Book Reviews

The Duke Undone by Joanna Lowell


Content warning: the heroine’s father was an alcoholic. The hero also has tendencies in that direction (I’m not sure if he is strictly an alcoholic, but he definitely drinks when stressed or emotional). There is mistreatment of women with alleged mental health issues. Also, the hero is subtly emotionally abused by his guardian, and it’s horribly realistic.

I seem to be on a bit of a roll reading romances between noble dukes and heroines who are impoverished commoners. The Duke Undone took this trope to some clever (and unexpectedly gothic) places. I enjoyed it quite a bit until the last quarter of the book, when the tone shifted substantially.

Lucy Coover is a talented and aspiring artist, but as a woman, she is forbidden access to life drawing classes. So when she finds a naked man passed out in an alley… well, obviously she covers him up and calls for help, but not before storing his pleasingly muscled form in her memory. After which she makes sketches. And then an entire full-length oil painting of her nude as Endymion. As you do.

Alas for Lucy, her Endymion is in fact Anthony Philby, the new Duke of Weston, who is bound by his father’s will not to cause any kind of scandal before his thirtieth birthday if he wants to have independent control of his estate. And being the highly recognisable nude model in an oil painting (Lucy’s visual memory is excellent and quite detailed) would definitely be a scandal. Anthony is more than capable of making scandals of his own, but being at the centre of one that isn’t actually of his own doing is infuriating, to say the least.

Naturally, he goes looking for the artist with suppression in mind… and is surprised to learn that the artist is a woman.

There is a lot going on in this book, but consent is rather on my mind at the moment, so let’s start with that. I have to say, brilliantly written though the opening scenes were, I was more than a little uneasy with Lucy’s decision to make an unconscious man the subject of her oil painting (though her choice to paint him as Endymion is apt on a variety of levels, most of them uncomfortable). I absolutely understood her instinctive response – here was knowledge that she needed for her art and that she would never otherwise have access to, and I can’t blame her for looking – but making a painting of him and then selling that painting is a whole other matter. He didn’t volunteer to be her model, and if the genders were reversed, the violation of consent would be more obvious. The fact that Anthony is far more powerful than Lucy on every possible axis doesn’t entirely help, because Lucy didn’t know that at the time.

(Also, on a purely pragmatic level, if she was going to paint him, why on earth didn’t she give him someone else’s face?)

Interestingly, consent is handled extremely well elsewhere – when Anthony and Lucy first kiss, she has had quite a bit to drink, and he puts a stop to it:

“That’s enough.” He sighed and there was regret in his voice. “Before… you were falling asleep on your feet.”

“I’m awake now.” More parts of her, more awake than she could remember. She leaned forward and fit her mouth to his. He kissed her back, then lifted his hands and settled them, heavy and hot, on her shoulders. He held her still as he eased out of the kiss.

“Alas.” His smile was gentle. “Consciousness is necessary but not sufficient.”

Also, his sobriety test when she insists that she is indeed sober enough to consent is hilarious.

Lucy and Anthony are both interesting characters. Lucy is one of the few women who have been admitted to the Upper School of Painting, and she is determined to get a picture in the Summer Exhibition. This will bring her recognition, which in turn will bring her commissions, which she badly needs. Unlike the other female students of the school, Lucy is neither a lady nor wealthy. She lives with her Aunt Marian in a tenement which is under threat of demolishment, and works in her Aunt’s (failing) dress shop. While art is her passion and her ambition, she can spend relatively little time on it as she is largely focused on the tasks of daily survival.

Anthony is a second son and former soldier who became the duke when his brother died unexpectedly. He was the more responsible son, but war and his brother’s death took a toll: his experiences left him feeling angry and betrayed, and there is possibly a touch of PTSD going on here. He began to self-medicate with heavy drinking. And then his father died and left him the estate, but under guardianship until his thirtieth birthday. The guardianship will only be lifted on the condition that he neither drink nor cause any kind of scandal during the intervening years. To complicate matters, while Anthony was at war, his sister disappeared after eloping with an actor who then abandoned her. Anthony is extremely worried, but his guardian refuses to look for her. His guardian is also subtly emotionally abusive, and less subtly controlling. Basically, Anthony really needs to escape that guardianship.

