The Desperate Duchesses series is set in Georgian England - fantastical fashions, slightly looser morals, and a mania for chess. Think Kiera Knightly as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, in The Duchess or the whole cast of Dangerous Liaisons.
The series opens with Desperate Duchesses. Roberta, the long-suffering daughter of an eccentric marquess, is in pursuit of a duke. Not just any duke, but the dark, mysterious Duke of Villiers with whom she has a chance encounter at a party. Roberta is determined to meet him again so she travels to London to take advantage of her relationship to a cousin, Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont. Jemma has recently returned to London from Paris at the behest of her estranged husband, Elijah. Jemma agrees to guide Roberta through society. Her brother Damon, the scandalous Earl of Gryffyn, also lives at the Beaumonts' London residence with his illegitimate son.
Jemma, aside from her outrageous fashion sense, has a passion for chess. She is a master, as is her husband....and the Duke of Villiers. She is soon playing chess matches with each of them, in her bedroom, one move per day, a best of three series each. Ton gossip quickly gives the matches the tone of a sexual overture.
Roberta seems to be making headway with Villiers and he seems to like her. He even proposes marraige. Damon, however, has also taken a liking to Roberta. With a little help from his son, and a surprise visit from Roberta's oddity of a father, Damon and Roberta fall in love. The novel ends with a spectacular duel between Damon and Villiers - another parallel to chess.
With Villiers recovering from his dueling injury, the action shifts to John and Poppy, the Duke and Duchess of Fletcher, in An Affair Before Christmas. Theirs was a whirlwind lovematch, an oddity in the ton, but now the couple are estranged. Poppy doesn't believe they have anything in common any more, they are no longer affectionate with each other, and so she makes the scandalous decision to leave her husband. She moves in with Jemma. John, on the other hand, isn't quite sure what to make of his wife. He still loves her, and wants her to be happy, but he doesn't know what she wants.
Poppy and John and How They Overcome The Dreaded Hair Powder (its a really good scene and incorporates a great deal of research about the Georgian period) is the primary plot and it ends in a nice reconciliation. However, the side-plots involving Elijah's political devotee, Miss Charlotte Tatlock, and Villiers's infected dueling wound are actually a bit more interesting and provide the glue that holds this series together.
At the Twelfth Night masquerade that ends An Affair Before Christmas, Harriet, the widowed Duchess of Berrow, and Isidore, technically the Duchess of Cosway, dream up a plan for the dutiful and responsible Harriet to do something outrageous. The convalescent Villiers, reluctantly (and mostly due to a physician-imposed ban on playing chess), escorts Isidore (desperately trying to make her globe-trotting husband come home) and Harriet (cross-dressing as Villiers's young protege) to the never-ending house party at Lord Justinian Strange's estate. Everything there is decadent and amoral, just what the duchesses are looking for. Strange, though, is attracted to Villiers's ward and soon starts teaching the effeminate young man to ride, fence, and be more of a manly man. All the while, Harriet is falling in love with Lord Strange. After the previous book, where I started questioning whether to keep reading the series, the love story of Harriet - who blames herself for her husband's death - and Strange - who uses the house party to keep the world at bay - kept me reading.
Isidore's husband does indeed come to claim her. They were married by proxy as children and Simeon decamped to wander the globe before Isidore matured enough to consummate the marriage. When the Duke Returns is the story of how a passionate, intelligent woman and a man who has spent years learning the wisdom of yogis and gurus come to trust and understand one another. In a departure from the traditional hero type, Simeon is still a virgin. As a student of "the Middle Way" he strives always to be in control and the frenzy that is strong emotion (i.e. lust) works against that.
Although the romantic plotline is the central plot in the novel, the secondary plots involving the bedside chess matches, Jemma and Elijah's progression toward reconciliation and Villiers's new-found desire to raise his illegitimate children - six altogether - under his roof are more eye-catching. The novel ends with a spectacular set-piece - a prison break involving the Royal yacht, the rabble, and prison hulks (like those described in Great Expectations) - and the spectacular rescue of the Duchess of Cosway by her husband, the Duke.
