I really wanted to like Duchess if You Dare. A historical with a fierce and street-wise heroine who all-too-frequently has to rescue the stuffy duke from his attempts to make things better? Yes, please.
Alas, it really didn’t work for me. The relationship between Scarlett and Ambrose made absolutely no emotional sense, and I found the narrative’s treatment of sex workers to be quite distressing and dehumanising.
Scarlett is the daughter of a sex worker who was murdered when Scarlett was a child. Having achieved financial security through a stroke of luck, and made several friends from higher echelons of society (also by chance), she has dedicated her life to righting the wrongs inflicted on women, especially poor women, by upper class men. As the founder of the ‘Maidens of Mayhem’, she has no interest in men or marriage, and is principally concerned that her seamstress friend has disappeared and that nobody seems to care about this.
Meanwhile, Ambrose, the Duke of Aylesford, may be stuffy and rather humourless, but when his scapegrace brother gets himself into trouble at a brothel, trying to defend a sex worker who is being harmed by one of her clients, he reluctantly becomes involved. And when his brother expresses concern about women disappearing from the brothel under suspicious circumstances, Ambrose agrees to investigate.
Ambrose and Scarlett cross paths when it turns out that her friend had been working a second job at that same brothel, and they rather reluctantly join forces to try to find out what is going on.
I had a number of problems with this novel. The first is that I just did not believe in Ambrose and Scarlett’s relationship. They seemed to have a lot of Insta-Lust going on, but there wasn’t much evidence of friendship or even mutual respect until late in the book, and I wasn’t convinced that they were good for each other as a couple. Ambrose is determined to protect Scarlett from everything, even though she is tougher and a better fighter than he is (I actually liked that side of it – of course someone who grew up on the streets is going to be better at real-world fighting than someone who has only ever fenced or boxed for fun). He never really gets over this disparity. Meanwhile, Scarlett goes from finding him annoying and interfering to seeing him through rose-coloured glasses for no apparent reason.
Most of all, though, Ambrose did a thorough job of insisting upon the barrier of class between them – and then failed to convince me that he could overcome his reservations so easily. I didn’t really see any reason for his change or growth. All I see is that he suddenly becomes super possessive and protective of Scarlett, and the next thing I know, he wants to marry her, only he can’t, because he needs a respectable wife and an heir. He spends a lot of time angsting over the fact that he can’t marry her…and then he decides to marry her.
He seems to fall in love with her in spite of himself. I never got the sense that he changed his views on sex workers and class, just that he decides it doesn’t matter because his only family is his brother anyway, and so it’s not really a problem, despite his being convinced that it was a problem a few chapters prior. Why did he change his mind? I have no idea.
I also found it hard to believe that Scarlett would go from never wanting to marry because her work was too important to marrying someone who wanted her to stop that work. Why did she change her mind? Again, I have no idea.
Also in the category of Emotional Realism: Lack Thereof is the fact that late in the book, Scarlett is betrayed in a particularly awful way by someone she considered a friend. It’s terrible, and she winds up having to indirectly kill that person to escape, and then she rushes back to Ambrose, her true love, and never really thinks about it again. It seemed to me that there ought to have been some emotional fallout from this, but nope.
Another thing that bothered me was the way sex workers were treated as disposable plot devices. The entire adventure plot revolves around Scarlett and Ambrose trying to foil a network of people who are luring sex workers away from the (extremely) relative safety of the brothel into outright sexual slavery, and yet this whole plot mostly serves as a way to bring Ambrose and Scarlett together and to put Scarlett in peril. The villains are foiled, but the women who have been trafficked into slavery remain enslaved: they have apparently been trafficked overseas, and there doesn’t seem to be any thought of trying to find them and help them escape captivity. Even more frustratingly, the only sex workers who get any sort of character development are the ones who are complicit in the plot to harm their colleagues.
I have a hard time reading books where the sexual abuse and slavery of women is used to advance the plot, without any of these women getting agency or a narrative of their own. And that goes double when the book is one which is clearly trying to be all feminist and girl-power in its narrative. It feels like it’s missing its own point.
(Also, if I am going to be forced to imagine the sexual abuse and slavery of women, I really want some catharsis afterwards. I want to see them escape and destroy their captors and live their best lives. I don’t want the narrative to kind of shrug at the fact that clearly a whole bunch of women still are enslaved, but hey, at least these particular villains won’t be doing that any more.)
I can’t recommend this novel. For me, it failed as a romance, and it failed in how it dealt with the issues it raised. It escapes an F solely because I really did like Scarlett, at least before she fell in love. I would have been very happy with a novel about Scarlett roaming the streets, meting out justice to the wicked, and having hair-raising escapes.
Alas, all I got was Scarlett falling in love with a duke whom I never warmed to, giving up her career to marry a man who spent most of the book being condescending and controlling, and who ended a career she loved, after a number of women were treated as disposable plot devices. To me, that’s not a happy ending.