The Duke Undone by Joanna Lowell

Historical Romance Fiction

The Duke Undone by Joanna Lowell,  Janine: About a year ago, I read and reviewed Joanna Lowell’s Dark Season. Layla read it too and we had a fun offline conversation.  We both agreed that the author had potential and that we were interested in her next book. When The Duke Undone appeared on the horizon, we jumped on it.

The year is 1881 and the place is England (mostly London). Anthony Philby, Duke of Weston, inherited his title after his father died. The heir, his degenerate brother, drowned himself and a prostitute by capsizing a stolen yacht. Anthony, released from military service in Afghanistan, returned to England to find his sister Effie gone. Effie ran off with a scoundrel and is rumored to be in France. But Anthony has not heard from her in almost three years.

Anthony’s late father was repressive and controlling; his mother hung herself after being committed to an asylum. So Anthony is almost alone in the world. Worse, he carries emotional scars from the war campaign. Perhaps worst of all, he is an alcoholic and forbidden drinking by a codicil in his father’s will.

The only constant in Anthony’s life is Robert Yardley, his late father’s architect friend, a kindly father figure in Anthony’s childhood. But Yardley is also the enforcer of the codicil and if Anthony drinks a drop or is embroiled in scandal before turning thirty, Yardley will continue to control Anthony’s fortune and estate for the remainder of his life.

Anthony chafes under Yardley’s lemonade and lectures, sneaks alcohol when he can, and assiduously avoids disgrace. So when Perry Forbes, an acquaintance, bursts into Anthony’s study with a gun and accusations of participating in his cuckolding, Anthony is pissed.

The proof, insists Forbes, is in a painting—a nude of Anthony asleep acquired by Mrs. Forbes. When Anthony beholds it, he’s aghast. He never posed for it and yet the painting is an astonishing likeness. If Yardley learns of it, Anthony will remain his legal ward.

Artist Lucy Coover painted Endymion after stumbling on a passed-out Anthony in an alley. It’s her best work but she was forced to sell it when her dressmaker aunt’s sewing machine broke. After Anthony finds and confronts her (she is a student at the Royal Academy of Arts), sparks fly. Then Lucy apologizes and agrees to send him her preliminary sketches.

But then Lucy, her aunt, and their neighbors are threatened with eviction, their building condemned without cause. Lucy learns that the Duke of Weston (Anthony’s late father, but she thinks it’s him) wanted to establish a royal commission on housing. She barges into Anthony’s residence and after clearing up the misunderstanding they strike a bargain: Anthony will try to sway to the chairman of the Board of Works to reverse the board’s decision about Lucy’s building if Lucy will help him search for his sister at her last known destination, the Shore ditch district, where Lucy lives.

Of course, there’s an immediate attraction. But so much stands between them: The class difference, the codicil that forbids scandal, Lucy’s impending eviction if not prevented, Yardley’s interference, Anthony’s alcoholism and self-sabotage and Lucy’s desire for a stable life.

Let’s start our discussion with a quick mention of the cover. It’s a shame that a fresh, well-researched book is saddled with a cover like this one. There’s no sense personality or emotional connection in this cover and it does little to sell the book.

Layla: Yes! I whole heartedly agree. The cover is bland and promises some kind of comedy of manners or romantic comedy—which is definitely not the tone of the book! I love some versions of this trend to use silhouettes on covers, but this particular one just doesn’t appeal. It’s bland and boring and what a shame because the book is all about the beauty of art and aesthetics.

But The Duke Undone contains so many good tropes twists and subplots: class warfare/discord, politics of housing works, regional politics, mental illness and alcoholism, art, colonial warfare among others. The main trope that the book subverts is that of artist and muse.