Elijah also rescues Jemma from the yacht in dramatic fashion which opens their own book This Duchess of Mine. As revealed in the side-plots of the previous books Elijah has a heart condition, what we would consider an arrhythmia in this day and age. Because his father died an early death from what was likely the same disease (and in a shockingly scandalous location) Elijah feels he is running on borrowed time. While he accepts that one day he may never wake up, Jemma continues to look for a way to keep Elijah with her. They lost enough time.
This is easily my favorite novel of the six. Because James was able to work out the majority of Elijah and Jemma's past issues through the side-plots of the first four books (slowly moving from anger and hurt to understanding and forgiveness) the main plot doesn't bog down in setting up the backstory. It really concentrates on the final details necessary to bring together two characters who have overcome much personal hurt and grief to achieve their Happily Ever After. There is a lot of honesty in this novel - the scenes where Jemma really struggles with accepting the possibility that Elijah may die soon are beautifully rendered and the scenes in the Roman baths and the blindfolded, sensual chess match take on a sweet, yearning quality (aside from being very, very arousing, which they are).
Meanwhile, Villiers has been going about trying to track down his children. He finds one by the end of This Duchess of Mine - Tobias, who is stubborn, crafty, supercilious, lordly...oh, wait, it's a miniature Villiers, only covered in muck since the lawyer Villiers engaged to make sure the children were cared for decamped with their fees leaving the children God-knows-where. All of which leads Villiers to the conclusion he needs a wife - pronto. Considering that he needs a wife of proper social rank his choices are limited to two: Eleanor, daughter of the Duke of Montague, who is said to be a dreadful snob, and Lisette, daughter of the Duke of Gilner, who is supposed to be quite mad.
And so Villiers, the desperate Duke, gets the final book in the series, A Duke of Her Own. He ends up at the Gilner's country residence which, fortuitously, is near the orphanage where his twin girls have been stashed by the deceitful lawyer and where, coincidentally, Eleanor is visiting Lisette. So which should he choose as a wife? Eleanor has gained her snobbish reputation rather by accident - she is in love with the Duke of Astley, they were childhood friends, she gave him her viriginity (which no one knows about except maybe her sister), the idiot went off and married another woman (who is sickly), and lovesick Eleanor really can't countenance marrying anyone else. Lisette has a different problem - she has what we would recognize as untreated bipolar disorder...she is mad.
Complications ensue. Although Villiers would rather have Eleanor (and they do have quite a bit of fun on the riverbank), that cad Astley shows up, fresh from his wife's funeral, and immediately tries to claim Eleanor's hand. Leaving batty Lisette to announce to everyone that she and Villiers are engaged. Villiers thinks this might not be a bad thing - Lisette has no use for society or anyone's opinion of her, which is good for Villiers' half dozen illegitimate children - but Lisette deteriorates rapidly and in spectacular fashion. Eleanor gives Astley the boot but he challenges Villiers to a duel for Eleanor's honor.
There are no side-plots in this final novel, no distractions by returning to Jemma and Elijah. It's all on Villiers and he does close up the series quite well. I just think - and this is my opinion here - that I would rather have had the series close with Jemma and Elijah since their longstanding problems and Elijah's heart condition make a really nice series arc. That said, the final novel in the series was excellent. I do wish that James had brought back her first four hero/heroine couples more often. Roberta and Damon get a mention in book 4 (and a paragraph in book 5) but Poppy/Fletcher and Harriet/Strange get even less than that. It was almost like they stopped being friends with Jemma even though enough time passes between and through the series that Jemma could have read some correspondence from Harriet (or attended her wedding, perhaps?) or Elijah could have met Fletcher for whatever reason in London. It was a bit out of sight, out of mind.