I was excited when An Ideal Duchess, by Evangeline Holland, showed up as available for review. The book seemed like it would be full of elements I enjoy in fiction: turn-of-the-century English aristocracy, country houses, and Downton Abbey flavor. In these respects, An Ideal Duchess delivers.
Like Downton Abbey, the book has an ambitious scope, covering the years 1902 to 1914, and moving through them with relative speed. The book also pays attention to the major historic events of the time, which often affect the characters either tangentially or personally: in one instance, for example, Winston Churchill makes a cameo. (For more information about the inspiration for the novel and its historic connections, see the interesting author’s note.) Holland moves between multiple third-person narrators as she reveals the plot, and the shifts between these narrators suit the sweeping feel of this epic story.
The book’s heroine, Amanda, is a wealthy American and the eventual duchess of the title—although the word “ideal” leaves some lurking questions. Amanda can never be the “ideal duchess,” since she isn’t English and hasn’t been raised within that society. Therefore, she doesn’t have access to an implicit understanding of how things always have been and should be done. Yet in other respects, she fulfills her role as the duchess of an English estate, and achieves the requirements of that position with grace. She is beautiful, kind, and generous… and yet she doesn’t seem too good to be true.
To me, at least, she often seemed too good for her complex husband, Bron. Bron, who has come by his dukedom indirectly, suffers from secret pain (to be fair, most of the characters also have their own versions of this pain) and has difficulty sharing his whole self with Amanda. Despite their physical attraction to one another, they struggle to communicate honestly. For years, they suspect one another of sleeping around while paradoxically remaining mostly faithful. While Bron is attractive and intelligent, he is nowhere near as modern as Amanda and seems to resort to cruelty to mask his own hurts.
Amanda’s other adversaries include two women: Bron’s mother, the Dowager Duchess clinging to her former position with all her might; and his mother’s creepy companion Viola, who has longstanding feelings for Bron that are not quite reciprocated. Both these women take over as the narrator for shorter periods of time, and while it is less comfortable to view the events of the book through their eyes, neither of them is without sympathy.
While I enjoyed spending time with these characters and in the world Holland creates for them, I did notice small typographical and grammatical errors (such as commas instead of periods or incorrect pronouns) not infrequently in the text. These minor errors weren’t on every page, but they occurred often enough to distract me. That’s unfortunate, because An Ideal Duchess has an interesting premise; it is well researched, full of neat details about fashion, and populated by well-rounded characters—and it ends with unfinished business at a fascinating point in history. Intrigued readers will be pleased to know a sequel is forthcoming.
Rating:(without the typos, this book would have earned a higher rating)
Rachel, who has a Ph.D. in English, is a freelance writer/editor and a voracious reader. You can talk to her about books at http://twitter.com/writehandmann.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Evangeline Holland. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.