Ten Things I Hate About You is one of my favourite films and a truly great reimagining of a classic play. It takes Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and strips out the misogyny, the violence, and the straight up gaslighting and abuse, while keeping the banter and the chemistry between Kate and Petrucchio.
Ten Things I Hate About the Duke takes Shrew in one hand and Ten Things in the other, stirs them together, adds a liberal serving of supporting characters, an umbrella fight, and a pinch of Mary Wollstonecraft and sets them in Victorian England to bake until utterly charming.
I adored this book. Cass is a ferociously intelligent, angry heroine and Ashford adores both her anger and her intelligence. Lord Frederick and Lady Charles, Ashford’s uncle and Cass’s aunt, respectively, clearly have A Past that is too delicate to be spoken of, but even as they sort out the lives of the younger generation, we see them circle each other in what is surely the start of a secondary, second-chance romance. Cass’s family is clever and political and loving and argumentative and altogether delightful. And there are little references to Shrew, Ten Things, and The Vindication of the Rights of Women scattered throughout the text like chocolate chips in a cookie. And yes, I’m back to food metaphors again, but it’s not my fault, because this book is utterly delicious.
Cass is full of political energy and not-at-all suppressed rage at the limitations her gender puts on her ability to do anything with that energy. She is a member of the Andromeda Society, a charitable organisation for ladies which ‘fights the dragons of poverty and ignorance’, helping poor women in practical ways from letter-writing campaigns, to teaching literacy and sewing skills to women trying to find respectable employment, to preventing illegal evictions of families by unscrupulous landlords.
But she also isn’t afraid to express her political opinions out loud at public meetings – she is both hurt by, and embraces, epithets such as ‘shrew’, ‘gorgon’ and ‘Medusa’.
“Also known as Cassandra Prophet of Doom, which she is, she opens her mouth and horrible nightmare things come out.”
Her opinions and the way she has expressed them have started literal riots. These are, as it happens, more strategic than you might suppose, but her father, Lord deGriffith, a Member of Parliament who takes his work very seriously, is nonetheless unimpressed:
“In a matter of hours I have become a joke among my colleagues,” Lord deGriffith said as he paced his study. “My daughter could not leave it to me to deal with Owsley and his defective bill, but felt obliged to raise questions herself, in a public place, to make us the laughingstocks of London.”
While Lord deGriffith has no objection to Cassandra’s beliefs (and indeed shares many of them), he has very strong objections to her behaviour, which he views as undermining her sister Hyacinth’s chances. Thus, we have the classic Taming of the Shrew set up. DeGriffin declares that there is no point giving Hyacinth a season while Cassandra is still unmarried and stirring up trouble. Which is a problem, because Cass – unlike Kate in Shakespeare’s play – loves her younger sister as much as she loathes the injustice of their situation.
Where there is a Kate there must be a Petrucchio, and in this role, we have Lucius Wilmot Beckingham, the sixth Duke of Ashmont. Ashmont has led a disreputable and rakish lifestyle, and is known for his love of elaborate and outrageous pranks – though he does, at least, always pay generously for the damage he leaves in his wake.
When we first meet Ashford, he is exceedingly drunk, having just fought a duel with his best friend. In a moment of further drunken stupidity, he fires his pistol into the air just as Cass is driving by, startling her horses and causing an accident that severely injures her groom and bodyguard, Keeffe.
For me, this crossed a line which I wasn’t sure Ashford could come back from; drunken debauchery is one thing, but severely injuring another person is another. The narrative thought so too, and I was pleased that it treated Keeffe as a person and not just a plot device. This is Ashford’s moment of hitting rock bottom – the first problem he has ever faced that he can’t fix simply by throwing money at it – but neither we nor he get to make Keeffe’s injury all about Ashford. Keeffe is a significant character in his own right.
Perhaps Ashford’s only saving grace at this point in the book is that he knows what he is:
He was an arsehole. He knew this. All the same, even he had lines he didn’t cross. Precious few, but there they were.
This morning, he had come close to killing Ripley, two women, and one of England’s greatest jockeys. Even now, it was even odds Keeffe would make it.
All of it done with the same pistol.
(OK, he does have one other saving grace. He is observant enough, considerate enough, and wealthy enough to ensure that Cassandra has what she needs to nurse Keeffe, up to and including people reminding her to eat, and a change of clothes, since hers are soaked through and muddy. As Ashford frequently reminds us, carrying out a good prank requires a fair bit of logistical ability, and when he puts this ability to work for more productive ends, he is actually a very competent and useful person to have around. Of course, this only makes the previous waste of his talents more enraging…).
Ashford is also immediately impressed with Cassandra.
“She got thrown out of a carriage… Did she lie there, moaning and groaning and waiting for help? No. First thing she does, she sits up and knocks me over with her hat. Then, I’m lying on the ground, only wanting to be let be for a minute or two, so I don’t cast up my accounts. She throws a bucket of water on me and makes me do this and that and march a mile with her, while she fusses over her tiger. I ask her to marry me, and she throws a teapot at me…. Then, I make a lunatic move, and try to lay hands on her—and she knocks me back over a gallery rail and leaves me dangling.”
I mean, you know he’s falling in love with her right there. And yes, his reasons for doing so strike me as questionable, but Ashford is a hero very much in the mold of the Marquess of Dain, or Rupert Carsington: big; not quite as dense as he pretends to be, but not as smart as the heroine; and never happier than when fighting.
