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Here are my three favorite historicals released in April! My reviews for Caroline Linden’s All the Duke I Need and Grace Burrowes’s Never a Duke are below—for my review of Janna MacGregor’s Rules for Engaging the Earl, see the post below this one.

Grace Burrowes’s Never a Duke

Never a Duke was my first Grace Burrowes! I have long heard of her work and so I was excited to finally sit down with one of her novels. Overall, I was very intrigued by her style of narration. Her writing is more formal and restrained than usual for a historical romance and I found the effect to be quite compelling. To give an example of what I mean here, in several parts of the book, the heroine reveals a secret to the hero that, in the hands of other writers, would be the source of much internal agony. Instead, here, the reader doesn’t even know about these parts of her past before Rosalind speaks them aloud in the moment of confession. I found the effect refreshing, particularly in a heroine…I liked that Lady Rosalind has her priorities straight and isn’t unduly worried about past indiscretions or circumstances beyond her control.

This book is the last in the Wentworth series (I believe) and while I noted that it must be later in the series as I was reading, it didn’t stop me from understanding or enjoying the novel. I was particularly fond of the hero, Ned Wentworth, who began life as the son of a tailor, briefly became a child convict in Newgate prison after the ruin of his family, and then rose to manage the bank owned by Quinton Wentworth, Duke of Walden. Ned was so sensitive and good-hearted, he just really got me—his past did weigh on him, but not in a way that I found to be unwarranted, and it was lovely to see him let go with Rosalind. Burrowes does a great job showing how Rosalind, with her matter-of-fact perspective on life, takes Ned’s childhood trauma seriously but, at the same time, helps him move past it. And, with Ned, Rosalind finds a man reflexively kind and considerate—he is the opposite of her entitled, villainous father and brothers. Rosalind has been hungering for someone to respect her thoughts and opinions—and Ned fulfills that desire with such steadfast care. It is really touching to see!

Never a Duke also contains a significant mystery plot, which I enjoyed watching unravel. To this point, I found this book to fall more towards the realist side of the historical romance spectrum. I don’t like to talk about historical “accuracy” because I think it is a bit reductive. What might have been historically accurate for one person or group might not have been for another—I think, when it comes to historicals, we should talk less about accuracy and inaccuracy and more about the approach to the historical setting. Is the author depicting the period as historians describe and understand it? Or are they approaching the setting more as a fantasy author would, taking elements of the period to create a distinct, self-sustaining world? Any historical romance is going to employ some of both approaches—it is just inevitable. And I think that most contemporary historicals tend to hew towards the middle of this spectrum—part realist, part fantasy. I enjoy romances all along this spectrum—and I certainly don’t think one approach is better than the other. Grace Burrowes notably falls towards the realist side, however, and I did appreciate how she captures the brutality of this historical period. Early nineteenth-century London was a ruthless environment and Burrowes uses this backdrop to inject a lot of tension and passion into Ned and Rosalind’s love story.

I really liked Never a Duke! I especially recommend it to readers who enjoy historicals that fall on the more realist side of the spectrum and want to see the gritty aspects of early nineteenth-century London.

Caroline Linden’s All the Duke I Need

I am a huge fan of the first book in this series, About a Rogue, so I was excited to read All the Duke I Need and it did not disappoint. I missed the second book in the series, A Scot to the Heart, but I wasn’t lost at all—although I do think it enhanced the experience that I had read book #1. This series is really an epic and you can feel that in All the Duke I Need. Even though the book is still an intimate and intense romance, the stakes feel bigger than the central relationship between Will and Phillipa. I found myself caring about the entire Carlyle family. Due to her heartbreak over the deaths of her children and her strength in the face of adversity, the duchess, the formidable dowager who has been searching for the right heir since book #1, is an inherently sympathetic character. And the duke, her son, who was disabled in an accident thirty years ago before the events of the book, is a rich character as well. When the duke regains some of his old vivacity in Will’s company, he reveals that he is more perceptive than his family gives him credit for. All the Duke I Need is not just a pleasurable read for the central romance, but for the entire cast of characters.

