Holly’s most recent review for the Duke Project was Christy Carlyle’s A Duke Changes Everything, which features the quintessential Angsty Duke. The hero hates his inheritance, hates his home, hates the memory of his family (except for his sainted and sadly departed mother – the fraught relationship between Dukes and Their Mothers is a whole separate thing, which I definitely want to talk about in the future).
But let’s drill down on the angst bit. According to Merriam-Webster, angst comes from the German for “fear” and refers to “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.” “Angst” was first used this way in English in 1942, so it’s not like these angsty Georgian and Regency and Victorian Dukes would have used the word to describe themselves.
In the case of Carlyle’s Duke, being back at his childhood home after a lengthy absence brings back all of the feelings of anxiety and insecurity he felt as a child, which he hides under a thick layer of anger and bravado. Now, this Duke had a case of Very Bad Dad, so he’s an extreme example, but there are lots of angsty Duke stories out there.
Which leads me to the big question: What does a Duke have to be angsty about? He is wealthy and politically secure, so whence the insecurity?
A narrow answer is his relationship to the dukedom and / or his father. Of course the title and the man who previously held the title are intimately entwined. Dukes in Romancelandia tend to be young(ish) for optimum hero-worthy-swoon-factor (is there a word for that? Maybe in German?), so they tend to be new to the title. A man has to learn to become a Duke, who is somehow more than just a man, and this is a fraught process. The process is especially fraught for romantic heroes, because they need to learn to become good Dukes – they need to learn to shoulder responsibility or manage property or lean in to politics or maintain the family honor – rather than just existing, or worse, using their position only to better themselves and not just society. The new Duke frequently sets himself in contrast with his father, who was, if not bad, probably cold and distant and only called his son an “heir.” It does make one wonder what will happen to all these romantic hero Dukes in ten years – how many of them will become their fathers? And how many of their fathers were once romantic heroes, and just got bogged down by the burdens of the Dukedom? With questions like these, no wonder these men are angsty as heck!
A broader answer to the question of what a Duke has to be angsty about is: well, it’s convenient in terms of romance tropes. (We could probably write a whole series on romance tropes. Maybe we will!) The insecurity is emotional. A Duke is powerful in so many different facets of his life, so having him suffer from angst gives the heroine one arena where she can help him. Basically, it’s a classic situation for a woman to fix her man emotionally. And we can keep things nice and regressively gendered, because she doesn’t need to help him become noble or wealthy or otherwise stable; she just needs to teach him to feel in a healthy way.
Next Time: The Dark and Dangerous Duke. So much alliteration in our future!