I’m always up for a historical novel featuring strong female characters—there were a lot of amazing women who fought hard against extraordinary odds to bring us the rights we enjoy today. The blurb on the front cover of Evie Dunmore’s Bringing Down the Duke calls it a “celebration of the power of love and the passionate fight for women’s rights.” Sounds promising!
The year is 1879. Annabelle Archer is in her midtwenties, stuck working as a maid for her vicar cousin, when she learns that Oxford University has opened a women’s college. Attending Oxford seems like an impossible dream for an impoverished young woman, but a surprising benefactor appears: the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which will pay Annabelle’s way as long as she promises to work for the cause.
Lady Lucie Tedbury and her fellow suffragists are lobbying Parliament to overturn the Married Women’s Property Act, which forced female property owners to surrender everything to their husbands when they wed. Instructed to identify “men of influence,” Annabelle boldly hands a pamphlet to the cold, fearsome Duke of Montgomery, one of the most powerful men in England. Lucie admires Annabelle’s bravery but informs her that the Duke is a lost cause.
Naturally, Annabelle and the Duke wind up encountering each other again. Sparks fly! But the only possible relationship she could have with a man of such high status is that of his secret mistress, which is hardly an acceptable fate for an ambitious young woman. Annabelle has also developed close friendships with several of her fellow suffragists, and doesn’t want to risk losing them.
Bringing Down the Duke does contain quite a few romance-novel tropes, but it also passes the Bechdel test, and the relationships between the female characters are an integral part of the book. I could probably have done with 10% more of the suffragist plot and 10% less romantic angst, but it’s basically a quick and pleasant read.
Meanwhile, in present-day England, Evie Summers is working as an assistant to the owner of an agency representing film and TV writers. Her boss basically expects her to be on call constantly, taking advantage of the fact that Evie is hoping to be promoted to agent someday. However, the agency is currently in trouble, because its biggest client, young Oscar-winning screenwriting phenom Ezra Chester, has writers’ block. Ezra signed a contract to pen a rom-com for a film company, but he’s missed deadline after deadline.
When her boss informs her that unless Ezra can deliver his script, the agency will go under, Evie decides to help. She’ll arrange a series of meet-cutes for herself, and write them up for Ezra in an attempt to provide inspiration and prove that romantic comedies aren’t as contrived and unrealistic as he believes they are.
Of course, the rom-com meet-cutes that Evie is attempting to recreate are exceedingly contrived and unrealistic. And it seems deeply unlikely that even a screenwriter with an Academy Award to his credit would be rolling in dough and dating a famous actress (I was reminded of the ancient joke about the Hollywood starlet who was so brainless that she slept with the screenwriter). This is a rather silly book that requires you to just go with it (hey, that was a rom-com!); it reminded me a lot of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic books in that regard. Hideously embarrassing things are constantly happening to the heroine as she stumbles toward her inevitable happy ending, so be forewarned if you’re allergic to cringe comedy.