Any Duchess Will Do, Tessa Dare

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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May 28, 2013

Any Duchess Will Do, Tessa Dare

Any Duchess Will Do, Tessa Dare

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.

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6 Comments

  1. Jessica

    I have an older Tessa Dare book — I think it’s a Robin Hood retelling, Legend of the Werestag maybe? — but I haven’t read it. This post is definitely making me want to give these books a try. As a reader who doesn’t care too much about historical accuracy (mostly because I have so little knowledge of history that I am the last person to notice whether something is correct or not), that part won’t bother me.

    • Natalie

      The Werestag novella is hilarious! That’s a prequel to her first series in which the wanton dairymaid book plays a pivotal role. The Spindle Cove books, in particular, are wonderful.

      I really don’t mind ahistorical historicals because I am not very well-grounded in the history either and I find the common conventions a convenient framework for the stories–which is why I see them as speculative fiction.

  2. tessadare

    In general, I try not to comment on reviews of my books, but I just love this bit at the end about speculative fiction and historicals! I have tried to explain to myself (with the hope of explaining to others) why I make the choices I do, but I think you’ve gotten at it better than I could. Thank you. I’ve said sometimes that my books are set in “the Recency” – I do lots of historical and setting research, but my characters have admittedly modern sensibilities.

    It’s an authorial choice, and I know it doesn’t work for every reader. Some want a more immersive historical experience and resent those modern intrusions. I’m glad there are authors and books meeting that need, too. The genre is best served when we have a wide variety.

    (Thanks for the whole review, btw!)

    • Natalie

      I am seriously thinking about writing a longer piece on this particular idea. I think there are a number of romance authors who play with the Regency and other historical periods in this particular way and it is because they’re writing for a contemporary audience. I think there’s a lot of commonality with speculative fiction in the ways in which the reader is clued in.

      Also, thank you for Daniela.

      I love your “Recency” neologism, I may have to steal it.

  3. Liz Mc2

    I love the “historical romance as spec fic” idea, too, and hope you will explore it further. I think of it as a world built from familiar tropes and elements as much/more than from historical facts (the unkind version is “researched from Heyer”). The interest is in how the author plays in that particular sandbox. I think most Harlequin Presents are “speculative fiction” in the same way. They’re set in an alternate Europe. The heightened or imagined elements of the world can often bring out real emotions.

    These kinds of books work with varying success for me; I find they work best when the author is conscious rather than careless about her historical world, when it has internal logic, and when I like what she’s doing with the tropes she chooses. Although I avoided the James book you mention here, I enjoyed the first two in this series and the way they are frankly set in a fantasy world built really closely on the “wallpaper”/light Regency, just a little further out there.

    • Natalie

      I really liked the first two books in the James series, too, which is why that one was so very upsetting to me, not just because of my personal circumstances.

      Internal logic is a huge factor in whether or not these books work for me. I tried to read a Lynsey Sands historical a while ago and just couldn’t–in part because they setting felt pasted on yay. There were too many things that felt wrong. I’ll have to look up which book it was.

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