When reading this book, I found myself thinking about why historicals feature so many aristocratic families and why these books have such a draw. I know that some historical fans feel aristocrat fatigue—when I’ve asked on Instagram what readers would like to see more of in the genre, several people have said that they want more working-class and non-aristocratic characters. I share this desire, too, but I was reminded in reading this book why aristocratic families can be so appealing to readers. In this book, the Duchess of Carlyle has a portrait of herself and her children that she keeps in her personal sitting room—it ends up having a big role in solving the mystery at the center of the novel. When I was reading Linden’s description of this portrait, I realized how this image, within the text, memorializes and gives dignity to the family life of the original Carlyle unit. Because they are aristocrats, they get the privilege of such an image—but, nevertheless, the portrait, as a symbol to the reader, elevates the importance of family life, any family life, more generally. To me, this elevation is the appeal of the aristocratic family. For most people, their family members (biological or otherwise) are inherently important to them and so the exalted station of aristocratic families in books can serve as a metaphor for this emotional prominence. The heightened stakes attached to the fates of aristocratic families (many people rely on a dukedom, etc.) can serve as a metaphorical stand-in for the emotional importance of family writ large. This metaphor is particularly applicable, I think, in novels such as All the Duke I Need that hinge on families losing and then finding one another again. Finding the heir is, of course, also finding the long-lost son, grandson, etc., and opens onto the more universal experiences of trying to recover and restore family relationships after tragedy, separation, splintering of all types.

Okay, but enough theorizing, what about the romance?!?! I really enjoyed the connection between Philippa and Will. Linden gives us a bit of a slow burn here, but I didn’t even mind. These two truly get a chance to get to know one another and so their falling in love feels very authentic. You could see how their prior experiences really made them a match—for instance, they both come from multicultural families. Will’s father is English and his mother is French; he spoke French at home even though he grew up in the U.S. Conversely, Philippa’s mother was Indian and her father was English—her mother died when she was young and her father remarried Lady Jessica, the Duchess of Carlyle’s only daughter, when Philippa was about three years old. Due to her father’s marriage, Philippa has spent her entire life within the aristocratic English environs of the Carlyle estate, but she still has strong ties to her mother’s family in India and Indian culture. Therefore, both Will and Philippa are used to living across cultures and so, from the beginning, you can see why they will have an understanding of each other’s experiences and are able to foster a connection. I also really appreciated how forthright Philippa becomes about her love for Will. Sometimes, heroines are too prone to feel rejected for my taste, and I liked that Philippa doesn’t let Will get in the way of their mutual happiness.

Overall, I recommend All the Duke I Need, particularly if you love historicals with rich world-building and a substantive sense of character and setting!

Do you ever read a romance and feel like it has been written specifically for you? That was my experience of reading Janna MacGregor’s Rules for Engaging the Earl. I am a refuse heap for childhood-friends-to-lovers and I really believed that Constance and Jonathan were the only people with the power to make each other whole and happy again. Too often in romances I feel like, okay, these two have a connection, but do they really have to be together? Here, I 100% believed that they did. While some historical readers might be startled by the beginning of this novel, I ate it up. Their initial parting in the prologue felt typical of the genre (in the best way!), but I really liked that, when we meet them again ten years later, their lives have both become so much more complicated. It felt so true to life. Constance has been abandoned by her first husband and now has a baby. An expert marksman, Jonathan has been wounded in the war and finds himself at the mercy of malicious rumors about his conduct while serving the Crown. Their marriage is, on one hand, a matter of convenience, but it also isn’t. They both want to be married to one another and yet aren’t quite ready for all that marriage holds.

