On a whim, I bought a brand-new edition of The Duchess by Jude Deveraux as a 21st birthday gift to myself. The copy you read—mass market paperback, scarlet, an embossed image of a portrait-ed brooch on the cover—has long gone. Somewhere. You haven’t bothered to look.
This book was our introduction to the romance novel. Remember that you read it because you had run out of books in the house? It must have been summer; I knew it was afternoon because I can still feel the heat of the day. You wandered into the spare bedroom. You rummaged through the forgotten paraphernalia on the bedside table: old copies of Reader’s Digests and National Geographics [your grandfather’s subscriptions], a Catcher in the Rye first edition that you tossed aside [even young, you have good taste], a book about maternity wear, some Barbara Cartlands, a Mills & Boon that had a woman in aerobics gear on the cover. And three books by this woman named Jude Deveraux [what a lofty name!]—The Maiden, The Heiress, and The Duchess.
It was The Duchess that you read first. My new copy’s still on the futon [yes, twelve years later you are back to sleeping on the floor—but do not worry, most nights you sleep with the best man beside you]. You read this book all afternoon. You curled up in the bed, sans sheets, bed springs a-poking and all—the heat was ridiculous, it was. You read, you read. I wish there was some way I could see you as you were that afternoon, that I could walk in on you curled up in that ugly bare bed, you with your large feet and your stubborn curls [you will love your curls soon enough, darling], you so very rapt.
Remember how dismissive you’d been about the bulk of the junk on that bedside table? You’d already read all the Reader’s Digests, dog-eared the “Laughter is the Best Medicine” sections. The other books, you sniffed at. Ah, you snob. You peeked at one Cartland: There was a blonde girl, a cliff, a windy night. These books—and the others like it—didn’t interest you. They must have been your great-grandmother Ada’s, from when she stayed over. Or maybe even your grandmother, who knows? Certainly not your aunts, you thought then. And definitely not your mother’s. I still don’t know whose Deverauxs and Cartlands those were; I don’t know if I’m ever going to ask.
But you were reading The Duchess. You were in love. With Claire, her intelligence, her curiosity, her occasionally damning innocence—her dreams and disappointments. You were in love with that mysterious stranger, possibly the second fictional man to ever make you blush—the first of course, was Edward Fairfax Rochester, who you’d met months before. You were even in love with this beautiful child named Brat. There were towers and kilts and whiskey and parchment and horses and gowns. And love. Such complex, convoluted love.
You smiled, you sniggered, you gaped. In several pages, a dull ache bloomed in your chest, at the tips of your fingers: Claire crying, Trevelyan’s moods. You’ve felt this ache a number of times before, but it was the first time you felt it while in another person’s world. [There will be more aches like this; you are fortunate.]
You will reread this book twelve years later. I am twenty-one, and I am a very tall girl who still likes to spend afternoons reading. What follows, dear, are my impressions of my rekindled romance with The Duchess—I will try to recount how you felt when you first read this, but know that I won’t try to stifle my feelings this time around. No worries. It is still perfect, no matter how literary-grouchy this 21-year-old has become. Here goes:
Claire Willoughby is an American heiress who will only get—and control—her inheritance if she marries a man her [ridiculously irresponsible] parents approve of. Enter Harry Montgomery, the 11th Duke of MacArran, virtually a perfect man: a bonnie blonde lad in a kilt. They get engaged—because Harry needs the money, and mostly because Claire hears bagpipes whenever she looked at Harry.
Claire is peculiar. As a child, reading her, I was endlessly charmed by her, was always in awe of her strengths and her principles. She is, I know now, the prototype of SashaLand’s Most Loved Spunky Heroines. She’s this beguiling mix of intelligence and innocence—an intelligence cultivated by [forbidden] books. I know now, too, that she is very flawed, as a person and as a fictional character. She grasps her principles [misguided or otherwise] too tightly at times, even at the risk of losing her happiness. She’s stubborn and occasionally annoying because of this.
But she’s Claire Willoughby. She’s one of my [our] first friends.
And so the Willoughby family travel to Scotland—Claire meets an eccentric cast of characters, in an eerie house. Among them, Trevelyan, who is the epitome of the Mysterious Stranger trope. In the rereading, I realize that they meet in a reversal of the Jane Eyre first meeting: Claire is thrown off a horse and she imperiously sends this pale and gaunt stranger to rescue the animal. Thus I was reunited with Trevelyan.
