Delicious and decadent, these four historical romances transport us back to the England of yesteryear, when dukes and debutantes mix and mingle. But in addition to romance and adventure, they provide valuable insight into the way women were viewed and treated in the 19th century, including frank discussions of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Society was set up to keep them down, but the heroines of these books find a way to rise to the top anyway.
The Hook: Heiress Gwyn Drake is poised to have her first Season—but it could all be ruined by the machinations of a despicable figure from her past. Gruff, scowling Major Joshua Wolfe, the cousin of her half brother, steps up to become her bodyguard . . . while trying desperately to hide his desire for the woman he believes could never love a wounded soldier like him.
The Surprise: Gwyn’s not a blushing teen or a wide-eyed innocent but a 30-year-old woman who knows her own mind. She also isn’t afraid to go after what she wants, whether that be shooting lessons or pleasure in the arms of a certain wounded soldier she’s entirely willing to love after all.
The Unexpected (and Hilarious) Sidekick: Gwyn’s chaperone, a friend of her mother’s named Lady Hornsby, is a hoot and a half—especially when she promises to teach Gwyn some of the bawdy songs she and Gwyn’s mother sang in their youth.
The Takeaway: Even if you arm yourself with guns, arrows and a sword in a cane, you can’t guard yourself against love, so you should let yourself enjoy it. (But still keep a sword in a cane—swords in canes are awesome.)
His Secret Mistress
The Hook: Wealthy engineer Brandon Balfour will never forget how actress Kate Addison shattered his heart. Still, she was supposed to be 15 years in his past, not a new arrival to town at the invite of Bran’s vain, spoiled nephew, the Duke of Winderton. Winderton falls for Kate instantly—and while he’s semi-patiently waiting for her to succumb to his (dubious) charms, it becomes Bran’s assignment to rein in his wayward nephew, quell local gossip and keep his own heart from falling right back into Kate’s hands.
The Surprise: Where does true nobility lie? An actress might be considered scandalous, but when Kate attends a soirée that gets a little out of hand, it’s clear that she’s not the one who needs lessons in how to behave with grace and dignity. Meanwhile, the handsome, titled young duke, whom one might expect to be a hero in stories of this sort, instead comes across (mostly endearingly) as a boy who still has a lot of growing up to do.
The Unexpected (and Hilarious) Sidekick: Mrs. Warbler, a gossipy matron, seems poised to be Kate’s biggest detractor. So it’s remarkable when the two women end up bonding. The somewhat stuffy widow shows unexpected depth as she talks about the poetry she’s written that has always been dismissed by others—and Kate offers her understanding and support. From that point on, her dogged support of Kate is really quite charming to see.
The Takeaway: Send in the cloooooowns . . . (Sorry, couldn’t resist—sometimes the Sondheim in my soul simply must break out.) For real now: It’s never too soon to let yourself trust, and it’s never too late for love.
An Inconvenient Duke
The Hook: As a war hero and newly appointed duke, Marcus Braddock can get anything he wants—except for answers from Danielle Williams about what happened to Elise, Marcus’ sister and Danielle’s best friend, who died while he was serving overseas. Refusing to take no for an answer, Marcus keeps digging for Danielle’s secrets, and Elise’s, in a search that uncovers a sinister scandal that has woven its way through England’s high society.
The Surprise: Danielle is basically a superhero. The secret she’s hiding from Marcus is that she’s been working to spirit women away from unsafe situations such as abusive husbands and lecherous employers. It’s easy to glamorize Regency society, especially for those in the upper echelons, but author Anna Harrington shines a brilliantly honest light on just how little agency those women had—and the steps they might take to seize some of it back.
The Unexpected (and Hilarious) Sidekick: The Viscountess Bromley—Danielle’s great-aunt Harriet—tells the best stories imaginable: dining with George Washington on a chicken the general believed to be a British spy; skinny-dipping with Benjamin Franklin; pinching the bum of the king of England. Are any of these stories meant to be true? Who knows? Who cares? They’re fantastic, and Harriet, bless her, is a gift that keeps on giving.
The Takeaway: In a world full of dark corners, happiness comes from finding someone to help you hang a light.
The Hook: Railway magnate Tom Severin has built himself up from nothing thanks to his brilliant mind, his iron will, his immense stubbornness and his remarkably shrewd negotiating abilities. But when he meets the beautiful Cassandra Ravenel, all his abilities seem to fail him. He’d be delighted to be her husband, friend and protector. He wants to deck her with jewels. He’d give her anything she could think to ask for. But he’s entirely certain that love is simply something he’s not built to feel. And a marriage based on love is the only type she’s willing to accept. But when an immovable heart meets an irresistible Ravenel, is there any doubt what will happen in the end?
The Surprise: In a story as sweet, fun and wonderfully charming as this one, it’s a shocking reminder that bad things often happen to those who least deserve it when Cassandra is subjected to a true betrayal. But it’s to Lisa Kleypas’ credit that she presents the bad, acknowledges it and then shows all the good that comes from having the right people (wonderful, loveable, staunchly supportive people) around you to help you bear it.
The Unexpected (and Hilarious) Sidekick: Bazzle. Oh, Bazzle. Darling, ridiculous Bazzle—the street urchin who Tom takes in, and who slowly works his way into Tom’s heart. Bazzle who is composed of wonderfulness—even if that wonderfulness is occasionally hidden behind head lice and fleas.
The Takeaway: Don’t condemn a man for missing the point of the novels you adore. Even if he thinks that Jane Eyre would be much improved if Rochester simply “told Jane the truth and installed his wife in a decent Swiss clinic,” what matters isn’t whether he becomes a literary analyst. What matters is all the effort he’s willing to make to try to understand you better. Because that’s love—whether he’ll admit it or not.