This dilemma is beautifully rendered. MacGregor does exquisite work showing the emotional subtleties of Constance and Jonathan's interiorities. And the conflict in this book was so high quality. All of the issues in their relationship felt authentic and completely understandable given their characters. I loved both Constance and Jonathan and found them to be exceptionally relatable, likable characters, who care for each other and want to do right by one another even after they have failed at that task.

I especially loved Jonathan. He had been through so much and was so wounded, physically and mentally, but his love for Constance was so pure. I loved Constance, too, but sometimes your experience of a romance is hero-forward and this book was one of those for me. That said, I think I have higher standards for heroes than heroines in my romances in general (do others agree??)—at times, I am guilty of viewing the heroine as merely a vessel for conveying the hero into my consciousness, like the cracker to a fine cheese. I’m never happy with a Kraft Single, but I can get down with a Ritz cracker, if you know what I mean. I want something special from my heroes and a romance is much less likely to be a favorite if I don’t care for the hero, whereas a lackluster heroine can be made up for (and even enjoyed) due to a great hero. That is not say that, in Rules for Engaging the Earl, I didn't find Constance superb. But I give my general thoughts on heroes and heroines as context here because I think they help explain why I might have loved Jonathan a little too much! When Constance and Jonathan inevitably have a big conflict at the 80% mark of the book, I couldn’t handle it. It was hard for me to see Constance be critical of Jonathan, even though he was definitely in the wrong. MacGregor also does an amazing job showing Jonathan’s alienation from Constance’s friends and family on the page. At one point, her support system visits his home and MacGregor does great work making his struggle with this visit palpable and sympathetic to the reader. This portion of the book was just masterfully done.

I also enjoyed how the dynamic between Jonathan and Constance allowed her to take the lead, particularly in their sexual relationship. Even now in historicals, this dynamic can feel rare and it is one I would like to see more of. I love an assertive heroine who knows when she has to be the one to make the move and I was obsessed with Constance and Johnathan’s dynamic. It was SO sexy.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves historicals and especially those seeking a fresh dynamic between hero and heroine in the genre. Rules for Engaging the Earl was my first MacGregor and I’ll definitely be back for more.

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC!

[content warning: sexual assault, rape, physical violence between partners, coercive/abusive treatment of the heroine]

[A note: I read the revised 1999 version so I have relied on Charlotte Penn Clark’s blog post on the novel here for my understanding of the 1985 version:]

When I was reading Whitney, My Love, I could see how this text has deeply shaped the historical romance genre. Clayton Westmoreland reminds me of so many alpha heroes that I have read: he is overbearing, brash, and yet completely besotted with his heroine, even as he misunderstands and misreads her time and again. Clayton has no control over his emotions and acts rather than thinks for 90% of the book. Whitney, too, feels like the archetype for a certain kind of Regency heroine. Scarlett Peckham terms her female main characters "alpha heroines" and that term comes to mind for Whitney too. Whitney is daring, stubborn, sparkling, bright, full of hunger. She has a lot of pride and despises the idea of being controlled or reined in by anyone. Whitney feels like the logical extension of Emma Woodhouse, if she were allowed to leave Highbury and gain access to a wide circle of high-society suitors. Whitney always knows what she wants (or, at least, believes that she does) and, when she thinks she wants something or someone, she goes for it. In many ways, Whitney, My Love is the story of two “alphas” falling in love and trying to work it out despite their identical strengths and weaknesses. Neither Whitney or Clayton have much respect for boundaries, especially when they stand in the way of them getting what they want, and both are prideful, distrusting, and prone to insensitivity.

I want to give a brief recap of the set-up of this novel so that what follows here makes sense. I usually dislike extensive plot recaps in reviews, but you need a little context for any of my discussion to make sense. This plot is A LOT and there is a lot of it.

