Edith Layton’s The Duke’s Wager is often cited as one of the best Regency romances ever written. I picked it up after a friend who shares my affection for Georgette Heyer recommended it enthusiastically. Alas, I can’t quite share his enthusiasm, for reasons I will explain below in exhaustive (and possibly profanity-laced) detail. The short version is that while the book is well-written, I could not get past the fact that the book takes a smart and interesting heroine and then decides that her highest purpose in life is to be the catalyst for a man’s personal growth. Especially when that man is a total [bleep]ing asshole. (See? I warned you there would be profanity.)
The book’s heroine, Regina Barryman, is a tradesman’s daughter new to London. She is exceptionally well-educated and very clever, but at the beginning of the book she makes a mistake: she attends the opera on a night when members of the demimonde (read: classy prostitutes) gather to find new clients. The beautiful Regina leaves immediately when she realizes her error, but not before she has caught the eye of (cliché alert!) one of London’s most notorious rakes, the Duke of Torquay. The Duke immediately sets out to recruit Regina as his new mistress.
When Regina refuses him, the Duke spreads the rumor that Regina has already slept with him, which results in her being thrown out of her aunt’s home. The Duke assumes she will now have no choice but to become his mistress, but Regina refuses again. Instead, she seeks out her uncle’s former business partner, the Marquess of Bessacarr, and asks for his help. Bessacarr offers his protection and even sends her to be a companion to his spinster friend Amelia. Unfortunately for Regina, Bessacar is only helping her in hopes of making her his mistress.
Unexpectedly, however, both the Duke and the Marquess find themselves challenged and changed by their pursuit of Regina.
I have very strong and conflicting feelings about this book. On the one hand, it’s compelling to watch two men who are convinced that they are superior by virtue of their sex and titles deal with female, common-born Regina. Her obvious intelligence and character shakes their worldview to the core. Furthermore, Regina is a heroine to root for. Although she’s described as an “innocent,” she’s perceptive and forthright and never naïve. I also admired how skillfully the book kept us guessing about whether the Marquess or the Duke would end up with Regina.
On the other hand, oh, how I wanted this book to end with both of the guys being repeatedly kicked someplace sensitive. Neither man is anywhere near good enough for Regina. The Duke in particular really got under my skin — he spends the whole book trying to force Regina into helpless poverty so she’ll have to be his mistress or starve, for pete’s sake! Eventually we learn that he never had a good family life. You know what? Boo freaking hoo. Fetch me the world’s smallest violin, you wealthy, privileged, sociopathic jerkwad. And the Marquess isn’t any better, since he spends the book cynically trying to convince Regina that he has her best interests at heart in the hopes of getting into her pants — and thwarting his hated rival, the Duke, in the process.
I wish the book had been brave enough to end with both men realizing that they loved Regina but had lost her due to their selfish actions, and with Regina moving on to live her own life. Alas, it is not to be. As with so many “redeemed scoundrel” romances, all the hero has to do to win the woman of his dreams is to briefly stop treating her like dirt.
I think you can read this book in two ways: as the tale of a woman who rescues the man she loves from a dark and selfish existence,* or as the tale of a horrible man who convinces a wonderful woman to marry him despite treating her terribly for 9/10ths of the book. I definitely fell into the latter camp. Regina, you deserved better.
* I’m reminded of Darcy’s words at the end of Pride and Prejudice. Now there’s a great book about love and redemption and forgiveness.