Review: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Okay, so, as anybody who knows me will attest – the one genre for which I am an absolute, and I mean absolute, sucker is ‘historical romance’. I love those types of books. It combines some of my favorite things: history, sweet yet improbable romance, and oftentimes sex! And Bringing Down the Duke (the first book in the series A League of Extraordinary Women) by Evie Dunmore, brings in another one of my favorite things: the nascent women’s rights movement.
The story of Bringing Down the Duke is set in 1879. It follows Annabelle Archer, the impoverished daughter of a clergyman, who lives and works as a servant in her cousin’s house – her cousin who took over her father’s parsonage house when he died since Annabelle, a woman, could not inherit her father’s property. She obviously is doing her cousin’s housekeeping work, unpaid, and when she’s offered a place at Lady Margaret Hall – the first Oxford college to allow women to attend, which is a fun little historical tidbit that I was pleased to discover was true – she convinces her cousin to let her go. Her cousin agrees, as long as she promises to stay out of trouble, not besmirch her reputation or that of her family, and to pay for her cousin’s replacement housekeeper. Even though she was doing the work without pay, and you would think that her cousin could pay for his own damn housekeeper.
That low-lying level of outrage and anger picks you up in the first chapter and carries you through the conclusion, which means that you cheer Annabelle on throughout her entire journey – especially when she joins a group of like-minded young women at LMH, and together they set out, under the patronage of the secretary of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, to identify select men of influence to try and persuade them to make changes to the Married Women’s Property Act. This is when Annabelle meets Sebastian Devereux, thirteenth Duke of Montgomery, in a truly Victorian meet-cute (she knocks him over outside the Houses of Parliament as he’s on his way to meet the Queen for some light political intriguing). Sebastian, of course, has his own set of motivations, is a very busy man with lots of impressive properties to manage, a wayward, irresponsible younger brother who is his only heir, and he does not have any time for silly suffragettes. Annabelle, though, doesn’t know that this is Sebastian Devereux, thirteenth Duke of Montgomery, and thus develops the whole lovely romance.
It’s, of course, basically a retelling of Pride and Prejudice (two protagonists meet, they hate each other at first, and then slowly fall in love); but this one is done so, so delightfully well. Evie Dunmore writes intelligently: her writing is crisp, her narrative is well-paced and well-plotted, and the characters’ motivations and dialogues and the little touches of detail here and there feel true to the time period she’s writing in. The whole political intrigue – the Queen agrees to help Sebastian win back his ancestral seat, which his father lost in a card game, if Sebastian agrees to help the Tories win the upcoming by-election against the Whigs – are well-researched and legitimately interesting, even if a bit kitschy on their face. Annabelle Archer is a brilliant, strong-minded, independent woman, but she is not forced into the ‘I’m contrary for the sake of it!’ or ‘I’m modern by twenty-first century standards and it feels way out of place in what is essentially a Victorian novel!’ tropes in a way that a lot of stories about the early women’s movements sometimes do, and which drive me insane.
Both Annabelle and Sebastian work within the confines of their time period, while still rebelling against the status quo in a way that feels both modern and historically accurate, and Evie Dunmore injects modernism and her sharp social commentary into the story without it grating, or bashing you over the head with it, or taking you out of the story (or offending my history nerd sensibilities, which let me tell you, are very easily offended). The author tackles the political intrigue and the societal barriers to the relationship between her two main characters in an authentic way, and gives those issues the correct amount of tension and airspace for a book set in the late nineteenth century. The characters feel fully fleshed-out, and real, in a way that a lot of romances don’t bother doing with their heroes. The only flaw I could point out is that the author does not devote enough airtime to plot points that could have used some more exploration, like the heart-breaking backstory she gives Annabelle. There was, also, a bit of beating my head against the wall near the end of the book when Annabelle was being so stubborn about resolving her romantic situation that it started to drift out of being believable – but it was resolved in a way that was neat without being forced; and those two ‘flaws’, if I could even call them flaws, did not take me out of the story at all or even affect my global enjoyment of the book.
The dialogue was zippy and witty without being out of place. And, for once, the sex wasn’t so badly written as to be cringey! In fact, there was one scene that was so erotically well-written without being pornographic that I would recommend all writers attempting to write good sex scenes use it as a reference.
All in all, the premise of the book isn’t an original one – it’s been done before, by Jane Austen among others and just about every other historical romance writer in the business; but Evie Dunmore does it better than most, and her characters have a real depth to them that is lacking in most other novels of the genre. It’s a highly enjoyable read that realistic with its historical setting, and sends a message without replacing the plot with the message itself. It’s well-written, well-researched, and the characters are three-dimensional and believable, and you enjoy following them and their stories. I was rooting for Annabelle and Sebastian hard from the moment they first came together, and their romance is believable and sweet and very, very sexy.
If you decide to read/have read this book, please let me know your thoughts! And if you have recommendations for other historical romances with good sex scenes, please let me know. The next book in A League of Extraordinary Women doesn’t come out till September, after all.