(Of course, being an extremely mature and mentally healthy person, Anthony has responded to all of this by…sneaking out of the house periodically to drink and do stupid things. Which is how he came to be lying in that alley, of course. No, this is not logical, but I found it absolutely believable: he has no control over his life, and he resents being treated like a child, so he acts out. Fortunately, he does grow up during the course of the book.)

Did I mention that there is a LOT going on in this story? Friends, this is barely the half of it.

Lucy and Anthony’s relationship is complicated. It’s adversarial, and often takes several steps back for each step forward because they both have pretty powerful motivations driving them, and these are often at odds. Lucy will do whatever it takes to avoid becoming homeless, and Anthony will follow whatever rules he has to if it means he gets to find his sister. And so, even though there is liking and attraction between them from quite early on, they are also reluctantly willing to betray each other if necessary. It’s an interesting foundation for a relationship.

Another barrier to their relationship is Anthony’s issues with alcohol. Lucy’s father was an alcoholic and there is absolutely no way she is going to sign up for a romantic relationship with someone who has similar issues. So Anthony really does have to sort himself out before there is any prospect of them being together.

So why does this relationship work? I think it comes down to the fact that for all the barriers between them, they are actually pretty good at talking to each other. Perhaps this is because they are rather unimpressed with each other from the get-go, so they don’t hide their thoughts or feelings behind a curtain of tact. The issues between them are right out there in broad daylight where they can be dealt with. And they do have sympathy for each other’s circumstances and try to help one another. Once they get past their initial negative impressions, there is a good deal of kindness between them.

One thing I liked about this story is that it is very aware of class. Housing is a recurring theme; early in the book, Anthony is troubled by a letter from a tenant pleading with him to reduce the rents:

My babes have grown so thin, I could keep them in my pincushion.

The old Duke and his agent had decided to knock down the old tenant farmhouses to build more ‘hygienic’ modern ones that turn out not to hold the heat – and then raised the rents.

Meanwhile, Lucy’s tenement is condemned as unsafe by another group of investors bent on gentrifying her corner of London and driving out the current, poorer tenants. Anthony is appalled by these things, not least because it had not previously occurred to him that all these new buildings were not improvements. (And I did like that while Lucy may be part of the reason for his epiphany and newfound commitment to politics, she is not terribly impressed with him suddenly noticing what has been obvious to everyone of her class for years.)

Despite the angst, social consciousness, further angst, and honestly somewhat gothic denouement, this story did not feel dark – at least for the first three quarters or so. Lucy is a very bright, determined heroine, and when we are in her viewpoint, we get to spend a lot of time thinking about painting and art and composition and how to get it right. I don’t have a very good visual imagination, but Lucy thinks so well in pictures that even I could see it. Lucy’s friend Kate is also a delight, and the tentative friendship Lucy and Kate begin to form with Gwen, and their ‘circle’ of female artists was lovely.

Having said that, I did feel as though the book was a little uneven. There was, as I have mentioned, a LOT going on, and there was a substantial tonal shift in the last portion of the book. A number of distressing secrets are revealed, the gaslighting became more overt, and it was pretty hard to read. While everything did end well in the end, several characters went through unnecessary hell to get there.

For me, The Duke Undone is an ambitious book that mostly lives up to its ambitions. I really liked the explorations of class, and I liked the way the relationship between Lucy and Anthony was complicated for really good reasons – there was no big misunderstanding here, just really messy, difficult circumstances. I loved reading about Lucy’s art, and that conversation between Anthony and Lucy about consent was tender and hot and also very, very funny.

But the harrowing details of what happens to some the women were rough going for me. Anthony’s controlling guardian was also perhaps a little too well-drawn for my liking. It dredged up memories. And I’m still a bit uneasy about that first scene. I really wish the text had acknowledged it as problematic. For me, that pushes it down to a B minus. But if you like your romances with a good dose of angst, class-consciousness, and art, I think The Duke Undone will suit you.

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