This review is chock full of spoilers because some of the issues it addresses like dealing grief and guilt over the death of loved ones as well as all the attending comparisons of a first love to the second love interest are where I had the most problems. I did like most of When The Duke Was Wicked, however.
The setup is basically that Lady Grace wants to marry, sooner rather than later, but she wants to be sure the man she marries loves her, and not just her outrageous dowry. This sounds like the premise of most historicals, but it veers off into another direction which sounded promising. Her main reason for marrying soon is that her father is losing his eyesight, and she wants him to be able to see her married, loved, and happy before he goes blind. But this is not the reason it's necessary that she know she's loved by her potential husband.
Two years ago, at age 17, Grace had her left breast removed due to cancer. She has scars, horrible scars, and she's afraid that unless her husband loves her, really loves her, he won't be able to accept/love her imperfect body. So Grace turns to family friend, Henry, Duke of Lovingdon, for advice on how to know a gentleman's feelings for her have more to do with herself and not dollar signs.
Two years ago, Henry, Duke of Lovingdon, lost his beloved wife and daughter to typhus, a disease he's sure he brought to them when he contracted the disease visiting the slums of London where the disease ran rampant. At 19, he fell in love with Juliette and married her two years later. At 26, Henry is a widower and full of bitterness and guilt. Henry, by how own admission, had always been upright, upstanding, and proper.
"All my life I had sought to do the right and proper thing. I did not frequent gaming hells. I did not imbibe until I became a stumbling drunk. I fell in love at nineteen, married at twenty-one. I did the honorable thing: I did not bed my wife until I wed her. On our wedding night she was not the only virgin between our sheets." (p. 2)
But the loss of the woman he loved and their child had him cursing cruel fate and turning over a rakish leaf. He would "sow the wild oats" he hadn't in his youth. He would gamble, drink, and "know many women" because he would, as God is his witness, never love again. Ahem. Can you hear the theme of Gone With The Wind playing in the background? I kind of expected him to be shaking his fist as he made that vow. You know, we all handle grief in different ways, but Henry's drinking-gambling-whoring just felt more like a modified hair shirt, a way to punish himself for something he had no power over, but I digress.
“I brought the typhus to them. Juliette asked me not to go into the poorer sections of London, but I felt I had a duty to help the less fortunate. I’d contributed money for improvements and felt I needed to oversee the work. In addition, I was striving to collect data, to provide reports to Parliament. I wanted to change things, I wanted to do something worthwhile. Instead I fell ill.” His voice caught, turned ragged. “I should have been the one to die, but I survived. My darling wife and precious daughter died, because I put others before them.” (p. 181)
I generally shy away from "widower" tropes for several reasons. Either the hero was married to the "perfect" wife, a paragon, so no woman could ever come close to that ideal or the first wife was evil who cheated on him and ate cute puppies for dinner thereby leaving our hero scarred emotionally and unable to have a healthy relationship. In either scenario, whether it's "Ms. Perfect" or "Ms. Cruella", the resolution hardly ever seems fair to either the previous wife or our present heroine. Either the heroine is battling a ghost or she becomes a whipping boy for every wrongheaded thing the first wife ever did, said, or thought. I see the allure of stories that have the heroine helping the hero move forward, but when they're full of "Oh I can never love again because my first love was my soulmate", I'm outta there in a hurry. After all, I want our heroine to have her "happy ever after", too, but not at the expense of a first wife. In order to believe that HEA I need to see our hero appreciate and love our heroine for who she is without constantly comparing her to Ms. Paragon or Ms. Cruella for the majority of the book. He can't do that if he's not ready to move on with his life, and Henry wasn't ready IMO.
My red flags went up quickly as I began to notice how many times Henry professed to never be able to love any woman other than Juliette. He not only thought it, he told everyone over and over and over. He should've just had it embroidered and made into throw pillows and samplers to hang in the ducal residence to save his breath.