A muse is loosely defined as an inspiration or influence behind a work of art, and in art history and popular culture, we are often guilty of either idealizing a woman as a muse, or downgrading female artists to one. In the visual arts and in art history in European tradition, the term muse is gendered. “The muse in her purest aspect is the feminine part of the male artist, with which he must have intercourse if he is to bring into being a new work. She is the anima to his animus, the yin to his yang, except that, in a reversal of gender roles, she penetrates or inspires him and he gestates and brings forth, from the womb of the mind,” wrote the feminist author Germaine Greer.

Lowell subverts this trope—in her book, the muse is Anthony. The opening scenes were riveting and beautifully written. Lowell evokes a sense of space and time, and of history with just a few words.

Janine: Yes, 1880s England is well-evoked. Lowell brings many aspects of the period into her storyline—slum clearance, asylum treatments, Britain’s campaign in Afghanistan, the plentiful resources available to male art students but not to their female counterparts, and more. The book is better grounded in the period than Dark Season, something aided by the greater number of locations used in it. Small details also evoke the times. And I spotted fewer instances of anachronistic language here than in Dark Season, too. Just three: “blackout drunk,” “gobsmacked,” and “tip of the iceberg.”

Layla: Lucy stumbles upon what she at first thinks is a corpse, but is in fact Anthony’s naked, recumbent body. As an artist and as a woman, she is riveted by his beauty and for the entire length of the book, we see the first spark of that desire grow and deepen as she gets to know Anthony as a person. I found this aspect marvelous—the discussion of female desire read as historically appropriate and universal at the same time.

Lucy is an artist in profession (although like many working-class women she also has another job that pays the bills, helping in her aunt’s dressmaking shop) and in spirit/passion. She notices beauty and aesthetics everywhere and the author weaves this into her character study. Lucy designs the mannequins and window display in her aunt’s shop, she has constructed a skylight in her room to see the moon, she makes her own dresses and adds details and embellishments that make them unique.

She is a wonderful portrait of an artist because she defies some of the conventional stereotypes—while devoted to her painting and her art, she is not consumed by it. It made me think of another book where artists were main figures—Mary Jo Putney’s River of Fire where the heroine’s father, Anthony Seaton, is your stereotypical artist figure. He is defined by his licentiousness and lack of regard for social rules (there is a subplot about his mistresses and his wife), he is so consumed by his art he doesn’t care much for his daughter or notice the murderous villain who has attached himself to his family, and he is quick tempered unreliable and temperamental.

Lucy in contrast, is down to earth. She is practical because as a woman of her class and time, she has to be. And this makes her commitment to art more than just a devotion or all-consuming passion. Art is seen in the book as more than a hobby or calling—it is work. There is a great scene for example, when she is in the parlor with Anthony, Yardley and Yardley’s daughter Lavinia. Although Lavinia is wearing a beautiful green Worth creation, Lucy notices and tells her that the color green used is poisonous. She then demonstrates and proves this via a small scientific display that convinces Lavinia that her opinion is truthful.

Janine: I liked that bit too. Her painterly background is conveyed in multiple aspects of her perception. Another is how she perceives the color of Anthony’s eyes for the first time.

They were green, those eyes, green as moss, but without any of the softness. They were hard, clear. Startling. She’d never have guessed the exact shade. How to convey its brilliancy? Pale green lights added to darkest emerald.

A third aspect emerges when Lucy tried to visualize Anthony’s inner self, not his looks or his body language but his character and emotions, as a painting.

He stood. His last sentence hung in the air between them. He didn’t know how to be himself; it was painfully obvious. He was trying to break out of molds made by other men. His father. His brother. What would it look like, a portrait of his inner self? Black and red, brown and amber, no figures, its essence in shades, modulation, sensation. She could barely imagine such a painting. Being in Weston’s presence made her think, see, feel, new things.

Layla: One of the things I loved best was that her view of Anthony was in line with her larger appreciation for and love of beauty. She is unabashedly admiring of his physical form, and while she comes to admire his spirit and intellect too, his physical form is part of her attraction to him. I don’t know quite how the author does this, but she manages to show Lucy’s desire without making it shallow or superficial.

