If you read a lot of historical romance, chances are you’ve read about enough dukes to populate a medium size town. You may have also heard people complaining that there are “too many dukes” in historical romance.
It’s true that British dukes are scarce compared to, say, grocers or people named Mr. Smith. Or even grocers named Smith. But there were perhaps more dukes around during the early nineteenth century than at any other time in English history. During the reign of Elizabeth I there was only one duke. After the Regency period, there were created fewer than half a dozen, the last in 1900. Apart from members of the royal family, there hasn’t been a single dukedom created since. (Winston Churchill was offered one and refused it.)
Dukes are very grand. There’s not so much distinction between the other ranks of the peerage but dukes are definitely special, hence their appeal. They are the Italian billionaires of historical romance, possessed of peculiar glamor. Here are some of the special duke perks.
(a) They are never Lord So-and-so, always the Duke of ____
(b) They are the only peers addressed as Your Grace
(c) The monarch calls them cousin, whether they are related or not. (Of course they often are)
(d) Putting duke in the title of your romance sells an extra 5000 copies. (That’s the rumor, anyway. I’ve never tested the hypothesis but perhaps I should)
You don’t get made a duke for just any old reason. When I create a duke (or any other peer but especially a duke) I give him a whole family history to explain where he fits in the rarefied levels of the aristocratic hierarchy. Also it gives me a chance to consult one of my very favorite research books, The Dukes by Brian Masters. First published in 1975 and revised a few years later, the book chronicles the twenty-six British dukedoms then remaining (a couple have become extinct since then.) It’s a terrific read, full of fascinating history and gossip.
One chapter has the marvelous heading “Bright Sons of Sublime Prostitution”, chronicling the dukes who were ennobled for being bastards of Charles II. I’m writing about the descendant of one of those now. The Duke of Hampton, father of my hero Blake in the forthcoming CONFESSIONS OF AN ARRANGED MARRIAGE, is an important politician. I based his family on the Dukes of Portland, going back to William Bentinck, a Dutchman who came to England with William of Orange and founded a famous political dynasty.
Let’s face it, there aren’t many true-life historical dukes who can match the hotness of our fictional variety: young, devastatingly handsome, boundlessly inventive in bed, and possessed of interesting emotional pains that only a heroine can assuage. The modern romance writer has perfected the duke. Yet dukes have appeared in novels for a long time. Here are a few progenitors of the romance duke, ones the writer didn’t QUITE get right.
Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium. Planty Pal as he was known (not a good hero name) is a central figure in a series of six novels by the nineteenth century novelist Anthony Trollope. Lady Glencora, a great heiress, enters an arranged marriage with Plantagenet, even though she is in love with Burgo Fitzgerald (bound to be a bounder with a name like that). In a real romance Plantagenet would be hot but troubled and he and Glencora would fall madly in love. Actually, after a rocky start, their marriage is a happy one and they become quietly devoted. Glencora supports his political career, sometimes disastrously. (I admit my upcoming Minerva owes a little to Lady Glen.) Plantagenet, though a truly good man, remains a bit on the dull side.
The Duke of Dorset from Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm. This 1911 satirical novel tells the story of the ultimate femme fatale, and the Duke of Dorset who falls in love with her. Dorset is a paragon: a great scholar, superb sportsman, talented artist and “the best amateur pianist on this side of the Tweed.” The descriptions of his estates and jewels could have inspired a hundred Regency dukedoms, and then there’s his appearance, seen through Zuleika’s eyes in gloriously purple prose. (Note the lovely period use of the word plastic!)
Rapt, she studied every lineament of the pale and perfect face–the brow from which bronze-coloured hair rose in tiers of burnished ripples; the large steel-coloured eyes, with their carven lids; the carven nose, and the plastic lips. She noted how long and slim were his fingers, and how slender his wrists. She noted the glint cast by the candles upon his shirt-front. The two large white pearls there seemed to her symbols of his nature. They were like two moons: cold, remote, radiant.
The story doesn’t have an HEA. All men fall in love with Zuleika but she can only love a man who doesn’t love her back. The novel ends with the entire undergraduate population of Oxford (including the duke) drowning themselves while Zuleika boards a train to Cambridge. Beerbohm needs to go back to romance writer school.
The Duc de Sauveterre from Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. Our heroine Linda is stranded in a Parisian railway station when she is picked up by the duke. He sweeps her off to be his mistress, installing her in a flat with goldfish swimming in the sides of the bath tub and dressing her in couture clothes. And Linda, who has dumped two husbands already, finally finds a man who is good in bed. Ah, Fabrice! Ducal perfection marred only by the fact he (sob) dies in World War II.
Personal confession: When I was in college I took a train from London to Milan that was supposed to have a three hour stopover in Paris. I had it all planned. Like Linda I would sit on my suitcase in the Gare du Nord and weep. A gorgeous French duke would find me and sweep me off my feet. The best laid plans … The train was diverted and I had to wait three hours in Basle, Switzerland. They don’t even have dukes in Switzerland. What kind of a country is that?
Do you like dukes? Of course you do! This is The Ballroom! Let’s talk about our favorite fictional dukes, especially those with happy endings.