"I shall never love another as I loved her. That is the honest truth.” (p. 16)
“'Love is rare. There are those who never know it, but having known it'—he shook his head—' I have no desire to know it again. I could never love anyone as I loved her.'” (p. 94)
"He didn’t love her, he couldn’t love her, he wouldn’t love her—not in the manner she desired, not in the manner she deserved." (p. 212)
“'Of course, I do, but I don’t love you as I loved Juliette. And that’s what you’re seeking, isn’t it? A love such as I had?'
'You judge love by her,' she stated.
No question, and yet he felt obligated to answer.
'I judge everything by her.'” (p. 257)
But the worst one comes late after he discovers Grace's scars and the reason behind them. He makes her an offer of marriage within certain limits, not because he loves her. His proposal is all tangled and twisted in a misplaced responsibility for compromising her, a fear that her cancer will return and his stubborn refusal to never allow her to own him "heart and soul."
"Staring at him, she shook her head. ' I can’t make it work without falling in love. I won’t. I deserve a man who cares if I die.'
'I’ll care. Of course I’ll care. I just won’t—'
'As much as you did when Juliette died.'
'I can’t go through that pain again. I won’t.'" (p. 312)
Oh, Henry! Thou art cruel and mean, I say. The next one is a snippet of a conversation between Lovingdon and Grace's father when Lovingdon reluctantly decides to ask for her father's blessing.
“'I like you, Lovingdon, always have, but I can’t give you my blessing on this matter.'
'Why the hell not?'
' I think you know the answer to that.' The words were in his eyes, if not on his tongue. Because you don’t love her, you’ll never love her as you did Juliette." (p. 318)
There are 372 pages in the entire book. For 318 of them Lovingdon is just acting like a stupid banana head. For 85% of the book everything is still about Juliette, and it's pounded into my head time after time that Henry will never love another. For the majority of this book, he's not ready to move forward, and because of this he cannot even begin to allow himself feelings for Grace. I had no trouble believing he loved Juliette and Margaret and mourned their loss deeply, but I did have trouble believing Henry is ready to love again because his turnaround in the last 15% of the book was so sudden that I got whiplash. And, the way Henry sees the light, so to speak, was less than satisfying and more than a little predictable and vexing.
Grace is abducted by the villainous and vexing Lord Vexley to force her into marrying him. Henry is in pursuit to the very villainous, vexing Lord Vexley's ancestral estate to rescue Grace and finds villainous vexing Vexley holding Grace at gunpoint in the village church. Henry and Vexley roll around on the church altar exchanging punches, vying for the upper hand. In the struggle, the gun goes off, but Henry delivers a knockout blow to the very vexing Vexley. Vexingly, Henry is shot, not Vexley. It was all very, er vexing for several reasons. Rescuing said damsel in distress amidst an epiphany that he loves Grace (or at least is beginning to see that he can love again) was a tad bit melodramatic and only to be expected as this seems to be the way most of these plots turn out. I guess it was better than the other even more eye-rolling inducing route whereby Henry's epiphany coincides with the most explosive orgasm in the history of orgasms with Grace. At any rate, I was very vexed with the whole vexatious event.
Henry took such a long time to admit to loving Grace, but even more vexing, er, annoying, he also fell victim to the comparison game whereby either Grace or Juliette are seen in less than a flattering light. Everybody knows an apple can't ever be an orange and vice versa so hold onto your seats as apples and oranges are incoming.
Grace was not "demure" like Juliette whereas Juliette appeared to be something less than "fearless" when compared to Grace. So Grace is an Amazon while Juliette is a delicate flower, I guess. He adored Juliette, and says "passion had characterized their lovemaking", but with Grace lovemaking was "something more." Why can't sex with a previous partner still be remembered just as satisfyingly without making it appear that there was something missing that he found only with Grace?
Grace isn't shy about letting Henry know she's angry with him, but he and Juliette "never exchanged harsh words." I really doubt Juliette NEVER got angry with Henry. Perhaps she just didn't express it as openly as Grace. What if Juliette was a neat freak and Henry left cravats and waistcoats lying all over the place? What if Henry suffers a sudden financial crisis forcing him to economize and he cut Juliette's pin money with no explanation? Or what if he got so wrapped up in ducal business, he's late for dinner the one evening when her parents are dining with them? Just saying. No relationship is that placid unless one partner is, uh, an automaton or a Stepford wife.
