The Duke I Once Knew
By Olivia Drake
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2019
The opening scene in Olivia Drake’s new novel The Duke I Once Knew, the first in her “Unlikely Duchesses” series, is claustrophobic enough to make an unprepared reader want to gasp for fresh air. In the warm living room of Linton Manor, set deep in the Hampshire countryside, all of 29-year-old Abigail Linton’s relatives and in-laws are gathered around her, debating her future without her involvement. She’s holding a sleeping baby nephew on her lap as she listens to her oldest brother, the new master of Linton Manor in the wake of the sudden recent death of both her parents from pneumonia, discourse on how she simply must stay at the manor as companion for his wife. She listens as her brother James, the vicar, makes a similar claim for his own wife. Her sister Rosalind demands she return with her to Kent to help her chaperone her daughter. Her sister Mary needs her help raising twins. And not one of these cross-cutting discussions actually extends to her; she’s merely listening, and growing more frustrated by the minute. “Was she merely a wallflower to fade into the woodwork except when they needed something from her?” she wonders. “Or worse, a commodity to be traded back and forth between them, depending on who complained the loudest?”
In a spurt of combined inspiration and desperation, she announces that she’s not going to follow any of the plans of her relatives. Instead, despite the social scandal it might bring on her family, she’s going to apply for the position of governess to Lady Gwendolyn Bryce at Rothwell Court, the seat of the sprawling lands of the Duke of Rothwell. Lady Gwendolyn is the Duke’s young sister, and her previous governess has recently decamped, leaving the position open, and Abigail in her distress now thinks that working for a living would be preferable to being a family commodity.
Her relatives are outraged, of course, but Abigail’s real concern runs deeper: years ago, unbeknownst to her family, she’d had a brief and passionate affair with Maxwell Bryce, now the Duke of Rothwell. The only reason she’s suddenly set herself on the governess position is because it’s well-known that the libertine Duke is not in residence at Rothwell Court … if he were, she’s certain he’d slam the door in her face.
It’s a classic and often-used opening gambit: both Abigail and the Duke have been convinced for years that the other callously ended their affair. “There had been that one brief interlude in his callow youth,” the present-day Rothwell reflects. “Thankfully, he had escaped to London where he’d soothed his bruised heart with a boundless array of pretty damsels and lusty opera singers.”
As long-time romance readers will already know, lusty opera singers can only take you so far. And through half a dozen comfortably predictable plot turns, Drake brings Abigail and the Duke back into contact with each other and unsteadily coming to trust each other again. Regency romances (at least I think it’s a Regency … as with so many modern historicals, the book is vague on specific dates) are built on comfortably predictable plot turns, of course, but even so, The Duke I Once Knew grows much stronger as it goes along and gains momentum, and its conclusion will put a smile on every reader’s face. The unlikely duchess in question this time is made unlikely mainly by her age; it’ll be interesting to see what the potential disqualifiers are in future installments of the series.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.