My Last Duchess is pure, frothy, Georgian-era historical escapism. Reading it felt like being wrapped up in a warm blanket while watching a picturesque snowfall outside. I can’t say it was particularly substantial or thought-provoking, but for the most part, it was a pleasure.
This book is a prequel to Eloisa James’ ongoing Wildes of Lindow Castle series about the numerous Wilde offspring and their exploits. My Last Duchess tells the tale of how the father of the Wilde heroes and heroines, Hugo, met his third and final wife, Ophelia. Hugo and Ophelia are portrayed as being very besotted with each other in the main series so I was definitely curious to see how they met and fell in love initially. While it can definitely stand alone, I think this book is enhanced by having read the previous Wilde books. It was just really fun to see all of the Wilde children as, well, children. Aunt Knowe is also present and as usual she is a delight.
This book is charming, romantic, and funny. It begins basically the moment Hugo’s scandalous divorce from his runaway ex-duchess is finalized. Hugo’s sister, Lady Knowe, tells him he needs to go find a new wife to mother his children, partly to help them weather the scandal of his divorce. Hugo is not really enthused about this prospect but he agrees to go to London. Once he arrives, he sees Ophelia from across a ballroom and pretty much falls in love at first sight.
Ophelia is a young, wealthy widow with a toddler daughter she adores. She had a pleasant, companionable marriage with her first husband and is not terribly interested in marrying again. While there are a few hiccups along the way, the plot is basically “a besotted Hugo tries to get Ophelia to agree to marry him.”
Now, “man tries to get reluctant woman to agree to marry him” is NOT a plot I am normally down with, as it often peddles harmful tropes about not taking no for an answer and merrily disrespecting women’s wishes as the way to their hearts. As such, I found myself quite impressed that the romance in this book won me over and did not skeeve me out.
I think it works for a few reasons. First, Hugo does his best to express to Ophelia that he would cherish and love her, but he ultimately wants her to be happy and understands that if that means she does not want to be his duchess he can accept that. After she first refuses him, he thinks:
Could he subject Ophelia to that much scrutiny? He looked around him. The breakfast room was painted pale green, and plaster arabesques covered the ceiling. Every piece of furniture was exquisite, and each spoke to Ophelia’s taste.
In contrast, Lindow Castle was a hodgepodge, a huge, sprawling melange of towers and wings, with secret passages, suits of armor, dusty tapestries, endless staircases. A stuffed alligator resided in the drawing room, and the family peacock screamed warnings at any time of day or night.
Marie had been raised to be a member of the peerage. She hadn’t blinked an eye at miles of bookshelves, tottering retainers grown old in service to the
duckyduchy fourteen sets of china.
She had created a home for her daughter: a beautiful, graceful place.
His heart settled like a stone. He couldn’t do this to her. She might come to blame, if not hate him.
In general, Hugo is a gem of a hero in terms of respecting women’s agency and emotions. Even when he thinks about his ex-duchess, who really did him and their children dirty by running away with a Prussian count, he takes responsibility for his own part in the breakup of their marriage:
He had been married to Yvette for six years, and fathered four children with her, and he still hadn’t understood her. Nothing seemed to please her: not him, not the title, the castle, the children, nothing.
Even so, she had wanted—she had deserved—more from him.
“She ran off with Yaraslov because I didn’t give a damn,” he said, meeting his sister’s eyes squarely.
Throughout, Hugo seems thoughtful, emotionally aware, and sensitive. He also sets his own boundaries in his relationship with Ophelia. Namely, even though Ophelia is willing, he tells her he won’t have sex with her if she does not want to marry him because he won’t be able to handle being with her but not marrying her. I found it refreshing to have a historical hero who sets these kinds of emotional boundaries to protect himself.
I think the romance also works because it’s clear from the get-go that what holds Ophelia back is not a lack of interest or affection for Hugo but fear—fear of changing up her comfortable and stable independent life, fear that she can’t trust Hugo’s interest in her as genuine, fear that she’s not really fit to be a duchess. So for Ophelia, believing that she can be with Hugo and it won’t be a disaster is somewhat of a self-empowerment move.
In addition to a sweet romance, the dialogue is a highlight here. Every character is full of pithy witticisms. Ophelia has a cousin, Maddie, who is quite funny. At the ball where Hugo first meets Ophelia, Maddie opines:
“My point is that you are lucky because you needn’t deal with a man ever again. You don’t have to hear snoring, or a lecture about what asparagus does to his digestive system, or be smirked at by his mistress–who happens to be wearing diamond earrings tonight, by the way!”
