In The Ugly Duchess (2012), 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. This is one of the most beautifully crafted romances I have ever read. 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 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.
The story turns into one of the marriage-in-trouble tales at which Eloisa James excels. Theodora and her hero are heartbreakingly young when they part, but as tragic as the separation is, it allows both of them to experience transformation. 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. Her 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 cape made of “gorgeous swansdown” is the perfect touch.
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 for James, upon his return he is 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 wonder in this story is not that James and his Daisy find their HEA but that for James, who has always seen Daisy as beautiful, this is not really an ugly duckling tale after all.
Once Upon a Tower (2013), based upon the story of Rapunzel, is the fifth and final of the fairytale romances. James, a Shakespeare professor in her academic life, has described it as “a Romeo meets Rapunzel mash-up,” adding that the idea for the novel came from her pondering “what Romeo and Juliet’s marriage would look like if their parents hadn't been so grumpy.” The novel’s hero and heroine, Gowan Stoughton of Craigievar, Duke of Kinross, Chief of Clan MacAulay, and Lady Edith Gilchrist, are older than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but they are still very young: he is twenty-two, and she is nineteen when they meet. Like Romeo, Gowan falls in love at first sight.
Again, James does a marvelous job of weaving elements of the original tale into her story even as she adds twists to render her re-vision unique. Edie is beautiful like Rapunzel. In fact Gowan’s comparison of her hair to the “golden apples of the sun” echoes the description from the Grimm Brothers’ tale (1812) that calls Rapunzel “the most beautiful child under the sun.” Rapunzel is musical as well. It is her voice that first enchants the king’s son. Edie is a cellist rather than a singer, but her playing enchants Gowan the first time he hears her. Rapunzel and her prince marry, but they must overcome obstacles before they begin their HEA. Edie and Gowan’s story follows the same pattern. The prince wanders blind, weeping over the loss of his wife. Gowan’s blindness is metaphoric, but he too wanders and weeps for the same cause. And in both stories, the wife’s tears are healing.
The twist comes with the tower. Rapunzel is shut into a tower that “had neither stairs nor door, but quite at the top was a little window.” The tower sounds similar to Edie’s, but Edie chooses to shut herself into her tower rather than being imprisoned there by an enchantress. Readers with a Freudian leaning may see the tower as a phallic symbol. I was more interested in seeing Edie’s making choices and taking action as evidence of her maturing and recognizing her autonomy, qualities that link Edie more closely to Charlotte Rose de Caumont de la Force’s version of the tale, "Persinette" (1697).
I think James doesn’t get enough credit for the skill with which she uses details of clothing, not merely as descriptive detail but to reveal something significant or to provoke an incident. I love what she does with The Dress in this book. I can’t say too much about this without moving into spoiler territory, but readers will understand the importance of The Dress--the one that makes you look the way you want to look, the one that affects him exactly the way you want it too. Edie wears such a dress. It is “China rose. . . . Darker than cinnabar, more saturated than claret . . . well, close to claret.” It is amazing, and it leads to a Moment. The only other thing I’m going to say is that nobody can make a kiss on the hand as sexy as Eloisa James does.
That brings us to My American Duchess, EJ’s January 26 release. Although it is not a fairytale novel, with its plot of an American heiress who arrives in London in search of a husband and ends up a duchess to her great surprise, it certainly has a fairytale quality. James combines a handful of proven tropes in this one: love at first sight, twins, love triangle, and marriage in trouble as well as the obvious American in London. If you know James’s work, you will not be surprised that she gives each of these a twist that makes it her own.
We have seen runaway-bride romances, but My American Duchess is runaway-ex-fiancée-romance. Merry Pelford has run away from two broken engagements and a reputation as a fickle heartbreaker. Her reputation cannot survive another broken engagement, but it is clear to the reader from the opening of the novel that this is the direction in which Merry is headed. But then James gives the storyline a couple of unexpected turns that create moments of anxiety and elation for the reader.
Merry is something of a paradox. She is both confident and insecure, both proud of her Americanness and at times apologetic for her Yankee uncouthness. Regardless, she is delightful and engaging. Trent is the reserved duke, not arrogant exactly but nonetheless fully aware of who he is and the ways in which his dukedom defines him. He needs Merry, something he realizes subconsciously from the time he first sees her. I loved both these characters and who they become with each other. Of course, that reaction is pretty much a given since this is an Eloisa James book.
I have referred to these six books as standalones, and I hold to that in the sense that each gives its readers a world complete and satisfying within itself. But three of the fairytale books—A Kiss at Midnight, The Duke Is Mine, and The Ugly Duckling—have connected novellas, and the final sentence of My American Duchess can be interpreted as a hint that there will be a novel or novella connected to Merry and Trent’s world.
Do you prefer standalones or connected novels?
Which of EJ’s fairytale novels most surprised you?
What other fairy tale would you like to see EJ use as inspiration for a romance novel?
Janga will send one randomly chosen person leaving a comment one book of their choice from the Eloisa James books spotlighted in parts one and two. (U.S. addresses only)