The Case Against Dukes

That was Then, This is Now

Last week I blogged in support of dukes. You can read that post here. But the gist of my argument had a fairly narrow focus, in that I blogged about people who complain that dukes in stories far out number real dukes during the Regency.

This week I take up the opposite case, and that’s in spite of the number of people who anticipated this in the comments.

The Real, the Hyper-Real and the Meta-Real

Genre fiction has several challenges one of which is home grown. Focusing on Romance as the genre of choice for this discussion, when a writer is working with some set of known parameters (a happy ending, say) then BY DEFINITION the reader knows that certain terrible things, even if threatened, will not actually happen. Neither the hero or the heroine will die. The obstacles in the path to love WILL be resolved.

Because of this, a Romance writer has to be even more adept at crafting those elements of the story so that they rise above the trope (or don’t fall into cliche, take your pick) and still give readers the satisfaction they expect from a Romance.

Let’s Get Historical

In Regency Historical Romance, the world is typically a rarefied one. The characters tend to be socially comfortable, and given the gender/class/economic divisions and that emergence of a true middle class is several years down the road, the characters tend to be the economic and social elite and the men tend to wield more power than the women.

That is, the heroes are wealthy and the women marry up into a strata and to a husband that offers them protection that is economic, physical and emotional. The women are made safe in all these realms while the hero tends to be made safe in the emotional realm since he’s usually already safe economically and physically and almost always safe socially.

Why Dukes?

Readers love that social imbalance of power and the rise of a heroine into that balance. The hero is powerful in all the things that will offer a heroine safety during a time when women were dependent on men for their safety. He’s Prince Charming and his heroine is going to democratize him. Within that socially elite setting the nobleman is almost (but not exclusively) the only option for the hero.

Trouble On the Horizon

Part of any story is the adept use of contrasts. The hero needs to be socially and economically powerful. A nobleman pretty much fits the bill. So, says the author. My hero must be UBER powerful so he better be a duke! (Because, rats, there’s only one Prince and that job is filled, and there’s only one King, and he’s incapacitated.)

And right there’s the problem that so many pointed out in last week’s comments. My Hero must be the MOST powerful so he’s a duke! Yay! Duke. And that’s all the thought that goes into it. He’s a duke the way a 21st century rich man drives a Lamborghini. Because it’s a symbol.

If all a writer does is pick the symbols and nothing more, that way lies tedium.

And that, my friends, is why it can feel like there are too many dukes.

Now What?

I adore a well done duke. I really do. But I want him to actually be a duke. I don’t want his nobility to be just a symbol.

What about you?

About carolyn

Carolyn Jewel was born on a moonless night. That darkness was seared into her soul and she became an award winning and USA Today bestselling author of historical and paranormal romance. She has a very dusty car and a Master’s degree in English that proves useful at the oddest times. An avid fan of fine chocolate, finer heroines, Bollywood films, and heroism in all forms, she has two cats and a dog. Also a son. One of the cats is his.
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17 Responses to The Case Against Dukes

  1. Hi Carolyn, that’s my problem in a nutshell. Most of the time, a Duke in a historical romance novel is just a symbol, there seems to be no real thought sometimes as to what it really means to be a Duke, what his reponsibilities would be, how he would have been raised. And being married to a Duke wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The wife of the Duke of Manchester ran off with his gardener, The Duchess of Devonshire was particularly unhappy in her marriage, not to mention Consuelo Vanderbilt who was married for her money. I imagine that being married to a Duke is a little bit less stressful than being married to a royal Prince but not by much.

  2. Diane Gaston says:

    Right!! I said that last week. A duke in a romance should at least act like a duke and not be merely a generic nobleman.

    Same for a marquis, only less so…

    An earl can be a generic nobleman 🙂

  3. Isobel Carr says:

    I’ve never really thought about it in quite the terms you’ve laid out, and I sincerely hope that readers don’t need all those elements, since the basis of my new series is that the heroes are NOT economically secure (all younger sons, though one of their fathers is a duke *grin*). Obviously the couples must end up physically, emotionally, and economically sound for the HEA, but it’s all part of their journey.

  4. Isobel Carr says:

    @Elizabeth Kerri Mahon: You make a good point, but those dukes and duchesses were missing one of the three legs that holds up the HEA for the dukes of Romancelandia: Emotional soundness.

  5. Dtchycat says:

    I do hate it when the Duke in a book has time to run around being a spy – who exactly is taking care of all the duties when he is gone? So, actually, to clarify my original comment, I do love a Duke who can be happy with just being a Duke…save they spying for those lower members of the aristocracy like the Marquis and/or brothers of the Duke…

  6. Carolyn says:

    Thanks for all the comments:

    Isobel: I had to keep qualifying my statements because there are several authors who are writing wonderful historicals that don’t feature noblemen: Courtney Milan, Elizabeth Hoyt and you, to name just three.

    But even in these no-dukes stories the 3 stability elements are present, but without the possibility of the crutch of a title, if you see what I mean.

