|It must take a cross-dresser to know one. True, Eloisa James doesn't engage in sexual cross-dressing, but she does relish her multiple disguises. Shakespeare professor by day, romance writer by night – as the publicity blurb goes. Now she is trying her hand at that old Shakespearean device: the cross-dressing heroine. No wonder the results are pretty spectacular.
So when Isidore, the Duchess of Cosway decides that scandal is the only way to make her runaway husband return to England, Harriet agrees to accompany her to the estate of the notorious Lord Strange. Problem is, Harriet doesn't want to court scandal herself by appearing at a house whose doors are open to everyone, even actresses and actors. Hence her decision to wear breeches and to play the part of a male relative.
Jem, Lord Strange takes one look at the "young man" and feels a strong rush of desire. Jem is convinced this is because the other man is too womanly. What follows is a delightful interlude where Jem tries to make a "man" out of Harry and Harry takes pleasure in the manly activities of dawn gallops, early morning fencing, and midnight gambling. The comedy of identities and seduction is further complicated when a budding young actress recruits Harry to woo Jem for her. Harry enjoys penning and delivering one line of verse each morning. She has more problems when another actress pursues her with seduction in mind. All of this contributes to a steady comic tone and increasing sexual tension.
James is outstanding at exploiting stock characters and roles. The actresses, the friends, and even Jem's young daughter Eugenia play set parts, and yet none of them are entirely generic. Despite their recognizable roles, they are as endearing and delightful as the main characters.
Some of the scenes are ingenious. I still laugh out loud every time I think about Harry's first experience riding astride, and I still feel the thrill of her fencing lessons. Other episodes veer on farce, but it is all done in good taste.
Taken as a whole, however, the novel is not as strong. The story drags on a bit, and sections of the second half feel slightly forced. The rest of the time I remained charmed and captivated, curious as I was to discover how Harry's sexual identity would be revealed, how Jem would react to the news and how the two would deal with everything else that keeps them apart. These touch on darker issues having to do with Harry's marriage, Jem's competence as a parent and his past.
Duchess by Night may stray occasionally from its course, but there is no question that it delivers a heady blend of entrancing writing, inventive re-adaptation and comic explorations of love and relationships.