WARNING: This blog post contains spoilers.
My recent reading has taken me on a journey through time. I began in the Regency Era of Jane Austen with Dangerous Alliance, and now my adventure has landed me in the Victorian Era with Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke.
Bringing Down the Duke is Evie Dunmore’s debut novel. The year is 1879, and Oxford has just opened its doors to its first class of women. This story follows Annabelle Archer, one of those women, as she navigates the suffragette movement and finds herself growing closer to the alluring Duke Sebastian Montgomery.
Annabelle’s is a character of contradictions. While she highly values education, she shows little passion for the suffragette movement initially, using it to pay her way through Oxford rather than joining out of fidelity to the cause. Only once in the novel does she express her passion for the women’s rights movement, as she rants passionately to Duke Montgomery about amending the Women’s Property Act.
Annabelle is a heroine who performs inspiring acts, but seems to “stumble into” trouble rather than thrusting herself into it of her own accord. One prime example is when she gets arrested for hitting a man who touches her friend Hattie inappropriately at a suffragette rally. Yet when thanked for her help, Annabelle demonstrates a frustrating sense of modesty that contradicts her otherwise bold character.
But perhaps the most annoying contradiction in Annabelle’s character is her preoccupation with sexuality and morality. I acknowledge that sexuality remains a taboo subject today, let alone during the Victorian Era — but in such a progressive character, I did not expect to see such conflict between her impulsive urges and her so-called “values.”
Annabelle is a woman who sticks to her principles — by attending Oxford; by joining the suffragette movement — yet quickly abandons them when it comes to Duke Montgomery’s advances. It’s a bold demonstration of how passion can lead a person astray, a problem that has become a repeat problem in Annabelle’s life. Not only have her sexual desires led her to make poor decisions, but her lack of restraint (and especially her temper) get her into trouble in many other ways as well.
Bringing Down the Duke is refreshing in that the main character’s fatal flaw is clearly defined and woven throughout the novel as an important theme. Still, I’m not sure I quite liked that theme. As a feminist, I shudder to think that any woman would write a book imparting the idea that women’s sexual desires are morally wrong. Annabelle fears that her passion for Duke Montgomery will lead her down a path of irreversible self-destruction — and while ultimately, this does not come to pass, the book’s undertone almost seems to scream “wait until marriage.”
As the daughter of a vicar, Annabelle’s negative beliefs about extramarital sex haunt her throughout the novel. Ironically, Annabelle’s attitude toward her sexuality is the only conservative thing about her. Granted, the Victorian Era was not a time of liberal sexual freedom, but as a progressive character who maintains control of every other part of her life, I hated watching Annabelle become reduced to guilt-ridden mush every time she felt a surge of heat between her thighs. The way this guilt is woven into the story raises an important discussion about the rights women still don’t have today — for example, in many ways, our attitude toward sex (especially in religious parts of the world) remains just as conservative as it was in Victorian times — yet contradicts Annabelle’s character in a way I simply could not overlook.
Annabelle holds her principles dear to her, which I commend her for. Still, her beliefs about sexuality reveal that she is not as worldly as she appears to be. Despite her potent overeducation, Annabelle’s attitudes toward sexuality paint her as a naive country girl, which conflicts with her brash and feminist nature. She believes wholeheartedly that if her friends knew about her past, or about her affairs with Duke Montgomery, they would abandon her (despite the fact that they, too, are progressive suffragettes) — but when Caitriona sees her kissing the Duke, she remains discrete. In fact, her friends are clearly aware of the relationship between the two of them, given that the Duke is the first person they call when Annabelle is arrested during the suffragette rally.
Meanwhile, the Duke feels a conspicuous lack of guilt on his part for the passion he feels toward Annabelle — which just goes to show how deeply ingrained gender roles were in Victorian society. Annabelle’s affair and subsequent pregnancy haunt her for years and lead her to become disowned by her family — hence why she is so hesitant to enter into a similar arrangement with Duke Montgomery. She knows that the woman always takes the majority of the blame. Yet while Annabelle must bear the brunt of the scandal, the Duke can gallivant about taking as many sexual conquests as he would like, because he knows he will remain untouchable due to both his status and his gender.
The differences between the two extend far beyond the reach of gender. Sexuality is treated differently in the social circles Duke Montgomery frequents, too — and it shows. Annabelle is deeply offended when the Duke offers her money and status as his mistress, but the fact that he doesn’t blink before offering reveals an important truth that shapes the novel: the two characters live in vastly different worlds, in more ways than one. The most obvious difference is that the Duke’s social class is much higher than Annabelle’s. He doesn’t need to worry about maintaining a roof over his head or getting enough to eat at night, as Annabelle does. But Annabelle’s idealistic country upbringing also draws a sharp contrast between the world of debauchery that Duke Montgomery would have grown up in.
In Duke Montgomery’s world, royalty frequently took mistresses (whom they loved) while marrying for political and social gain, often as their families dictated. His father was a drunk, and so the Duke would have likely been exposed to this dark side of royalty early in life. And the list goes on, and on, and on. Simply put, the realities of being royalty in the 19th century are different from the realities of being a vicar’s daughter — and despite Annabelle’s “worldly” nature, she remains a naive young girl in many ways.
It’s a theme echoed throughout the classics time and time again — Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet. The love interests are “too different” to make a relationship work in the real world. Yet, like Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers of Bringing Down the Duke find a way to come together despite all odds. For Duke Montgomery, this means renouncing his status as a trusted advisor of the Queen, leaving his political party and accepting the humiliation of his peers. Their marriage ties the love story up in a neat bow, leaving a warm and fuzzy feeling long after the book’s conclusion.
Given that the author does a fantastic job of making the reader root for Annabelle and Duke Montgomery as a couple, I welcomed the happy ending while devouring this novel. However, as a critic, I admit the conclusion could have used some bitterness to cut the sweetness of the romantic climax. Sure, the author is correct to note that there are several instances where royalty married their mistresses or commoners out of love — but how often would that really have happened?
In many ways, the book feels as if it exists in a fantasy land; a romanticized version of the Victorian Era that only begins to brush the surface of the adversity women faced at the time. The suffragettes are criticized harshly by men behind closed doors. They are pinched, battered and violated at rallies. Women like Annabelle, who partake in extramarital sexual affairs and political causes, are disowned by their families, kicked out of colleges and forced to leave their apartments due to impropriety, while despicable behaviors by men are grossly overlooked.
But life was still so much easier for Annabelle than for so many other women during that time — women who would not have been able to access her education or her well-paying role as a suffragette. It’s emphasized that Annabelle comes from humble country upbringings, yet it’s important to note that her education sets her apart from so many of her peers. These women would have had no choice but to marry a man who could take care of them (or, alternatively, wind up abusing and berating them), or stay at home with family, who might threaten to kick her out at their first glimpse of improper behavior, forever labeled a spinster. Annabelle’s clandestine relationship with the Duke (and other high-status peers, like Hattie) also provides her with privileges that most women of her social class would not have had. Very few country girls would have attended balls or concerts alongside royalty, been bailed out of jail by a duke or gifted lavish clothing by wealthy friends and suitors — to name just one instance of such romanticization.
Did I enjoy Bringing Down the Duke? Absolutely. It’s a breezy read that brings much-needed attention to the women who did the important work of getting us the vote in the 19th century, and which weaves the tale of a beautiful romance between Annabelle and Duke Montgomery. Yet like so many other historical novels, this book requires one to overlook a number of realities of the time period in favor of the romanticized Victorian Era the author has created.