And it continues. Juliette was a teetotaler who chastised Henry when he drank so he limited himself to special occasions. Juliette "didn't like card games" and certainly she "never would have cheated at them" like Grace. Now, Grace. Ooh-la-la! Grace is a very wicked woman who sneaks out at night, plays poker at Dodger's, cheats at cards, smokes cheroots, and drinks whiskey and rum. I'll bet she dances on the tables at Dodger's, too. By this point I began to wonder if Juliette ever had any fun. It doesn't sound like she liked to let her hair down at all. Juliette never made him feel jealousy which irritates Henry when he realizes he's very jealous of Grace's two dozen suitors. It didn't sound like Juliette ever had that many suitors. His relationship with "genteel and reserved" Juliette sounds peaceful, idyllic and, well, lacklustre when compared with his somewhat passionate exchanges with Grace who is "stubborn and bold."
And then there's this:
"Without a doubt their nights would be fulfilling. She was as carnal a creature as he’d ever met." (p. 264)
"Hadn’t he taken Juliette for walks in the garden at night whether the moon was full or absent, and behaved himself? A kiss on the back of her hand. Twice he leaned over for a kiss on the cheek. Once he had grazed his mouth across hers in much the same manner that Grace had described Somerdale’s kiss. Innocent. Respectful. Boring as hell.
Only now did he realize how dull his courtship had been. He had loved Juliette. He held no doubt. He had been a boy on the cusp of manhood, eager to please her, terrified of frightening her with his passions, so he’d held them in check. Why could he not do the same where Grace was concerned?"
"Juliette had never imbibed with him, nor smoked, nor used profanity. But then he’d kept all his vices on a short leash when she was alive. He hadn’t wanted to offend her. He’d loved her, there was no denying that, but in being true to her had he been true to himself?" (p. 288-290)
Uh huh. His courtship with Juliette was boring, respectful, and innocent. I'm not sure which woman should be more insulted. I didn't like the way he put Juliette on a pedestal (innocent/respectful) but views Grace as a "carnal creature" who inspires only lustful feelings.
To be fair, I know Henry struggled seeing Grace not as the child he'd liked and known forever but as a grown woman all the while trying to deal finally with the deaths of Juliette and Margaret as well as the misplaced guilt he felt for their deaths. That's a lot to reconcile. However, he was also a little callous in some of the lessons in recognizing love. For instance, his lesson on the sincerity of men's flattery was particularly cruel.
“'I know.' She sighed, nodded, glanced back out the window. 'Lord Bentley, I should think.'
'What of him?' His words were terse.
'I believe his attentions are sincere. He has told me that I am beautiful, that he carries me into his dreams every night.'
'But then so do I.' Her heart thundering, Grace jerked her head around to stare at Lovingdon’s silhouette. She wished she could see his eyes. They were lost in the shadows. He moved. Smoothly. Swiftly. Until his hand was caressing her cheek, a light touch that was almost no touch at all, yet still it almost scorched her flesh. She inhaled his rugged masculine scent. Hardly a hairbreadth separated them.
'You are so beautiful.' His voice was a low rasp that sent tiny shivers of pleasure coursing through her. 'I’ve long thought of confessing my infatuation, but we have been friends for so long that I thought you might laugh—'
'In my dreams, we’re on a hillock, lying upon the cool grass, our bodies so close that they provide heat as warm as the sun bearing down on us.'
'Were Bentley’s words as sweet?'
'Not quite, but near enough.'
'And you believed such poppycock?'
She stilled, not even daring to breathe. 'You think he lied?'
He leaned away. 'All men lie, Grace, to obtain what they want.'
