Aug 6 2012 9:30am

First Look: Eloisa James’s The Ugly Duchess (August 28, 2012)

The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa JamesEloisa James
The Ugly Duchess
Avon / August 28, 2012 / 
$7.99 digital and print

How can she dare to imagine he loves her...when all London calls her The Ugly Duchess?

Theodora Saxby is the last woman anyone expects the gorgeous James Ryburn, heir to the Duchy of Ashbrook, to marry. But after a romantic proposal before the prince himself, even practical Theo finds herself convinced of her soon-to-be duke’s passion.

Still, the tabloids give the marriage six months.

Theo would have given it a lifetime...until she discovers that James desired not her heart, and certainly not her countenance, but her dowry.

Society was shocked by their wedding...and is scandalized by their separation.

Now James faces the battle of his life, convincing Theo that he loves the duckling who blossomed into the swan.

And Theo will quickly find that, for a man with the soul of a pirate, All’s Fair in Love—and War.

Ugly Duckling tales have long been popular among romance readers with a fondness for fairy tale motifs, but Eloisa James offers readers a fresh take on the fairy tale with The Ugly Duchess, Book 4 in her Happily Ever After series. An ugly duckling transforms herself into a swan with still tender scars underneath her glorious feathers and, in a reverse move, a handsome, popular swan transforms himself into a scarred ruffian shorn of his feathers.

Theodora Saxby, the title character, is the antithesis of the prevailing idea of feminine beauty. She’s not dainty or curvy or even very feminine. She’s tall, thin, and small-bosomed with strong features. Not even her mother’s insistence that Theo wear pink ruffles and pearls, nor the fortune Theo inherited from her father makes her more acceptable. She feels ugly and ill-at-ease, and she accepts society’s valuation that she looks like a man. In the Hans Christian Andersen tale that inspired this romance, the ugly duckling’s mother insists, “He is my own child, and he is not so very ugly after all if you look at him properly.” Theo has two people in her life who look at her properly, her mother and her life-long friend, James Ryburn, the son of her dead father’s best friend. Her mother and James look at Theo with love, and to them, she is beautiful. James even rejects the masculine diminutive that Theodora has adopted as her name and calls her Daisy, emphasizing his view of her as lovely and feminine.

James Ryburn is broad-shouldered, handsome, and likeable, the kind of young man who leaves young girls giggling and sighing in his wake. He’s not concerned with society’s acceptance or comfortable being a duke’s heir, but there is no question that he would be courted and celebrated if he bothered to attend social gatherings. When his father confesses that he has gambled away all his own funds and a sizeable chunk of Theo’s, James is angry. When the Duke demands that his son marry Theo to hide the crime, James is mad with fury.  The Duke’s demand and James’s response to it interferes with the natural progression of the relationship of Theo and James.

An indiscreet moment at a ball removes any chance of James’s delaying marriage to Theo. She has fallen in love with the man she has loved since infancy, and he is a seething mixture of love, lust, guilt, and shame.

In the weeks leading up to the wedding, the scandal sheets buzzed about the unlikely love match, but on the day of the wedding, one reporter audibly exclaimed, “She’s an ugly duchess and I’ll be damned if she’s ever going to turn into a swan.” The world, as Hans Christian Andersen knew, is filled with spiteful ducks. By morning the Ugly Duchess headlines all the newspapers, and caricatures of her and an appalled groom appear in shop windows. Theo is devastated, but James persuades her that he loves her and finds her beautiful. Thus, when she learns the next morning, in particularly humiliating circumstances, of the Duke’s plan, James’s betrayal is unpardonable. Theo orders him out of her life and out of the country, and he can only obey her. The two are heartbreakingly young.

Theo retreats to the Ryburn country estate and uses her considerable intelligence to repair the damage the Duke’s gambling has done to the family fortunes. Theo’s physical transformation comes only after years have passed, it comes at the time she chooses, and she uses her own sense of texture, line, and color to effect it. After she has captured Paris, she conquers London. That she does so in a gown of “pearly pink silk taffeta” and a cape that “gleamed under the light, soft and lustrous” and made of “gorgeous swansdown” are perfect touches.

The woman poised at the top of the stairs, looking down at all of them with a little smile that indicated absolute self-confidence, looked like a goddess who happened to come down to earth by way of Paris. She radiated that sort of ineffable glamour that simply cannot be learned. . . .

As Theo’s host and friend, who is also the cousin and heir of her absent husband, says, “All those people who called her ‘the ugly duchess’ are eating their words. . . . The countess has turned into a swan, and she’s dropped them all on their arses by making fun of it.”

Meanwhile, James is at sea—literally at sea. He has become a privateer, and he’s no longer “a pretty voice and a handsome face.” In fact, his skin is so bronzed that those who look at him aren’t even sure that he’s an Englishman. His hair has grown since he shaved his head, but it’s still shorter than any self-respecting gentleman’s should be. He describes himself as “tattooed and scarred, and bigger than hell.” Even his voice has changed, thanks to a pirate who cut his throat. He has seen and done things the young Earl of Islay could not have imagined.

The changes wrought by almost seven years apart are not only external.  The public nature of James’s return may bring back Theo’s memories of feeling unloved and unlovable and make her feel as if her metamorphosis had never occurred, but she understands now that she must value herself, regardless of what others think of her. James may have let his own feelings of worthlessness keep him from his country and his wife for too long, but he has made the choice to refuse to let guilt control him any longer. What they must do in order to achieve their happily ever after is to protect the strength and wisdom experience has brought and resurrect the joy and love they once shared. When they are able to do this, the reader learns that the story of Theo and James is not really an ugly duckling tale after all, at least not to the two people most intimately involved in the story.


Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
I think this is my new favorite Eloisa James. I loved that, like you said, it wasn't an ugly duckling story at all to James and Theo, whatever it may have looked like to outsiders. They always loved each other for who they really were--they just needed the rest of the world to get out of their way (well, and okay, in the end they did kind of need to get out of their own ways a bit too). It was really really fun to go through all of that with them.
3. Janga
redline_, it's my new favorite too, at least among the fairy tale romances. My attachment to Pleasure for Pleasure is such that it will likely never be replaced as my top fave.

I think a lot of people are loving The Ugly Duchess. It's received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal and a rare 10 from RT.
4. fsbuchler
Hi Janga, Execellent Review! I would say as usual, because I always love your reviews, but this time you have outdone yourself! You have captured the tone, heart and spirit of "The Ugly Duchess" perfectly! This is also my favorite, so far, of Eloisa's fairy tale series. To me it also has a different feel to it than Eloisa's usual style, and I mean that in the most positive way possible. As I have stated eslewhere, it's as if she has axcessed another part of her enormous talent to tell this tale and it works beautifully. I can't wait to see what she has in store for us next!


PS. "Pleasure for Pleasure" is also my over all favorite of her books!
5. Janga
Thanks, Flora. It really is a wonderful book. I especially appreciated that Theo effects her own transformation and that it is based on skills she has always possessed. And I too am really eager to see what EJ does with Rapunzel.
6. SElaine
I almost wish I could go back and unread this review. I felt almost like it had spoilers. However, I'm so looking forward to this book. I love Eloisa James' stories! My favorite so far is Pleasure for Pleasure :)
7. coronercountess
My goodness, this sounds so much like 1949's "The Heiress", only minus the element of revenge. I definitely have to give this a read.
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