Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore is easily going to feature on my Best Books of the Year list. I loved it for its brightly intelligent observations, finely nuanced emotions, smart pacing, and engaging writing.
Annabelle Archer fights her cousin tooth-n-nail to give up her thankless job of unpaid labor in his household and become one of the earliest female students at Oxford. That she has a scholarship and also sends him back money makes him more amenable to allowing her to go. But Annabelle’s scholarship comes with strings attached, because her benefactor is the National Society of Women’s Suffrage. And as such, it requires her to attend marches and rallies and petition Members of Parliament and wealthy, influential peers of the realm.
It is on one such quest that Annabelle accosts Sebastian Devereux, the Duke of Montgomery and brazenly asks him to amend the Married Women’s Property Act. Their encounter, though brief, is memorable, not only to the protagonists, but also to the reader. Dunmore puts every ounce of awareness of the senses into that scene. That is when I realized that I was in the hands of a superb writer. And it proved to be true as the book progressed.
Dunmore has built an unforgettable protagonist in the Duke of Montgomery. He reminded me again and again of Jo Beverley’s Marquess of Rothgar in his intelligence, integrity, self-confidence, sense of self-worth, power over people around him including royalty, and quiet vulnerability beneath the seemingly unbreakable armor of his personality. And Annabelle is the perfect foil for such a man with her intelligence, confidence, and self-esteem that successfully hide her own vulnerabilities.
Annabelle and Montgomery come from vastly different stations in life: he is one step down from royalty; she is barely of the genteel classes. They could have nothing in common, not experiences, not upbringing, not friends. But instead they find books and thoughts that jive together that slowly build into an unimaginable companionship. Their progress into love is by degrees — cautious and careful — and is believable, not only because of the sizzling attraction between them since their first meeting, but because of the meeting of minds. Companionship and common interests and common ground combined with bone-deep trust and respect make for a happy ever after that I have every faith will endure, because I know that together, they make a formidable pair against the difficulties life is going to throw at them.
I enjoy books where the protagonists have deep, abiding interests and passions other than spending time in each other’s company. Montgomery’s involvement in political maneuvering and Annabelle’s immutable belief in women’s rights imbue each with a sense of energy and purpose that hones their characters into complex people. Thus their coming together is not one of co-dependency, but rather, one of individuals on equal footing.
But alas, in Victorian England, class did play a big role in how society worked. Annabelle and Montgomery are deeply enmeshed in their love for each other but also in their place in society and culture. He cannot consign his politics, his life’s work (bringing his country’s seat back into the dukedom), and his hereditary title to the flames in order to marry a nobody. He desperately wants to, she wants him to, but how can he? Each thinks: I love you more than my own happiness. Yet he is a powerful man of his times and his world. I marveled at how realistic Dunmore makes his struggles seem, for as Dunmore says in her author’s note, “[Every person] needs a place to call home, someone to hold dear, someone who cherishes them for who they are.” And so while the conclusion of the story comes as a shock, it is as stunning as it is inevitable.
This is a book worth savoring.