Tired of waiting for new books from authors on my autobuy list and even more tired of trying random new authors, I waded into the back catalogue of one of the most successful writers in the historical romance genre. Eloisa James has been publishing steadily for sixteen years and my crash course on her novels moves her comfortably to my B+ List. That means I am unlikely to pay for her books, but will read them if they are available at the library, or very cheaply for Kindle. My friend, Rochelle, an avid and long-term romance reader, described them perfectly, “Oooo. I like Eloisa James, but never as much as I feel like I ought to like her,” which is both succinct and accurate. James is a consistently good writer but, while her books are entertaining, they lacked emotional resonance for me. She gives good smolder, she’s witty, and not afraid of hijinks, but I felt no inclination to buy my own copies of these novels. On an up-note, some of these stories are set in the late eighteenth century which is a departure for me. On a down-note, I find the men’s costume of this period off-puttingly effete and the manner in which people flit to France only serves to remind me that their aristocracy had it comin’ and that the English lords could probably have used a housecleaning as well.
Thus far, I have read seven James books and six of them have the word “duke” or “duchess” in the title. Everyone in these books is securely entrenched in their status as titled, deeply monied, or likely both. Given this preponderance, I actually ventured to far off Wikipedia to find out exactly how many dukes there really are in the United Kingdom. It seems they are not so thick on the ground as James’s books would suggest.
The Desperate Duchesses Series:
- Desperate Duchesses – below
- An Affair Before Christmas – below
- Duchess by Night – below
- When the Duke Returns
- This Duchess of Mine – below
- A Duke of Her Own – below
- Three Weeks with Lady X – below
- Four Weeks with the Duke
In a world in which I am smarter, I would have read this book first instead of last as it lays all of the groundwork for the rest of the series. Lady Roberta has arrived in London looking for a husband – she has one in mind – and throws herself on the hospitality of her cousin umpteen times removed, Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont. Also in residence are Jemma’s estranged but co-habitating spouse; Jemma’s brother Damon, Marquess of something; and Damon’s illegitimate six-year-old son. Coming and going from the house are men who wish to consort with Jemma including the Duke of Villiers who also has a prominent role in the series and meets his match in book six, A Duke of Her Own.
Desperate Duchesses is somewhat of a farce and kind of comedy of manners with people flirting and consorting, and playing chess which has a strong subtext of consorting and flirting. The love story of Damon and Roberta took a secondary role to the other events. Chapters would go by without a single appearance. It made for a decent read, but not the amount of romance I was looking for, despite all of the wit and repartee on display.
An Affair Before Christmas
This entry into the Desperate Duchesses series made me particularly grateful for my public library as if I had paid for An Affair Before Christmas, I should have been most put out. I read most of the novel, but I admit to skipping swathes of it and I must tell you that in doing so I don’t believe I missed any significant content. The story could have been a slow burn, but instead was a sluggish fizzle. It’s a shame because I actually really liked the main characters, especially the heroine, just not their book.
Poppy and Fletch (as in Duke of Fletcher) fell instantly in love and got married in a rosy glow. Unfortunately, despite their mutual attraction, Poppy’s mother and the way in which she had molded her daughter interfered with Fletch and Poppy’s sex life. Poor Poppy tries to be perfect for everyone around her, but always fails. Fletch is devoted to her, but after several years of marriage he is both worn down and het up enough to seek a mistress. An outburst of frustration from Fletch leads to his abandonment by Poppy and then the inexorably slow pace of their reunion. The novel drags this on and on. Any interesting character development is lost to the “on and on” factor.
The Duke of Villiers’ storyline continues its thread through this novel. It’s interesting, but distracting, and, like the other elements in An Affair Before Christmas moves at a glacial pace.
Duchess by Night
Harriet, Duchess of Berrow, widowed and bored with behaving herself, sees fit to venture to the endless house party of Lord Justinian (Jem) Strange. Not willing to court the scandal that would result in the discovery of her attendance, she decides to travel disguised as a man. Only her friends and fellow revelers, Leopold, Duke of Villiers and Isidore, Duchess of Something, know the truth. When Villiers encourages their host to make a man of the milquetoast Harriet is pretending to be, hijinks ensue.