Lovingdon’s sweet words had meant nothing. What a fool she was to have been lured— She lashed out and punched his shoulder with all the strength she could muster. 'You blackguard!'” (p. 61)
His cruelty was two-fold here. He has never suspected that Grace had been in love with him for a long time. For him they have always been friends. But the way he illustrates his point callously emphasized the fact that he has never thought of her as more than a friend. Because of her unrequited love, these are words Grace has longed to hear from Henry. To realize they were meaningless, used only to bring home a point to her about one of her suitors cut twice as deep. Unfortunately, he does this several times when he could have shown a little sensitivity.
I had problems with some of the things Grace did, too. When she first approaches Henry about guiding her on how to know someone loves her, he tells her to trust her heart, but she replies:
“'I can’t trust my heart, Lovingdon. It’s betrayed me before.'
'When I was younger, I once fell deeply, passionately in love—or as passionately as one can at such a tender age. I thought he returned my affections. But eventually he married another.'" (p. 15)
Um, I did the math. Grace was 12 years old at the time Henry fell in love with Juliette, and 14 when he and Juliette married. I had a hard time processing how this was a betrayal and not just a young man falling for a young woman his own age. The difference in ages isn't such a big leap at 19 and 28, but it seemed a bit melodramatic to label Henry's marriage as a betrayal when Grace is just barely into her teenage years. Then there was her midnight visit to Henry's home while he was "entertaining" another woman and another surprise visit to administer a hangover cure to Henry one afternoon in his bed chamber. I thought there were butlers/valets to protect a gentleman's privacy, to stop unescorted young ladies from just waltzing in at all hours of the day or night.
I know it sounds like I didn't like this book at all, but I did think parts of it were really very good. I just had problems with Henry's stubbornness/blind refusal in admitting that he could love again, that his love for Grace could be just as genuine and intense and lasting even if it was different from the first time. Grace, too, was bold and brave and resilient. Lord Vexley, however, was very vexing, and I did wonder if his name was a joke.
Now to the more personal part of my review. I am a breast cancer survivor, and I don't say that to offer up any expertise on the subject, merely to give anyone reading this my perspective. I applaud Ms. Heath for writing a historical romance whose heroine is a breast cancer survivor. This is a first for me. I believe anytime a book raises awareness about this issue is a positive thing. I liked how Grace's illness was worked into a poignant and overpowering reason to find someone who loves her, accepts all her imperfections, whether it's scars on the left side of her chest, her fiery temper or her boldness in pursuing what she wants, or just a silly love of smoking cheroots. Grace's story as a survivor could have ended with her marriage to Henry, tied up with a neat little bow of how happily ever after they lived and how many children they had.
But it doesn't end there. The epilogue brings us full circle with another of Henry's journal entries, just as it began with one. Recurrence is a cancer survivor's bogey man, the monster under the bed. Grace does have a recurrence at 40, and her other breast is removed. This time Henry is with her, offering her his love and acceptance and support when it is very much needed. That makes it a happy ending for me.
Grace's surgery was an ordeal in 1872. I've read a couple of accounts of some really horrifying mastectomies in the 1800's: Fanny Burney's in 1811 and the 1809 mastectomy performed on President John Adams' daughter's, Nabby. The Halsted mastectomy was the preferred surgical treatment from the late 1800's until the mid 1960's. That's really not that long ago. While the Halsted was an improvement along with anesthesia and improved sterile techniques, it was still a grossly disfiguring operation. Modern medicine has made huge progress with this surgery, and now there are other options available like lumpectomies and reconstructive surgery. No matter how far ahead of his time Grace's surgeon is purported to be in the book, she endured a terrifying nightmare.
As I said, I liked parts of this book. I thought Henry's acceptance of Grace's scars was tender and sweet and an affirmation of Grace's strength. This was one of two times in the book where Henry really shone bright as a hero. The other was in the epilogue, Henry's final journal entry:
"In my lifetime I loved two women. I cannot say which I loved more because I was a very different man when I loved each of them. And I loved each of them differently.
I began adulthood with Juliette.
When my life comes to a close, it shall be with Grace at my side.
(...)My darling Grace wished only to marry a man who loved her. She met with astonishing success in that regard. For I loved her yesterday, I love her today, and I shall love her for all eternity.
Whether or not the Fates are kind." (pp.370-372)