“As are you,” Ophelia observed.
“Exactly the same earrings,” Maddie said. “I like your emeralds much better than my diamonds, which my husband apparently bought in bulk.”
I found myself smiling and laughing during most of my reading experience. This is a fun book! However, there were a couple of things I did not love.
First, ageism is somewhat of a problem in the latter part of this story. Believing Ophelia will never marry him, Hugo starts to court a suitable woman who is perhaps 10 years older than him, Lady Woolhastings. She is repeatedly described as still being quite attractive, and has already launched daughters in society, which is part of why he courts her to be a mother figure to his own daughters. However, it quickly becomes clear she is not the woman for him.
Now, the primary reason she is not a good choice for him is because she seems to really, really dislike children and the Wildes have a pretty modern nuclear-family type household where the kids aren’t just handed off to nannies and governesses all the time. Unfortunately, the book ends up making much of the age difference as a second major reason why she is unsuitable for Hugo.
In fact, as part of their strategy to dissuade her from marrying Hugo, Ophelia’s cousin Maddie and Lady Knowe basically spend several pages preying on Lady Woolhastings’ insecurities about her age and making fun of her for being old. For example:
“I am feeling unwell,” the lady announced.
“If you’ll forgive me, you do look rather sallow,” Maddie said. “I well remember when your daughter and I attended our first balls together, my mother often retired to bed exhausted.”
“At your age, dear lady, it is always best to retire early with a restorative,” Lady Knowe said sympathetically. “My own dear mother—”
Lady Woolhastings bridled. “I am not the age of your mother!”
This troubling focus on Lady Woolhastings’ age is compounded by the fact that the age difference between Hugo and Ophelia is just as large in the other direction!
It would be one thing if I got the sense from this book that the characters were supposed to seem shallow or wrong for playing into Lady Woolhastings age-related insecurity and mocking her supposed unsuitability due to her age. But Maddie and Lady Knowe’s actions are portrayed as a kind of mischievous heroism that helps enable Ophelia and Hugo to ride off into the sunset together. I just found it totally unnecessary, as it was very clear without the ageism that Lady Woolhastings was not compatible with Hugo on an interpersonal or family level. The fact that the book seems to endorse the idea that older man/younger woman is romantic but older woman/younger man is silly or embarrassing really bothered me. Like, drop almost a letter grade bothered me.
There are a couple other things I want to touch on that are not quite criticism but I think will help inform the potential reader. First, I want to talk a little bit about how this book engages with history. At this point, I almost feel as though I should be calling much of the historical romance genre “historical-inspired” instead of “historical.” This includes My Last Duchess, which portrays the most glamorous superficial trappings of the Georgian era and glosses over any of the troubling realities of what it would be like to actually live in Georgian England. I find this book functions best read as a love story set during a beautiful, glittering fantasy of history that never happened.
I say this primarily because when the book did attempt to acknowledge anything resembling the gritty historical reality, it was pretty cringe-inducing. Namely, at one point, one of Hugo’s small children, Betsy, notices a poor boy (identified as poor because his “coat isn’t very nice”) ice-skating while holding the rope on the back of their sleigh. She summons him over, gives him a sovereign, and tells him “We think you should be in the circus” as though the whole thing was for her entertainment. It’s kind of…icky.
I, personally, would have much preferred that we had just continued to pretend poverty didn’t exist in Georgian England, instead of weirdly instrumentalizing a poor child to show how “charitable” a cute rich child is. Thankfully, most of the The Last Duchess stays in the register of mountains of wealth whose source we aren’t asked to examine, beautiful ballgowns and gorgeous little carriages, and witty repartee between the idle rich.
I also want to note that there is nothing to write home about here in terms of representation. Every character in this book is White (with the exception of Parth, Hugo’s young ward, who is half-Indian) and assumed to be heterosexual. It’s probably because I actively seek out more diverse historicals these days, but it does make the book feel almost a little out of touch, and I did find myself longing afterwards for the same kind of frothy “historical-inspired” book with more diversity.
As I said up top, this book is overall an enjoyable read, and also pretty flimsy in that it deals with little of substance. I don’t mean this in a dismissive way, as I think it’s really important and valuable to have books that are just pleasurable and don’t actually require the reader to think too hard about much of anything. If a historical-themed, low-angst, total escape from the world is what you are looking for, My Last Duchess is a good one. Also, it’s quite a quick read (I’m unsure whether to call it a short novel or a long novella), so it does not require a big investment, further adding to its Frothy Entertainment Value.™