Janine: I didn’t think of it, but you’re right.

Layla: Anthony was a great character also, although less compelling than Lucy.

Janine: Great point.

Although it didn’t feature in the novel nearly as much as Lucy’s passion for art, Anthony loved horses, and his interest in and affection for them also showed in more than one way. He took comfort from them (and not with the standard racing to give vent to his feelings) as much as he cared for them. This one little detail added so much to his character—kindness, vulnerability, need for the closeness. Without it ever being said, I got the impression that there were times in his life when he had no one else to turn to.

Layla: I found his subplots which dealt with trauma issues of PTSD and alcoholism, to be interesting, and on the whole, a departure for depictions of the trope of wealthy duke/aristocrat. Many other works of historical romance deal with trauma and PTSD, and some with alcoholism, but I have not come across a book that deals with all three together.

Janine: Me either.

Layla: I agree with you that in his love of horses, his concern for the poor, and his loyalty to his values, he had a deep well of kindness that made him very attractive and sympathetic. His sense of aloneness despite his wealth and status was very moving and when he finds friendship with Lucy, it’s very romantic.

The depiction of alcoholism in this novel was very real and realistic. Anthony has many episodes of drunkenness, and in the end, I wasn’t entirely convinced of his sobriety (although I believed in his commitment to it}.

Janine: I felt the same way. His struggle and commitment were believable but I also wasn’t sure of his sobriety. He had more than one “one step forward, two steps back” (rather than the reverse) moment in the book. There were a couple of places where I thought he’d turn the corner and he didn’t. It disappointed me a bit not only in him but also in the pacing.

Layla: Yes, I agree. It was too central to the plot and we spend too much time reflecting on Anthony’s issues—you mentioned a sense of interiority that kind of slips into solipsism.

Janine: I’m not sure I’d say solipsism, more a lack of engagement. More on that later.

On another topic, at one point Lucy does something pretty awful to Anthony and I felt he got over it too quickly.

Layla: I agree with you. It was hurtful for me to watch Lucy’s actions unfold here—and Anthony’s response was pretty apathetic. His anger didn’t burn—and she didn’t really work to earn his forgiveness which I would have liked to see. It did contribute a tenseness that led to some dramatic scenes, which I enjoyed reading, but how quickly she turned against Anthony did make me wince.

Janine: That it happened so fast made it read as contrived.

Layla: I wish there had been some other way to resolve that conflict—him making her earn his forgiveness somehow. It would have taken very little, a scene or two even.

Things I loved: the writing, beautiful elegant and full of rich historical detail. Lucy’s relationship to her Aunt Marian and her friendship with Kate (I loved Kate!!!) and her cat Mr. Miliken. How even minor characters had fully developed and interesting stories—the Irish neighbor, Gwen the other student at the school, Effie Anthony’s sister, Yardley’s daughter Lavinia. The book abounds with rich characterizations that defy labels—the working poor, the mad mother, the debauched brother, the shallow rival for the hero’s affections.

Janine: Yes! There was a moment near the end where a seemingly superficial and complacent character was stirred into revealing hidden depths. I loved that.

Layla: Things I thought could be better: the romance. I understood their attraction to each other and came to believe in their love, but I would have liked more moments of awareness and tenderness outside of sex.

Janine: I agree on the tenderness, that’s a good point. I actually felt there was plenty of awareness. For example, when Lucy catches that glimmer of Anthony’s turmoil in colors. But both Lucy and Anthony are too much in their own heads and that lessens the immediacy and some of their engagement with each other and with other characters they share the room with in several scenes.

Layla: I wanted Anthony to be worthier of Lucy, to fight for her more, to show he loves her.

Janine: I agree 100%. More momentum in his fight for her and indications of love could have kicked the book from good to great. The story gives Anthony perhaps too many other concerns— fighting for self-determination, battling the lure of the bottle, processing his painful family history, dealing with PTSD, searching for his sister. Individually they’re all good things but there are so many of them that they divide his attention away from Lucy. For him to give her more of his focus would have been good.

