A few weeks ago, we talked a little bit about Dukes’ Dads, and how a duke’s relationship with his father could potentially be a source of angst, as the young duke assumes the mantle of responsibility that comes with the title.
However, while the Senior Duke may cast a long shadow, he rarely appears as a walking, talking character. The Dowager Duchess, on the other hand, frequently appears in Duke stories, ready to meddle in his love life, for good or, more commonly, for ill.
While the following is by no means an exhaustive list, here are some examples of terrible duchesses we’ve encountered, just since starting the Duke Project. We have general snobs (the Dowager Duchess of Somerton from To Pleasure a Duke, who is less a character than a shadow of snobbery cast over her children). We have emotionally distant women unable to fathom that love might even be an option for their sons (the Dowager Duchess of Drakeston from The Duke in My Bed, who does have an ok relationship with her son, but is completely lacking in substance as a person). We have ineffectual women, who were unable to protect their sons from their terrible husbands (the Dowager Duchess of Ashland from A Duke to Remember). There are also straight up vituperative old ladies who are terrible in every way (the Dowager Duchess of Dunmoor from The Devil of Dunmoor; see also the Dowager Duchess of Cosway from Eloisa James’ When the Duke Returns or the Dowager Duchess of Wyndham from Julia Quinn’s “Two Dukes of Wyndham” duology, to cite some of my favorite Duke books that I haven’t gotten a chance to review yet).
Before we move on to some other types of Duchesses that may appear, let’s unpack this for a moment – why are all of these Dowager Duchesses so objectively terrible? And is there a commonality to how their terrible-ness manifests?
These older women all have strained relationships with their sons (or grandsons), largely tied to their allegiance to title over character. The snobbish old ladies care more about what people will say and the family dynasty; similarly, the ineffectual mothers are unable to stand up to the legacy of family dynasty. The name must go on and maintain a certain level of prestige – who cares if any individual Duke is unhappy in the face of such larger concerns.
This component of Duke motherhood is shared by the Duke’s (generally now deceased) fathers, so one could argue that this is simply a case of women carrying on the legacy left by their husbands. And yes – this is definitely part of it. But the pain of a terrible mother is different from the pain of having a terrible father. Having a fraught relationship with your father is simply part of being a Man; having a fraught relationship with your mother means that there’s something wrong with your mother. Why can’t she be open and loving and caring, the way your love interest is?
Ah yes. The love interest. The woman who can come in and fix what the Duke’s mother broke in the first place. She will succeed where her mother-in-law failed, and fix our tortured hero’s capacity for love and joy and connection to family. It is therefore not shocking that the Dowager Duchess can frequently be found meddling in her son’s love life. She experiences the double-whammy of protecting the family legacy (and therefore, must find her son an appropriate bride – bloodlines, etc) but also wants to ensure her continued emotional control over her son’s life (and therefore, must find her son an appropriate bride – malleability, etc).
So, is the terrible Dowager Duchess really just about a woman’s fraught relationship with her mother-in-law?
Looking at the occasional Nice Duke Mom does seem to support that point. Every once in a while, instead of being a harpy, the older Duchess is a saint – the Duchess of Tremayne (A Duke Changes Everything), who whisked her son away from being literally locked in a tower and died in obscurity in France, is a prime example. She was perfect in every way, up to and including giving her life for her son, and – most importantly, is safely out of the way for a new Duchess to arrive, so the competition for the new Duke’s affection will never have to be overt. Or, if the Duke actually has a good relationship with his mother, part of the reason is that she’s not a duchess at all, and he’s a duke by accident (A Duke by Default). Again – no competition for the new Duchess, mainly because she doesn’t have any connection to the all-important questions of dynasty and family legacy. We have written the positive mother-in-law out of the story, one way or another.
The exception to this dynamic is the occasional awesome Dowager Duchess who shows up in Romance, like the Duchess of Worth (A Good Rogue is Hard to Find). I want to dwell on her as an example for a minute. So the Duchess of Worth does things like bring chickens with her everywhere and ruin dinner parties and basically try to convince people that she is completely nutso (but not so insane that Bedlam is an option, obviously); she uses this as a cover to somewhat illegally help people in need. Her son, the Duke of Worth, knows nothing of her machinations, so she is, of course, properly horrified when he decides to keep a closer eye on her because he’s worried. They are not close – the Duchess does not share herself with her son, partially because she thinks he won’t approve or even understand what she’s doing, and partially because she carries a burden of guilt about the way her relationship with his terrible father went down – ie, she didn’t protect her son from her husband’s terribleness (there it is!). In fact, she has actively worked to keep him at a distance by ham-handedly and transparently attempting to meddle in his love life, in proper Dowager Duchess fashion.
Yet even the Duchess of Worth, who subverts our expectations about what to expect from a relationship with a mother-in-law (she is closer to the heroine, her companion, than the hero, her son), plays into the broader stereotypes that appear when the Duke’s Mother appears on the page. She is emotionally distant. She has a complicated relationship with the family legacy. And she meddles in her son’s love life.
That’s the crux of it, I think – the meddling. The Dowager Duchess is a problem when she exits her sphere of (lack of) influence. She is an old lady whose time has passed – and the Dowager Duchesses who refuse to accept this are the ones who cause problems for their sons and daughters-in-law. After all, pitting women against each other is a convenient way to strengthen a heterosexual marriage bond. Obviously.
Please Note: Many romance novels show successful friendships for both heroes and heroines, where these characters are offered support and compassion as they work through their trials and tribulations. However, this support network less frequently extends to parents, particularly when we’re looking at Regency Historicals Featuring Dukes.
The question I want to close with is this: What does all this mean for the new, fledgling duchesses who star in romance novels? Are they doomed to become grumpy, withered old ladies who have strained relationships with their sons? Obviously, we hope not, but when the counterexample of a truly excellent Dowager Duchess appears so rarely (I can think of maybe two besides the Duchess of Worth, but listing mean moms is easy as pie), what are the odds?
Next time: The Spiderman Complex: with great power comes great responsibility.