I was in the mood for a fun, light read, and The Reluctant Duke certainly offered that. The Regency is one of my favorite historical periods because of how English society teetered on the border between strict rules and extreme debauchery. The class issues, the iron hand of society matrons, and the frantic nature of the marriage mart are rife with opportunities for good stories.
The Reluctant Duke fulfilled my request admirably, offering a story that touched on many of those fascinating elements including the perceptions of the United States during the 1800s held by the English people. Though sensual (in both talk and light description), the story shares its mood with sweet romances in the focus on well-drawn characters facing period-appropriate dangers of gossip and reputation, along with more physical dangers caused when fortunes could be won or lost at a card table.
Thomas Seabrook, the Duke of Wentworth, had both lost his fortune through his father’s mismanagement and wasteful ways and gained a new one at the card table as the story begins, though things are not what they seem as we quickly learn. He is very much a Healthcliff figure in the beginning. He is broody and full of his own responsibilities.
Emma Hamilton is a wealthy American debutante who has lived a sheltered life for very good reasons her father has kept from her. Emma’s story we learn in trickles throughout the book, little teases that are seeded, but mostly relevant as a background while the foreground is firmly set on their relationship.
The connection between these two, fraught as it is with Thomas’s understanding of his own nature as well as a strict desire to keep his family name out of the hand of gossips (after his father almost destroyed their reputation) and Emma’s innocence, can be felt on the page. Emma suffers from ignorance, but her nature leads her to follow her heart even when she’s sure Thomas is oblivious to her virtues. Thomas believes his feelings are solely lust, and she’s undeserving of the insult. He’s had little interest in doing his duty for the continuance of the title and cannot accept the possibility when the first to inspire love is his very own ward. Despite the odd method through which he obtained the responsibility, Thomas is determined to do right by her, even if it costs him everything in the process.
The story, both plot and feel, is very much in keeping both Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. There are lovely nods to the circumstances of the times, and beautiful descriptions. While there were a couple places where the story jumped further ahead than I would have preferred for the transition and I caught a few typos, the book is well-written, enjoyable, and has reasonable conflicts, both internal and external. There are also some elements left open for the continuation of the series, beyond the simple existence of Thomas’s siblings and two best friends, all of whom are unmarried.
I enjoyed the active family feel, the generational differences in the perception of marriage, and the way the characters acted while the mature nature of the content didn’t distract or undermine the characters and period in any way. The language gets rough at times as well, though many readers may be unaware of the severity behind some of the swears used. The Reluctant Duke offers a good balance between hitting the traditional markers for Regency romance and the more modern expectations for sexual content in romances without breaking or distracting from the story. It left me curious about the characters’ future, and happy to spend more time with these people.