If Rochester was the first [fictional] man I ever fell in love with, Trevelyan is a close second [with Dorian Grey trailing at third—do not judge me]. Trevelyan is pretty much perfect, and he has remained perfect to me all these years. For me, he set the bar for all compelling-and-brooding romance novel heroes thereafter. He’s grumpy, intelligent and enigmatic, surly and just the right kind of dangerous. He’s an affective mix of little-boy-lost, bitter-old-man, and just plain Yumminess.
A strong bond develops between Trevelyan and Claire, one built on friendship. They’re both two very lonely people—both of them strangers in an eerie Scottish castle so backward in its ways, so despotic in its principles. It’s this loneliness that’s a driving force to their many meetings, even decisions. They’re drawn to each other for companionship, for conversation. In Trevelyan, Claire finds someone to talk to, a “stranger” with whom she can share every aspect of her life. In Claire, Trevelyan finds a person unafraid to challenge his views, even his work—someone direly needs to pierce his Broody Self.
This is a romance novel, and so a romance blooms between these two. Never mind that Claire is engaged, and is resolute that she loves Harry. Never mind that Trevelyan is intent on leaving forever, and is certain that he is not the right man Claire needs. Oh, angst!
It is imperative that they fight the attraction; there’s too much at stake: Claire’s future, Trevelyan’s freedom; the meddling of the evil-incarnate Dowager Duchess, Trevelyan’s explained-later hatred of the Montgomery clan. Older now, I could scream at the book: Relent, dammit, relent!
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Tell me what to do.”
Her turned her around to face him and stared into her eyes. “You have to make your own decision I won’t make it for you. No once can live another person’s life.”
It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. Why couldn’t he be like other men and tell her that he loved her, that he wanted her? Why couldn’t he say that he’d kill her or Harry or both of them if they so much as looked at each other again?
There is a constant undercurrent of sensuality. Of course. What could the nine-year-old Sasha have thought when an undecipherable look passed between these two? What went through her head when Trevelyan flirted so carelessly, if only to tease Claire into abandoning her occasional prudish countenance? Even her conviction that it was Harry she loved?
Who knows anymore? But one thing is certain: This 21-year-old swooned.
Perhaps one of the most telling facets of this entire experience is that there is that one scene that has stuck with me forever. So that whenever someone asks me why I read romance novels, why I even began this endeavor, it is this scene that immediately springs to mind. A scene that this 21-year-old can recite verbatim. A scene that, upon rereading, is exactly as I have remembered it all these years:
Although she knew it was wrong, although she told herself she shouldn’t—couldn’t say another word, she heard herself whisper, “Vellie.” It was the smallest whisper in the world, so quiet, so soft that the breeze in the trees overhead completely covered it.
But Trevelyan heard it. One second he was what seemed to be miles away from her and the next he was in her arms and his lips were on hers.
The walls have stayed with me, the chill of that night. The trees overhead, Claire’s dress, Trevelyan’s hair. That whisper, the relenting. Goodness.
But. Ah, but. As happy as this rereading already is, as fulfilling as all this has been, I can’t be blind to the fact that this book is no longer technically perfect. I may have gained plenty from this rereading—joy, renewed love for the genre, tearful and uplifting nostalgia—but it cannot be ignored: This is a flawed book.
Particularly the last third of the novel, which direly needs to be scrapped, rewritten. It’s a hodge-podge of tidily tied loose ends, grudges too-neatly settled, useless last-minute additions of secondary characters, villains hastily stowed away with nary a peep. Not to mention the most frustratingly unsatisfying and befuddling epilogue I’ve ever read. It was such a hot mess. There were other ways to conclude this novel. Other ways to ensure a fool-proof Happily Ever After. But Deveraux, it seems, let the story get away from her. She very nearly gave me a reason to hate Claire forever—at the penultimate page, I was verra convinced that she didn’t deserve Trevelyan’s love, I was ready to denounce her. Did this all left me bereft twelve years ago? Granted, I am glad it’s a happy ending. But couldn’t Deveraux have cemented the perfection in my head? Well?
I have to calm down. The previous two paragraphs hurt. But I’m letting them stand not only because they’re true, but also because I wrote them long after I am convinced of my undying devotion to this book.
But, bottom line: Flaws and all, The Duchess remains as one of my favorite novels, of any genre. I will always love it. I will forever be indebted to it. It single-handedly transformed a young snob into a lifelong reader of romance novels. This is one of the most priceless books in my shelves. There’s this deep-seated joy and contentment that I reread this book. Well, it’s actually more a reunion than anything else.
To that nine-year-old girl with a head of rioting curls and large feet, Good job, darling. That sultry afternoon with that yellowing paperback was only the beginning of so many beautiful things.