A Worthy Opponent

The Winter Duke by Louise Bergin
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-21472-2
This is the second book I’ve reviewed by Louise Bergin, and I had essentially the same reaction to both. The author creates an interesting situation with potentially interesting characters, but apparently cannot capitalize on it.

Although she is pretty, accomplished, and possessed of a “distinguished if not spectacular” dowry, Miss Lydia Grenville has “returned from her London Season a failure at nineteen years of age” because she is not betrothed. As a result, she must endure the pity and snide digs of her neighbors in Essex.

Lydia did receive some offers, but did not considerate any of them “appropriate.” Fate has also taken her “backup suitor,” the duke of Winterbourne. Lydia would have been content with their neighbor, a “younger, rougher version of her father,” as she quite fancied the idea of being a duchess, but he died in a riding accident shortly before she left for London.

There is a ray of hope on the horizon, though; the duke’s successor has arrived and is known to be single, so Lydia’s mother encourages her to visit the duke’s ward.

John Penhope neither expected nor wanted to inherit the dukedom. A scholar by nature, he is uncomfortable with his new status. He would much rather read than administer the estate, and he still dresses in the slightly threadbare wardrobe of his student days. That’s why, when Lydia sees him in the woods near Winterbourne castle where each has gone seeking some solitude, she mistakes him for the duke’s secretary. John doesn’t correct her, telling her that his name is “Alexander.”

Even though they know it isn’t proper, Lydia and “Alexander” arrange to meet again, and their secret encounters inevitably lead to a kiss. Lydia flees, knowing it’s a mistake. She cannot like a mere secretary; no, no, she must marry a title. A few days later, the duke and his real secretary are invited to dinner at Lydia’s home, and the deception is discovered.

Although I admire the author’s attempt to make her heroine complex and imperfect, the character is so full of contradictions that I felt pulled in several different directions at once. Lydia tells herself that she must marry well because it’s her duty to her family, but this was never convincing. Certainly, her parents are eager to promote a match with Winterbourne, but their actions never felt any more sinister than those of any proud parents.

Occasionally – apparently fearing that the reader will not like Lydia because she’s a cold-blooded little social climber – the author suggests that Lydia really would prefer to marry for love. Unfortunately, the result of this lack of focus is that Lydia does not come off as complex and multi-dimensional, but rather as silly and shallow, someone who doesn’t know what she wants and has trouble recognizing it when it’s handed to her on a silver platter.

John is a more successful and satisfying character. Although it wasn’t terribly bright of him to lie to Lydia in the first place, he certainly paid for the deception. Not because she refused to have him when she discovered his deception, but because she was only interested in him after she realized he was a lord. To his credit, when the free spirit who charmed him in the woods transforms into a calculating drawing-room flirt, John realizes he’s made a terrible mistake.

Although some of the changes are a bit abrupt, John (unlike Lydia) grows as a character, finding his feet as the duke and discovering that the position has advantages as well as disadvantages. A rather predictable subplot emerges when it becomes clear that someone doesn’t appreciate John’s increasing involvement in managing his estate. For his part, however, John only uses his powers for good, and his actions are tempered by kindness and good sense.

Which, frankly, made his feelings for Lydia inexplicable, but I liked him enough to be happy when he eventually got what he wanted, and I did think it was possible that Lydia might grow up enough to appreciate her good fortune.

I still have hopes for this author. Her stories consistently have moments when they grab my attention; she just hasn’t figured out yet how to keep it.

-- Judi McKee

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