The Duchess War, Courtney Milan


  • I have never read a Courtney Milan novel before. I have read and loved three of her novellas, including her debut. Therefore (and this is the embarrassing part) I own all of her previous novels; I just haven’t gotten to them yet. And the more unread ones there were in my TBR, the harder it became to dive in. So finally I gave myself permission to jump over all those and start on her newest series. Now I am even more determined to go back.
  • I’d like to read this book again. I started it Christmas night, snatched a few words here and there, got side-tracked, and finally read the second half in a two-day gulp. I thought the book had pacing problems, but possibly they were my pacing problems.
  • I’m not sure if I am the best or worst reader for The Duchess War. I have read a lot of Victorian social problem novels. I wrote on Dickens and Gaskell, among others, for my dissertation. Milan’s novel treads on this territory, but of course it does not try to emulate one of these books because it’s a 21st-century romance novel. Still, it was hard for me not to expect more attention to the social issues it raises.
  • I am back at work with a vengeance this week. I wanted to write something about this book, because I loved a lot about it, but I don’t have a proper review in me. I especially enjoyed and found illuminating reviews by Sunita, Marilyn (aka Mean Fat Old Bat), and Meoskop. I think it’s testimony to both the richness of the book and the diversity of the romance-reading community that they each focus on different issues.

My Fragmentary Thoughts

I love the way Milan’s heroes and heroines talk to each other. Dialogue between them shines. It’s by turns witty, clever, angry, affectionate . . . . Full of emotion. For example, early on Robert tells Minnie how he will explain to other men why he finds her attractive:

“Then there’s your hair. Hair shouldn’t change color, just by curling, but the edges seem to catch the light, and I can’t be sure if it’s brown or blond or even red when it does. I could watch that for hours, to try and figure it out.”

Minnie’s having none of this: “That’s the sort of thing a man says to convince a woman, but men don’t talk that way amongst themselves.” So Robert blurts out, “Men wouldn’t ask [what caught my eye]. They’d already know. . . . It’s your tits.” (There are also a few moments where the dialogue sounds distractingly modern, even though I don’t expect the characters to talk like people in actual Victorian novels).

The romance in The Duchess War moved me: two essentially lonely people, hiding secrets, betrayed by their parents, feeling unworthy of love, find love. They respect each other. They don’t let each other get away with being less than their best selves.

Milan is really good at using sex scenes to advance the relationship and reveal or develop character. I thought that was especially true in both the prequel novella for this book, “The Governess Affair,” and in a couple of scenes here–the wedding night and the scene on the train.

I am a sucker for heroes, in particular, who struggle to express their feelings. When Minnie realizes that Robert doesn’t want a loveless marriage but can’t say so, I got one of those stabs in the gut, or the heart, that are one of the reasons I read romance.

Minnie really lacks power, especially in relation to Robert, a Duke who “could ruin her with a single word.” They are both very aware of this:

[O]nce again, he gave her that sheepish smile. This time, she knew what it meant.

She was nothing. He had everything. And for what little it was worth, he was embarrassed by his own strength.

That embarrassment turns out to be worth quite a lot, because Robert aspires to use his strength to help, not hurt. He recognizes the power Minnie does have–the power of her intelligence–and encourages her to use it. And of course their marriage enables her to use it.

I loved that Minnie says she is going to beat him, that he underestimates her, and is right. I wish that the resolution at the end had showed them working together more explicitly. I thought Robert swept in and fixed things ducally and while a partnership was implied, it was mostly offstage. So much is made earlier of Minnie the strategist, and the savior of her friend Lydia, that this was a little disappointing.

Minnie is a woman with a scandalous background, a false name, and no money. Her social position is precarious and her options limited. Milan makes this feel very, very real, especially in the moment when she realizes that a bad marriage won’t make her safe. Not all historical romances pull this off. Heck, the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice seem pretty cavalier about it, unlike Charlotte Lucas.

I liked the recurring imagery of glass–betrayal like shards of glass in the mouth; the dowager duchess as stained glass, fragile and beautiful.

Such big themes: betrayal and forgiveness, power, freedom, justice, class. There’s a lot to think about in this book.

Sunita talks in her review about her problems with Robert as a duke: he wants to abolish the peerage but uses his position when it comes in handy; he seems isolated and politically naive for a man in his late twenties who came into the title as a child. I agreed with this. And yet, I remain conflicted. Many of the social problem novels written in the mid-Victorian period depict personal relationships as at least part of the solution to political problems (anyone who loves Richard Armitage the BBC adaptation of North and South, or Gaskell’s novel, has seen that). I called my dissertation chapter on Gaskell “The Talking Cure.” This aspect of Robert’s character felt underdeveloped and unsatisfying. But in some ways, his naive idealism was true to the period in which the novel is set.

I found much to admire and love in The Duchess War, despite some niggles. I’d recommend it to you, but it seems everyone I know has read it already.

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5 Responses to The Duchess War, Courtney Milan

  1. I loved the Duchess War. It is my favorite of all Courtney’s books. I tweeted.

  2. But in some ways, his naive idealism was true to the period in which it was set.

    I’d go farther than that; naive idealism is true to pretty much any period, because naive idealists are found everywhere and at every time. That wasn’t my objection, as you observed. My objection was making a statesman-Duke who was instrumental in passing important laws a naive idealist and closet radical. As I write this, I realize, reading your insightful observations, that my objection isn’t to the *possibility* of such a character, but to the execution of that character type in *this* novel.

    Great point on the social problem novel. I think The Duchess War aims to be such a novel, but doesn’t quite manage it successfully because there are too many personal and social problems to be sorted out and there’s not enough attention to the latter. As a historical romance it rightly emphasizes the personal issues and the relationship, and I think it succeeds well there.

  3. Barb in Maryland says:

    Another Milan fan here–but a gradual convert. I loved her first novella (This Wicked Gift), but was unimpressed by her first two novels. But then she started a new series, featuring the Turner brothers (Unveiled, etc) and I was hooked! She is auto-buy for me now and I can hardly wait for the next installment in this new series (The Heiress Effect).

  4. kaetrin says:

    I haven’t read it yet! I’ve seen 2 DNF reviews for this one from trusted blogger friends as well as positive reviews and a lot in between. I plan to read it but haven’t picked it up yet. I become increasingly intrigued I admit, by the divide in the reviews/opinions I’ve seen.

  5. Las says:

    I haven’t picked this one up yet, but I plan to.

    I thought all the Milan books I’ve read had pacing issues, so it’s not just you. It’s frustrating, since her writing is so lovely. There’s some kind of magic that happens when her characters talk to each other, and that’s what keeps me coming back.

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