The book opens with Whitney as a rebellious fourteen-year-old. She is in love with an older local squire, Paul, and stalks him in an attempt to get him to love her back. He flirts with her a little, but largely finds her off-putting. Fed up with Whitney and her embarrassing antics, her father sends her to Paris to live with her aunt and uncle. Of course, while there, she blossoms into a Parisian diamond of the first water and finds herself with many suitors. In Paris, Clayton first glimpses her, but she doesn’t really notice him. They speak briefly at a masquerade and she is intrigued by him, but then he speaks to her in an uncouth (read: sexual) manner and she is repulsed. Clayton, however, is besotted and he decides that he wants to marry her. Instead of proposing to her like a normal human, he goes to her father in England and asks him for permission to marry her—and offers to pay off his significant debt as part of the bargain. Whitney’s father then calls her back to England. Instead of revealing his identity and their engagement to Whitney, Clayton decides that he will pose as a country gentleman named Clayton Westland and try to win her over with his charms. Therefore, when they truly meet for the first time, the power dynamic between the two is insanely lopsided. Clayton has her entire fate in his hands and Whitney doesn't even know it. Furthermore, she still loves Paul and sets about trying to get him to fall in love with her from the second she arrives back in England. Of course, over the course of the novel, Whitney and Clayton end up falling in love and end up with an HEA, but only after overcoming an endless litany of emotional obstacles borne from this original set-up.

When Judith McNaught revisited Whitney, My Love in 1999, she changed two scenes that had received negative reactions from readers. In the first of these scenes, Clayton is enraged with Whitney because she has thrown a riding crop at a horse that he is riding—when she knows that the horse has a deathly fear of riding crops. The horse subsequently loses control and Clayton has to use his superior horseman skills to get him to calm down. In short, Whitney could have really hurt Clayton and the horse with her rash action. In retaliation, Clayton puts Whitney over his knee and spanks her with the riding crop—or, at least, he does in the 1985 version. In the 1999 revision, McNaught has Clayton stop at the last moment and he never actually hits her with the crop. I have never read the 1985 original, so I can’t speak to the scene as it once existed. I do have to say, though, that I didn’t find Clayton’s impulse to spank her with the crop as disturbing as how much Whitney just hates his general presence in this portion of the book. I have read books where the hero does similar things, but the heroine is into the dynamic—thinking here of Lisa Valdez’s Patience—and, even if the scene isn’t without its problematic elements, I can see why it is erotic for these two characters. Here, though, crop or no crop, Whitney’s level of hatred for Clayton is just…not sexy or romantic. It doesn't feel like I-hate-you-so-much-I-just-have-to-have-you, but like genuine hatred on her part. It is how Elizabeth feels for Darcy post-ballroom rejection x 10 PLUS this guy is trying to hit her with a riding crop. There is enemies-to-lovers and then there is whatever is happening during the first 50% of Whitney, My Love. Maybe there are those who would disagree, but, to me, enemies-to-lovers is when two characters dislike/hate each other because of what the other person has done/represents but nevertheless they feel a strong, undeniable physical attraction and emotional pull towards that person. Their hatred for the other main character is warring with an equally strong attraction. Whitney is sort of attracted to Clayton, but it is nowhere equal to her hatred. Behold this hatred, which regularly veers into murderous:

“Whitney thought she would splinter apart from the turbulence of her hatred and animosity.”

“How she loathed and despised Clayton Westland!”

“The idea of doing him bodily harm filled Whitney with morbid delight. She would have thoroughly enjoyed running him through with a sword of blowing his head off with a gun or seeing him hanging from a tree.”

“Whitney greeted the news that Clayton was to dine with them the following evening with all the enthusiasm she would have felt for a public flogging.”

“If she’d had a knife at that moment, Whitney would have plunged it into his chest.”

