In the past few months the publishing industry has seen scandals that range from the eyebrow raising variety, to the forever-alter-the-way-business-is-done variety. The latter, of course, refers to James Frey’s embellished memoir; the former could be filled by any number of minor disgraces authors and publishers have endured. It wasn’t that long ago, a little over a year, that the book business scandal of the moment was Fordham University Professor Mary Bly’s confession that she writes romance under the nom-de-plume Eloisa James. In the wake of A Million Little Pieces, Bly’s confession hardly seems worthy of ink. There is no true scandal in an academic with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford writing those books. More importantly, James writes with too much elegance to be anything less than an asset to romance.
The Taming of the Duke, James’ latest installment in the Essex sisters’ stories, brings the difficult Imogen, Lady Maitland, together with her drunken guardian, Rafe, Duke of Holbrook. Imogen has never shied away from a little scandal, especially if she gets what she wants in the process. First, she eloped with another girl’s fiancé, only to find herself a widow within two weeks; then, she allowed the entire ton to believe she was in the midst of an affair with a notorious rake, even while he rejected her. Now, she finds herself in the unique and delicate position of being able to take a lover. Rafe finds himself in the unenviable position of playing guardian to a grown woman who doesn’t need or particularly care for his chaperonage. Imogen believes the perfect candidate for a lover is Gabe, Rafe’s illegitimate half brother. Gabe is a gentleman, yet not husband material, and possesses a good many of his brother’s physical charms—minus the potbelly—and none of his bad habits—like drinking and engaging Imogen in waspish conversations. Unbeknownst to Imogen, Gabe has his own complications including an illegitimate daughter and a hunger for Gillian Pythian-Adams, a woman his background precludes him from being with. To spare Imogen’s feelings and the sting of another rejection, a newly sober and slimmed down Rafe masquerades as his brother. Rafe begins two relationships with Imogen; one, pretending to be Gabe, wherein Rafe and Imogen engage in activities not befitting a lady, and the second, as himself, wherein he pursues Imogen’s heart.
Since Rafe and Imogen’s relationship begins as guardian and ward—with no untoward amount of respect on either side—each is familiar enough with the other to see their respective clay feet. For Rafe, that is alcohol. Much, if not all, of Rafe and Imogen’s warring and fighting stems from Imogen’s disapproval of Rafe’s drinking. It’s from this grounding of the relationship that James allows her hero and heroine to speak plainly, yet full of subtext, without the meaningless, circular prattle often found in historical romance.
Both the writing and the romance are consistently nuanced and subtle. James writes from a depth of understanding regarding emotional and physical intimacies that have more profundity than the joining of bodies. In a genre that so often mistakes physical intimacy with the building of a relationship, James allows her characters the sort of intimate knowledge of each other that comes not from sex, but from actually knowing one another. Sex is important to James’ writing and her characters, but from scenes such as the one wherein Imogen helps Rafe detox from alcohol, attending to his physical needs while never batting an eye over his vomiting, it’s clear that James understands intimacy in all its sometimes uncomfortable glory.
It isn’t at all surprising, given Mary Bly’s day job as professor of Shakespeare, that academics find their way into James’ work. The title, The Taming of the Duke , is a reference to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (though it’s a witty turn in James’ version as both the drunkard Duke and the shrew-like Imogen are tamed), the illegitimate brother Gabe is a professor of divinity at Cambridge, and the story’s delicate emotional climax takes place in front of a mural depicting Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream settling an ass’ head onto his shoulders. These, however, are only the most obvious echoes of English Literature. There are many more throughout the book and their presence serves to elevate the genre, but the bombardment of them frequently distracts from the read.
The Taming of the Duke is deftly rendered fiction, intelligent and agile, full of pathos without trumped up dramatics. James takes a great risk with Rafe as it is seldom-to-never that truly flawed heroes show up on the pages of romances; her risks pays off with a character broken and troubled enough to need redemption. While there are moments that are too subtlety delivered, and the book veers to the oblique as a result, the characters’ off-the-page emotional leaps are easily pieced together. In the end The Taming of the Duke satisfies.
You can visit Eloisa here and purchase this book here and here.