I thought Isabella Bradford was a debut author when I requested this one from Net Galley back in May. It turns out Isabella Bradford is a pseudonym of Susan Holloway Scott, the well known author of more than dozens of historical novels. Before that, she was Miranda Jarrett, author of thirty historical romances for Harlequin and Pocket Books. Bradford runs the website Two Nerdy History Girls with one of my favorite historical romance writers, Loretta Chase.
When You Wish Upon A Duke is set in London in 1760, but begins in Dorset when the Wylder household is awakened in the middle of the night by the Duke of Marchbourne’s solicitor, Carter. Charlotte Wylder, eldest of the three Wylder girls, greets Carter in bare feet and a “oversized fisherman’s jersey,” her legs naked from the knees down. Without asking to see Charlotte’s mother (her father, the earl, is long dead), Carter notifies Charlotte of her “impending nuptials” and hands her a gift of an oval portrait of His Grace. When Charlotte’s mother enters the scene, she puts her hand around Charlotte’s waist, hugs her, and informs her that, yes, “As soon as it can be arranged, you will wed His Grace, the Duke of Marchbourne.”
Now, I’m no expert, but to me, this scene communicated pretty clearly what kind of a historical romance this was going to be. I suppose things may have been more lax in the country, but Carter’s showing up in the middle of the night, speaking directly to the eighteen year old, unwed Charlotte without a chaperone present, Charlotte greeting strange men in the middle of the night wearing nothing but, essentially, a man’s sweatshirt, and Charlotte’s mother hugging her and giving her a big piece of news in response (instead of a scolding) doesn’t strike me as very eighteenth century behavior. Please let me know if you think I am way off on this.
In short order, Charlotte is hustled to London. The Duke decides he can’t wait to see her and arranges to stumble on her party as it makes its way to Charlotte’s aunt’s (the Countess of Sanborn’s) townhouse. Things don’t quite go as planned when March, as he is known, finds his bride-to-be up a tree trying to save her cat (little does he know this is the second of her four — yes, four — tree climbs in the book). He’s gorgeous and gallant, she’s beautiful and plucky, and they fall madly in love at first branch.
March is no rogue or rake. Rather, he “holds himself to an exceedingly high moral standard.” His own family tree has some bad apples (in particular, although his great-grandfather was a king, his great grandmother was the king’s mistress, “some wicked little baggage of an actress.”) and he relishes the prospect of marriage into a family with worse fortunes but better breeding. Very sweetly, March is determined to love Charlotte simply because she is destined for him. March is obsessed with his public image, and most of his character growth, as well as the conflicts with Charlotte, arise from his inability to understand that this obsession is an extreme response to a certain childhood trauma which is revealed late in the novel (but likely won’t surprise many long time romance readers).
Charlotte is the breath of fresh air March needs, and has a bit less growing and changing to do. I had some real problems with Charlotte throughout the novel, at first because she was so incredibly naive and immature, and later, because she makes some decisions that defy convention, logic, sense, and perhaps even the laws of nature. Here’s an example of the almost childish quality of Charlotte’s early dialogue:
“Oh, sir, look at your poor arm in a sling,” she said softly. “Does it grieve you much? Are you in great pain? Oh, and it’s all because of my clumsiness, too.”
To the author’s credit, Charlotte does mature over the course of the book. A major conflict is their sexual relationship. March decides, after one frenzied coupling, that sex should be quiet and still, as befitting a duchess, and Charlotte wonders silently and tearfully why it’s no longer any fun. She’s too young and unformed in the first half of the novel to question March’s word on things like sexual behavior, but she does develop slowly into the kind of person who is capable of bringing her husband around to her view:
She couldn’t help the despair from creeping into her voice. “You want me to be your own precious fragile version of a duchess, bound so tightly by — by respectability that I can scarce breathe.”
“But I wish you to be happy, Charlotte,” he insisted. “Without respectability and honor and regard, no lady can be truly happy.”
“My own husband,” she said softly, though there were no others within hearing. “I’ve never been a duchess, and neither, for that matter, have you. Yet between us lies this saintly, noble ideal of a lady that I doubt I’ll ever match. Was your own mother like that, March? You’ve never spoken of her. Is that whom you wish me to be more like?”
“My mother was far from anyone’s ideal, Charlotte,” he said, each word clipped sharp by sorrow, “nor was she happy in her married life, not for a day, not for a minute. I would never wish you to be like her. I would never wish that lot on anyone.”
Though surprised, Charlotte didn’t back away, nor did she lift her hand from his arm.
“I’m sorry, March,” she said. “For her, and for you.”
He looked away, down at her hand on his sleeve. “I am sorry, too,” he said. “For her. For her.”
So Charlotte grows and learns to relate to her husband. What she never gains is an ounce of sense.
After idiotic move after idiotic move, the coup de grâce was her trying to disrupt a duel, while pregnant, by climbing a tree in the middle of the night and throwing razorbladed apples at her husband’s opponent.
I felt March’s character was inconsistent on the matter of propriety as well. Would a duke obsessed with marrying a saint barge into a mantua maker’s shop, then into the very dressing room where his bride to be — to whom he has not yet so much as been formally introduced — is being fitted? Would he then order her chaperone and servants to leave them alone, lock the door, and kiss her senseless, while a half dozen society ladies look on? I suppose the effect was supposed to be “look how she disorients him!”, and that’s usually a trope I enjoy reading, but I felt it was handled much better in books like Chase’s Lord Perfect and Mary Balogh’s Slightly Dangerous.
To sum up, I don’t care so much about the historical “accuracy” of these actions: my problem with the heroine is her ridiculous choices and the hero with his inconsistency. Even Charlotte’s aunt does a 180 when it suits the plot: this “dragon” who lectured her on “not acting like a slattern” is the one who helps her get into the tree!
On a more positive note, I did notice that this novel has lots of details and settings that I haven’t read in other historical romances. Maybe I noticed them more because the setting — 18th century — is slightly less common than Regency era. Scenes at the opera, gambling at a house party, even a breakfast at home were chock full of interesting details on everything from the clothing to the furniture to the food. The domestic scenes between Duke and Duchess were especially effective in this regard.
There’s some external conflict in the form of a villain who shows up to do something dastardly on occasion, but he isn’t fleshed out as a character. In general, no other characters were well rounded, so if you enjoy secondary characters, this is not the book for you. Charlotte’s sisters are introduced and they each get their own books in this planned trilogy, but readers will have to wait for those books to properly meet them.
I found it enjoyable and refreshing to read an arranged marriage story where the parties are quite pleased with each other and determined to make each other happy right from the start. Although I’ve read many historical romances set in London, the way Bradford wrote this one made London feel new. Despite my reservations, I kept on with this well-written novel for the hero and heroine’s interactions and slowly developing relationship.
Click here (scroll down) for an excerpt or to buy from Amazon.