Layla: I thought the villain was well done but easy to guess from the first moment they appear.

Janine: I think that we were meant to guess the villain’s identity early on. A lot of the tension in that subplot comes from our awareness that the main characters think of the villain as an ally but we know it isn’t so.

Layla: The denouement of the villainous plot was also a little bit melodramatic and exaggerated.

Janine: Agreed.

Layla: Anthony’s Greek ancestry—it only comes through in the end.

Janine: True, but I don’t see how that would have fit in with so much else going on in the novel.

What did you think of the pacing? The first half read as faster moving, tighter, and more cohesive, riveting to me. The second half was slower. I was still engaged but easily able to put the book down.

Layla: I think the pacing was great in the beginning—starting with the excitement in that first scene and developing quickly into a climax.

But after this point, it kind of slows down and everything moves at a sluggish pace. Things don’t pick up until the end and then it’s a very fast and very rushed finish.

Janine: Yes, that was the best part of the book. Even so, I felt the rest of the first half was very good. In the second, the resolving of all the other subplots gave the romance short shrift. I agree, the last 15% or so was very rushed.

Layla: Things I wanted more of: Kate! Gwen! Effie! I want to read more Lowell books with these three girls as heroines.

Janine: You may get your wish about one of them at least. Lowell’s next book, The Runaway Duchess, is about Lavinia, but there will be at least one more after that.

Layla: I would love to read or see her write a romance with a hero who is not an aristocrat or not wealthy, too.

Btw did you notice the many similarities to Meredith Duran and Mary Jo Putney?

I could see some of the same tropes—

the evil aristocratic father hell bent on controlling the son, alcoholic rake turned sober lover (MJP did that one better than Lowell), unconventional artistic heroine (MJP again), depiction of working-class world (Duran), even the English soldier traumatized by fighting in Afghanistan in Evie Dunmore’s A Rogue of One’s Own.

Janine: Yes. The voice reminded me strongly of both Duran and Putney (I have not read Dunmore). And not only in regard to the tropes you mention.

With regard to the Meredith Duran similarities (full disclosure, Meredith is my friend and sometime critique partner), I was also reminded of her voice both in the depictions of Lucy and Anthony and in aspects of the writing. The introspectiveness of the characters, the balance of kindness, vulnerability and cynicism in Anthony, Lucy’s passionate opinions and even some of the visual and other descriptions of Lucy in Anthony’s POV, some of the ways he perceived her, all reminded me of Meredith’s writing. And yes, very much in the descriptions of the setting. Most of Meredith’s romances are set in 1880s-1890s England and this book takes place in 1881, so that’s a factor in the latter.

Mary Jo Putney had more than one book set against an Arabian backdrop (I beg you to correct me if that’s an offensive adjective) and the hero’s description of his time in Afghanistan made me think of that. Putney’s denouements can involve over-the-top confrontations with the villains and late revelations about family relationships, and those are other similarities. And yes, the art-focused world in River of Fire. I was not a fan of that book. I didn’t think of the alcoholic Reggie from The Rake. This may be heresy to the Putney fandom, but though I have enjoyed many an MJP novel in the past, I never cared for him or for that book!

Even though The Duke Undone is not perfect, I was impressed at how far Lowell has come since her previous book, and I hope it’s a sign that she will keep honing her romance writing craft. I liked the originality and thought that went into the book, so I’m excited to discover a new (relatively, to me) voice with so much potential.

Any final thoughts, Layla?

Layla: I really enjoyed the novelty of the book—the innovation in terms of the trope of the muse/artist, the heroine who felt historically real and layered, the writing which was rich and lyrical. There were problems with the pacing, the overabundance of subplots, and the romance (I wanted more!) but overall, I found myself engaged excited and eager to read more.