A League of Extraordinary Women, Book #1
Heat Factor: Who cares about sex? The angsty yearning set my socks on fire! (There is sex, though.)
Character Chemistry: Lit.
Plot: Unequal romance between dutiful Duke and suffragist, non-virgin bluestocking
Overall: So. Much. Yes.
Have you been following the Romancelandia conversation about illustrated covers? This cover perfectly illustrates the “What are you even selling?” conversation. I first saw it and thought, “Oh! A playful contemporary about a Duke-or-something! That sounds fun. Let’s see what we have here!” Spoiler: NOT THAT.
- This is a late Victorian romance.
- Playful does not describe the mood of this book in the least.
But I’m over the cover. Let’s talk about the book.
Annabelle Archer is a brilliant drudge in her cousin’s house. She’s received a scholarship to attend Oxford, but there are strings attached:
- She needs her cousin’s permission to go, but he needs a drudge to help with his home and large family.
- Women at Oxford had to prove that they were worthy of being there, so she has to behave with perfect propriety.
- Her scholarship is from a suffragist society, and she has to contribute to the cause as a condition of receiving the money.
It’s because of this extracurricular pursuit that she runs into the Duke of Montgomery while pamphleting outside Parliament. Montgomery, naturally, oozes power. Also, his given name is Sebastian. Yes, please! 😍
Montgomery’s mission in life is to be the perfect duke, so he manages his immense land holdings and his political career with careful precision. His driving goal is to return his ancestral castle to the family holdings (his father lost it in a card game, of course). Everything is going fine for him until he meets Annabelle’s bottomless green eyes. Well, everything except his younger brother.
Montgomery’s brother, Peregrine, is also at Oxford, and he gets up to all the shenanigans that younger brothers at university are wont to. Montgomery is convinced a female (ahem) is conspiring to ensorcel Peregrine, so when a group of enterprising suffragists (Annabelle included) wheedle an invitation to a house party and Montgomery finds Annabelle curled up in his library, he assumes the worst about about her. This sets off a series of unfortunate (?) events that create forced proximity, which is basically the only correct way to do a hate-to-love narrative. (I may regret saying that later.) Not that that’s where Annabelle and Montgomery started. They’re initially nothing to each other except he notices her bottomless eyes and she his leonine power.
There is enough backstory for both protagonists that we understand why they don’t immediately throw caution to the wind and declare their true love. They are both remarkably pragmatic people. The difference in their stations is real, and the social dynamics they’re dealing with are complex, especially if Montgomery wants to maintain his position (power) and Annabelle wants to retain her respectability. But they do come to be rather essential to one another quite early, even if they don’t realize or declare the depths of their feelings so early. Anyway, the romance is butterfly-inducing, toe-curling, amazingosity.
If a beautifully executed romance isn’t enough for you, let’s talk about the equally well-executed commentary on socio-political structures. Dunmore explores so many ways that women are not equal citizens in Victorian England, and it’s carefully woven into numerous aspects of the narrative.
- Annabelle is living in poverty as a maid in her cousin’s house because all of the other relatives she had who would take care of her as…not unpaid labor…are dead. She is subject to the whims of a man who could throw her out of her home because he’s in a bad mood one day.
- Education is a commodity not available to women. Annabelle is one of the first women able to attend Oxford, and she’s not even able to attend it as an equal to the male students. AND she has to behave with perfect propriety while she’s there.
- She’s genteel, but not well born enough for a duke. And she’s not a virgin. The best he can offer her without losing face socially is a position as his mistress.
- As a single woman, Annabelle has some legal status, but as a married woman, she loses her legal status entirely.
- As a suffragist, Annabelle also has to behave with perfect propriety, but the legal system is stacked against her, and there’s nothing she can do about it. Assaulting a police officer, even if she had a legitimate reason to do so, will destroy her life just as easily as becoming the Duke’s mistress would.
Annabelle is dealing with some stuff. Many authors of Georgian, Regency, and Victorian historical romance like to take a modern, sassy, badass heroine and put her in a gown. Dunmore paints a picture of an extraordinary woman of her own time. I guess that’s why the series is called A League of Extraordinary Women.
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More books, you say?