Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from the publisher. Thanks, Avon!
I really love Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove books. They’re ahistorical and I don’t care–they’re fun and generally pretty feminist and sometimes that’s all I want from a book. That and an assurance that everything is going to be fine in the end. Which is something that’s guaranteed with romance.
In Any Duchess Will Do, Pauline Simms is the serving girl at Spindle Cove’s tavern/tea shop. She’s smart and resourceful and has goals in her life–she wants to open a bookshop for the women in town and live independently.
And she has a sister, Daniela, who has a cognitive disability. Who she loves unreservedly and who she treats as a full human being. I loved this so much about the book–I have family members with cognitive disabilities and I was so upset with the way Eloisa James handled a similar character in The Duke is Mine–James made Rupert the butt of jokes and then killed him off at the end so the heroine wouldn’t have to actually treat him like a person instead of an inconvenience. Not only annoying but offensive as all get out. In contrast, Daniela is a complete character with goals and dreams of her own and she is more than just a convenient plot device.
The set-up of this book is pretty simple: the Duke of Halford’s mother thinks he needs a wife so she drugs him and then drags him to Spindle Cove where she tells him to pick any of the women in the Bull and Blossom. He picks Pauline, figuring that she’s completely unsuitable since she’s the serving girl–he doesn’t realize how smart and driven she is at first, although within minutes of meeting her he gets a bit of a clue. And then some.
Pauline agrees to go to London for a week in exchange for a thousand pounds which will allow her and Daniela to become financially independent of their unstable and violent father.
Griff’s mother is a wonderful character–she appears to be a proper model of a duchess but she is a marshmallow on the inside and she worries about her son and she wants grandchildren to dote upon–which is, of course, no excuse for her meddling but it is still great to see a character who is initially presented as an antagonist in a very familiar mold burst out of that mold and become real. There are lots of evil or interfering mamas in romance novels and it’s refreshing to see what might actually be going on.
Dare does a lot of playing around with tropes in this book–there’s a variation on the punishing kiss, Griff and Pauline rescue each other, so on and so forth. This book is also really clear about how very different Griff and Pauline’s lives have been up to this point and how privileged Griff and his family are in the greater scheme of things. Pauline’s well aware of the difference in their stations and has it brought home to her on more than one occasion by others.
I really think Dare is doing a lot of interesting things with this setting and as I was thinking about this book over the last week or so, it really made me think about how I read this particular type of historical romance as speculative fiction. These just aren’t books about modern women in pretty dresses and no indoor plumbing–the setting is thoroughly developed and consistent across multiple books and while it bears some resemblance to Regency England, it’s a Regency England where women openly push at the fences that confine their lives and where even a serving girl can become a duchess. And yet, within this setting, it is taken as a given that women have agency and voices and that they matter.
I truly believe that books like these are important–they’re talking to modern women about things that we, as a society, are still struggling with.