Anyway. Cass is not fool enough to marry Ashford, even for the sake of her reputation, and Ashford is rich enough to make the scandal of their meeting never have happened, and they go their separate ways. End of story.
Except, of course, that this is a romance, so it’s actually only the beginning…
Entertaining as the opening is, it’s actually not very promising on a romantic level. Yes, there is attraction between the two of them, but also, Ashford is a walking disaster, and Cass is not the sort of woman who is excited by the challenge of reforming a man. Why spend your energy fixing one person when there is a whole society that needs fixing?
(And Cass and Wollstonecraft between them have gotten into my head, because I am suddenly infuriated by all those narratives where the heroine puts her time and love and energy into saving the hero from himself – just think of what she could do if she applied all of that to art or to her career or to saving the world, or whatever else she liked, and married a grownup instead! Bloody patriarchy infesting our romantic narratives…)
Fortunately, Ashford recognises at once that if he is ever going to convince Cass to marry him, he’s going to have to reform, and he will need to do that work himself. It takes him a fair while to work out just how to do that work, but right from the start, he is clear that this is his problem, and not Cass’s. And this is where the story goes in the opposite direction from Shakespeare’s play, because Cass is fine just as she is, whereas Ashford is both tamer and tamed.
This is reflective of the fact that Ashford respects Cass right from the start. He sees her as a real person and as his equal – as his intellectual superior, in fact – and it never occurs to him to pull his punches or let her win. When they fight, be it with words or with umbrellas, they do so as equals, and for Cass, that is irresistible.
Also, the banter is pure gold:
“Well done, fair lady. You’ve turned my joke upon me and made a fool of me in front of my friends.”
“Fair gentleman, it took no effort,” she said. “Playing the fool is something you’ve rehearsed at length. All one need do is step aside and leave you to it.”
“You’ve studied me?”
“In depth and great detail,” she said. “In the way one studies strange life forms. Have you never looked into a microscope, at a drop of some liquid, and marveled at the curious creatures wriggling about in it?”
He was aware of laughter, but more aware of her. “Never.”
“You need to broaden your horizons,” she said.
“I will,” he said. “Most willingly. Show me to your microscope, fair philosopher. Show me anything and everything. I’m yours to command.”
“Very well,” she said. “I show you the door.”
I also loved Cass’s family. Lord deGriffith is a man of his time – he is the head of his household, and makes the rules – but his wife is clearly his confidante and advisor, and while she defers to him in public, this appears to be more a matter of manners than anything else. And deGriffith, foolish vows notwithstanding, genuinely loves his daughters. When Cass becomes embroiled in a scandal that could embarrass him and ruin her, his chief concern is that she will be alright, and that the man she marries will respect her as much as he respects Cass’s mother – a very high bar.
DeGriffith also agrees with Cass that their world is unfair to women, but he also feels that this is something that can’t be changed and therefore must be lived with. This was probably a realistic attitude for the time, but nonetheless, I couldn’t help but side-eye a man who has wealth and political power simply shrugging off the rights of women as something he can’t do anything about, especially when that man is a progressive in matters such as slavery, industrial relations and child labour. And while Cass’s political and social work is highly pragmatic – the bill she is so incensed by is a Sabbath Bill, a typical morality bill of its time, purporting to make the Sabbath a day of rest and reflection but in fact preventing people of the working class from attending to their physical needs on their only free day or half day – the Andromeda Society itself does not appear to include working class women in its membership or individuals who aren’t White.
Cass’s sister Hyacinth is a complete delight. She is sweet and demure and kind-hearted and gentle, and also a consummate politician in the making. She is extremely adept at the social game, and encourages young Morris Tertius to court her not because she wants to marry him, necessarily – she hasn’t decided about that – but because she thinks he might be useful to her father. You can see that she will make a brilliant political hostess one day.
Interestingly, Hyacinth respects Morris enough to include him in a difficult conversation late in the book, and I loved how when he expressed puzzlement about this, Ashford quoted this passage from A Vindication of the Rights of Women:
Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, OUTWARD obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives.
This passage is Shakespeare’s Bianca to a T, and it is also the public role played by both Hyacinth and her mother. But it is not their whole selves, and the fact that Hyacinth is willing to reveal more than this façade to Morris suggests that there might be hope for him yet.
But wait, I hear you say – when did Ashford start reading Mary Wollstonecraft?
Early on, Cass reflects that:
Every woman ought to read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before she turned eighteen, then once a year thereafter.
And so, when Ashford decides he needs to understand Cass and the things she cares about better, Wollstonecraft is where he starts.
Readers, I melted.
(and that’s not even talking about a certain scene at the end which I won’t spoil for you. Just, be prepared to swoon.)
Ten Things I Hate About The Duke was a joy to read. I loved Cass, and Hyacinth, and Lord Frederick, and Lady Charles, and so many other characters I haven’t even mentioned! – and by the end, I even loved Ashmont. The humour and banter was delightful, but this was also a book with a lot of heart. I loved watching Ashmont become a person he could respect; I loved his tenderness and respect for Cass, I loved the affection within Cass’s family, and I loved imagining the future that Cass and Ashford would have together.
It’s a definite squee from me.