Harriet’s manliness lessons – fencing, riding, ale and roast beef for breakfast – are quite entertaining as is the juxtaposition of debauchery and sensible home life that Jem is attempting. He has a daughter he adores, but is raising somewhat ineptly in a salacious atmosphere he is genuinely, but wrong-headedly, doing his best to protect her from. Harriet breaks through the depraved illusion Jem has created and helps him overcome his antipathy towards the aristocracy, or at least against this particular member of it.
I found Duchess by Night very enjoyable when I read it. James’s writing has a kind of elan that creates a breezy atmosphere and often uses witty turns of phrase, but there are no scenes that really stayed with me after I finished the book. “Enjoyable, but not memorable” is the theme of these reviews.
This Duchess of Mine
I freely admit that This Duchess of Mine never really caught my interest and I read through it quite quickly. If I had read Desperate Duchesses first instead of last, I would have gotten a lot more out of this book. I may need to revisit it.
The Duke and Duchess of Beaumont (Jemma and Elijah) were betrothed by arrangement, married, and quickly, scandalously estranged. Nine years later, Jemma has had a lovely time gallivanting about and creating a naughty, mostly false, reputation for herself. Elijah reappears in her life when it is time for an heir. Jemma is willing to reconcile, but their reunion is complicated by their respective secrets.
My strongest memories of this novel are that there is a lot of chess and that series regular Villiers makes another memorable appearance. He traipses through several of these books being brilliant and roguish whilst advancing the plot or adding to the merriment.
A Duke of Her Own
Of the six Eloisa James books I have read, this is one I would recommend along with The Duke Is Mine.
Eleanor wanted to be a duchess. Not just any duchess, mind you, she had just the duke in mind. Unfortunately, he married someone else and left her behind. Now there is only one unmarried duke left in all the land, Leopold, Duke of Villiers, and he is a man of well-earned notoriety and spectacular fecundity. Villiers, for his part, has realised it is time to settle down and take care of his family and future. He has two options in the aforementioned Eleanor, and Lisette. The latter is also the daughter of a duke and eccentric in the way that falls short of institutionalization, but requires a close eye be kept on her. Events unfold at Lisette’s family estate as Eleanor and Villiers dance around each other.
Despite being 15 years younger than him, Eleanor is a mature, appropriate, and delightful companion for Villiers. Their love story was very entertaining in a romp sort of way; moreover, waiting for Lisette’s inevitable loss of her sh*t kept a hum of gleeful anticipation going.
Three Weeks with Lady X
At this point, the Desperate Duchesses series jumps ahead about 15 years to a book featuring Villiers’ son Tobias, now inexplicably called “Thorn”, and his efforts to marry a nice lady while counting on his unimpeachable wealth to override his bastardy (which is literal and not metaphorical). To help him in the process, he hires the Regency’s version of a professional organizer and interior designer, Lady Xenobia India. She takes the challenge of making his newly acquired home acceptable to the top drawer, but impecunious, young lady who he has chosen as his potential bride. India puts Thorn’s house and heart in order.
As with the other James books, Three Weeks with Lady X was frequently very funny and not particularly memorable. The leads had great chemistry and bantered well, James even managed a not-terribly-annoying plot moppet and made India’s competition likeable, but I didn’t find myself revisiting any scenes. As with many romance novels, it had a nonsensically condensed timeline which is fine for the falling in love aspects, but the idea of decorating a manor house in three weeks in 1812 strained all of my credulity.
Some story choices in these books were ones I had not seen very much before. James seems to enjoy a protracted estrangement and has no qualms about infidelity therein. I found this honest because I have never, not for one second, bought into the “I kept myself only unto you” trope in books involving healthy people in their prime who are apart for extended periods of time.