Historically grounded romances about ambitious women challenging social convention to pursue a career and who tame a swoon-worthy hero along the way? Why, that’s exactly what I’m writing! So, aside from an inward whimper that she had gotten an agent, sold her series to a major publisher, and was getting swaths and swaths of acclaim for the kind of book I’d been trying to sell for years, I was eager to pick up Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke and figure out why she’d succeeded where I, so far, had not. Fortunately, I was able to put my envy aside as Dunmore’s wonderful story, engaging characters, and lovely writing drew me in and wouldn’t let go.
Her scholarship to Oxford University’s new women’s college, Lady Margaret Hall, offers vicar’s daughter Annabelle Archer an escape from the drudgery of being her stuffy cousin Gilbert’s unpaid maid and nanny, but her sponsor, the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, requires that Annabelle support the cause. On her very first campaign to persuade members of Parliament to amend the Married Women’s Property Act, Annabelle boldly waves a pamphlet under the nose of the dashing Duke of Montgomery, who has just been coerced by a sulky Queen Victoria to ensure that Tories—the party that doesn’t support women’s suffrage—win the next election.
The Duke notes Annabelle’s green eyes and plebian appearance. Annabelle notes his cold hauteur. Hints of painful pasts and present conflict set us up for intrigue: Annabelle has a sordid history, while the Duke divorced his wife; she must pay her worthless cousin for the freedom to study, while Montgomery is plagued by a rebellious younger brother and trying to earn back his ancestral home. I topped off my drink and prepared to relish a glorious battle of wits between two intelligent protagonists who were clearly equals in principle and passion but vastly divided in their rank, loyalties, and beliefs.
I must admit that my own (relatively small) disappointment with the book is that wits have little time on the stage. Annabelle does not interest the Duke with her radical beliefs or knowledge of ancient Greek; he is ensnared by her green eyes, her French lower lip, and her bosom. Nor does their conflict play out in the form of public debates or political confrontations; Annabelle comes to the Duke’s favorite house for a party and manages to fall ill so that she must stay until the New Year’s Eve ball, by which time Montgomery has decided to make her his mistress. The situation immediately domesticates Annabelle and reduces her conflict to how well she will look in her borrowed gown, whether she will show to advantage next to Montgomery’s “arrangement,” Lady Lingham, and just how jealous she can make the Duke by dancing with the dangerously sexy Viscount Ballantine.
I am probably in a very small minority of readers who would find an argument about the principles of classical Greek democracy just as alluring as man’s finely cut cheekbones or the way he wears a suit, and Dunmore writes deliciously enough about their physical attraction that I decided to enjoy the book anyway. It’s wonderful to watch Montgomery thaw and come to understand what his relentless adherence to duty, responsibility, and the ducal rank have cost him in terms of personal relationships and enjoyment. Annabelle shines in the company of her adorable friends: rich and reckless Hattie Greenfield, shy near-sighted Catriona Campbell, and their dauntless suffragette leader, Lady Lucie. The way she relies on her principles and her wits even when brought to her lowest point made me like Annabelle all the more, and I am glad to say (since it’s no spoiler) that her duke is finally brought to a proper understanding of her finer qualities—or at least sees her as more than green eyes and a bosom.
Dunmore’s prose is a delight to read, nimble, intelligent, and well-balanced, and while her characters may have progressive attitudes for their time, the historical setting feels alive and breathing, imposing real barriers for those who wish to follow their hearts. The characters are vivid, complex, conflicted, and delightful. Dunmore breathes new life into a trope that might otherwise be dangerously worn and lets us experience how intelligent and ambitious women might respond to a world that stifles their potential at every turn. I can’t wait to read more of the League of Extraordinary Women. More than that, I want to join it.