Perhaps if these passages were paired with moments where she is salivating over his handsome face and smoking body, they would feel less representative of her true feelings. But they really aren’t counteracted with any convincing ameliorating element—sure, Clayton and Whitney have a few kisses that are passionate but she goes back almost immediately to wanting to stab him to death. And then pair this state of affairs with the fact that she is actively in love with another man…and it sure does feel a lot like Clayton is coercing Whitney into a relationship that, from her point of view, is 100% unwanted. Furthermore, McNaught makes clear that Whitney does not need any encouragement to express her desires: her aggressive pursuit of Paul makes clear that she doesn’t need much encouragement at all to go after who she wants. This trait makes her relationship with Clayton a bit bewildering. Why should we be rooting for a hero who wants to force the heroine into an unwanted relationship and tries to punish her resistance to him by hitting her with a riding crop? (Whitney throws the riding crop, after all, because he is forcing her to go riding with him). You could say that Whitney is similar to Clayton in that she tries to force Paul into a relationship with her...but, after her return to England, Paul is interested in her and consents to her attentions. Why is Whitney's irrational love for Paul wrong and Clayton's nonsensical love for her right? Why does Clayton know best? Herein lies the problem of Whitney, My Love.

While the riding crop scene is bewildering, it is nowhere near as disturbing as the second scene that McNaught changed in 1999. In this scene, after they have fallen in love and Whitney promises to marry Clayton of her own accord, Clayton rapes Whitney in anger—because he believes that she slept with other men before and during their engagement. McNaught revised this scene to give Whitney a moment where she seems to somewhat assent to the encounter—but I would be surprised if any contemporary reader who peruses this scene would call it anything but rape. It is an extremely painful scene, both for the characters and the reader. Clayton and Whitney are both emotionally devastated by this event and Whitney is definitely traumatized. I have read one or two other older romances in which the hero sexually assaults the heroine and, as I think many would agree, it just does not work for me. I can see the appeal of a forceful hero, even one who pushes the boundaries of consent and is controlling, possessive, etc., but straight-up sexual assault is a bridge too far for me. I know that these scenes used to be a lot more common in historical romance—and scenes that read coercive now certainly used to be de rigueur in the genre. It is just hard for me to believe that a romance can really come back from such a violation and, after this happened in Whitney, My Love, I knew it wouldn't be a favorite for me.

That said, if you open up GoodReads, you’ll find plenty of people who adore Whitney, My Love. And, even though I couldn’t get past the above elements enough to truly love it, I do understand the strengths of the book. I know some people find Whitney irritating, but, in my opinion, she is really the magnetic center of this book. I really appreciated how Whitney does what she wants when she wants, which is rare in Regency heroines, then and now. There is no noble self-sacrifice for Whitney!! While she sometimes makes foolish choices, she is also very charming—she has the air of an Austen character, in that she generally doesn’t question the constraints of her era but also feels entitled to express her individuality within this world. I would also say that Tessa Dare heroines and Eloisa James’s most recent heroine, Cleo, remind me of Whitney. I also can’t emphasize enough that this book is an epic. Clayton and Whitney don’t even have regular scenes on page together until 15% of the way through the book—for the first 50 pages, I thought that her friend Nicki was the hero. (And I have to say that I liked their dynamic!! I might have preferred that book but alas…). We get so much background and there are so many side characters. It says Westmoreland saga on the front of the book and that is an accurate description. Contemporary historical single titles feel spare by comparison.

That said, in certain ways, Whitney and Clayton do feel a good match; they both clearly need to be with someone as strong, impulsive, and lively as themselves and I did find the alpha-alpha pairing really interesting. It does feel, though, that McNaught sets Whitney up to be broken down by Clayton; she implies that Whitney needs to be softened from her original sparky self in order to find an HEA. It feels like the abuse and assault that Clayton subjects her to is supposed to achieve this goal and I just couldn’t get behind seeing that happen to Whitney. Both because I don’t think that behavior is ever acceptable in any relationship, even (for me at least) in the fantasy world of a romance novel, but because it felt sadistic to read the story of Whitney’s childhood and pre-Clayton life to then have him come in and treat her that way. Whitney craves self-determination and, while, at the end, she does choose Clayton of her own accord, I just wished she didn’t have to be abused and assaulted to come to the realization that she loves him.

That said, I found this book fascinating and I know I will be thinking about it for a long time.

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