  7. Erastes says:

    i have got to the stage where I think “yawn yawn” when I see “earl this” or “duke that” – so many writers get the names and the titles wrong, and the mindset wrong. But it’s just too much.

    there were a lot of other people in the regency. Vanity fair is full of them, i’d rather read about the ordinary people, or the desperately poor. far more interesting.

  8. So far I’ve published one book with a noble hero (but “only” a viscount) and one with a decidedly common one…and I have to say, I get a bit tired of the woman almost always being the one to marry up whether the hero is a duke or not. I like to think there’s room in the genre, even the Regency part of it, for other kinds of fantasy.

  9. Susan in AZ says:

    On Dukes versus spies: Stephanie Laurens handled this conundrum well with her Bastion Club series, where 7 men who were spies suddenly inherited assorted titles. They were immediately relieved of their “spy” jobs, which upset them; being men they thought they could continue such risky “behaviour” when they had each inherited numerous female dependents as well. The heroines’ jobs were to convince the men that protecting the brood (and a special someone) would be just as challenging as the previous spy job. Not to make Ms. Laurens out to be a paragon, but this is why her books sell so well despite some truly awkward sentence structures.

    Susan in AZ

  10. Thinking more about my own comment and gut reaction…I think there are two fantasies fueling a large chunk of historical romance and really of genre fiction in general: The Glamor Fantasy and the Adventure Fantasy. Both are about a life less mundane and routine than that of the average reader, but in contrasting and often contradictory ways.

    In the Glamor Fantasy, the reader gets ease, comfort, and beauty. In the Adventure Fantasy, you get action, excitement, and usually a chance to bring about justice and/or change the world. I think most of us have both these fantasies to one degree or another, and most of our books try to offer both.

    A “realistic” Regency duke (allowing him to be younger, handsomer, less married, and more stable than most actual dukes) would be heavy on the Glamor but light on the Adventure–which is probably why we see so many of the spy dukes that I and so many other commenters here have trouble accepting.

    If I have to pick just one fantasy, I’ll go with Adventure–which I think is why I’m more interested in the Napoleonic Wars than any other aspect of the Regency. And I have trouble with the spy dukes because my pedantic history geek side just doesn’t believe in them. But build me a convincing world where I can believe that Glamor and Adventure go hand in hand (say, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga), and I’m all over it.

  11. Susan in AZ says:

    For Susanna and Isobel (love love love your names!); YES!! Finally, there are yummy historical romances with non-noble Heroes! I look forward to your books.


  12. Isobel Carr says:

    @Erastes: I personally don’t see how a book about average people or poor people is automatically superior or preferable to those about the aristocracy. The few I’ve seen have had just as many, if not more, accuracy and believably problems as your run-of-the-mill duke historical. But I do agree that I’d love to the genre boundaries expand to include stories about more average people (Cranford-esque if you like).

  13. Kat says:

    I love a good pompous Duke who knows what he’s about then the heroine can remind him of what he is missing.

  14. Elena Greene says:

    Well you know I agree with you here, Carolyn. I love fictional dukes if the pressures as well as the advantages are part of the story. For instance, all the people who need/want/expect/demand things from the duke. How each fictional duke copes with that (maybe not so well, at the beginning of the story!) could make him an interesting individual.

    Isobel, I love the idea of younger sons’ stories. Always for variety in my fantasy men. 🙂

  15. I think you may have very well hit at the heart of the matter. While one doesn’t want to write a stereotypical duke, there are certain expectations about the behavior and habits of a man in this position in the early nineteenth century. His upbringing and education and the nature of his duties would contribute a great deal to his character and views on life.

    Wulfric Bedwyn of the Slightly series by Mary Balogh comes to mind. He could be a pompous ass, but he was raised to be a pompous ass to a certain degree. His siblings went out and had the adventures and he stayed home and took care of his dukedom, his land, his people and yes, in many ways, his siblings. It was his duty and his lot in life.

    Realistically portrayed there is quite a bit there with which to work. The skill of the writer is, in all likelihood, the deciding factor.

  16. Diane Gaston says:

    Another book that had a duke done right was Mary Blayney’s Stranger’s Kiss, which was also nominated by RT for Best Innovative Historical.

    See more here:

  17. Carolyn says:

    Awesome convo going on here!

    Susannah Fraser: Very interesting take on Glamor vs. Adventure! I think you’re def. on to something.

    Erastes: I agree that a lot of authors seems to get the details wrong. That’s always baffled me because it’s not that hard to find out what’s right.

    My reading needs and tastes fluctuate all the time. Sometimes I just need a good Duke fantasy where I know everything will come out all right, and other times I need something else.

    The Girl in the Blue Dress was a lovely novel about the desperately poor, but I don’t know how many books like that in a row I could stand before getting too depressed and needing some lighter fare.

    Kat: YES! I love a good pompous duke, too, at least from time to time.

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