin you’ thing, which I always feel is one character accusing the other of not knowing his or her own mind – and it’s one of the reasons I couldn’t quite push this up into the DIK bracket. Annabelle’s insistence on self-sacrifice felt out of character and also left Sebastian to do all the hard work while she did nothing to fight for what she wanted. I also felt Sebastian to be somewhat underdeveloped as a character, especially compared to Annabelle, and there are a few places where the pacing is a little off; the circling around one particular issue goes on a little too long, and there are a few plot points (notably one concerning Annabelle’s romantic past) that are under-explored.
On the surface, Bringing Down the Duke is nothing we haven’t seen before – uptight-duty-bound-hero-meets-unconventional-young-woman-who-gets-him-to-loosen-up-a-bit is a well-used plotline. Here though, the author breathes fresh life into the trope by giving her principals a real depth of character that’s been lacking in so many of the historical romances I’ve read lately. Annabelle is fully aware that her pursuit of an education and personal freedom, together with her espousal of the cause of women’s suffrage could have serious consequences for her, but these things are terribly important to her and she’s prepared to fight for them. She’s not loud or flashy (in the manner of Lady Lucie) but she’s no less committed, and her quiet determination adds weight and seriousness to her character and keeps the tone of the story grounded in reality. She’s a different sort of heroine just as Sebastian is a different sort of hero; he isn’t a cold, ruthless man with daddy issues, he’s a man genuinely dedicated to doing the best he can for those he cares for, and there’s the real sense that his association with Annabelle is gradually changing him because she’s opening his eyes to things he hadn’t previously seen or considered. Sebastian and Annabelle’s pasts inform their characters, but they also act according to their own lights and carve their own individuality separately from their upbringings and circumstances.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning the (horrible) cover. It appears to be yet another attempt by the marketing folks at persuading potential readers that they won’t get infected by those nasty romance cooties if they read this book in much the same way so many contemporaries (Fix Her Up, The Hating Game, The Right Swipe etc.) are doing at the moment. I confess that I’m not a huge fan of the dress-falling-off-half-naked-clinch covers either, but this one looks like something daubed in a kid’s fingerpainting class!
So don’t judge this book by its cover – or its title, which doesn’t make much sense either. Bringing Down the Duke is an impressive début novel that’s firmly grounded in its historical setting and manages to offer some insightful social comment without bashing the reader over the head with it. The writing is intelligent and accomplished, the central characters are engaging and three-dimensional, and the romance is sensual and tender. I’m looking forward to reading more by Evie Dunmore.