Earlier today, I wandered over to Julia Quinn’s website to take a peek at the excerpt of her new book, The Lost Duke of Wyndham. There is, as you may have guessed, a crusty dowager involved, one who, the narrator very quickly informs us, does not have a heart of gold.
This line caught my attention because I’d had a very similar revelation about the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale, reigning crusty dowager of the Pink books, while I was working on Pink V. Despite the dowager’s slighting comments about her granddaughter, Charlotte, in previous books, I had gone into Pink V fully expecting to discover that beneath the dowager’s demoniacal exterior lurked hidden springs of grandmotherly affection. After all, everyone knows that crusty dowagers in novels always have hearts of gold. It’s practically written in the warranty.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some gold lurking beneath the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale’s tough carapace. To her credit, the dowager uncritically adores Charlotte’s scapegrace friend Penelope. In Book V, when Penelope gets herself into a spot of bother, it’s the dowager who comes stampeding to the rescue, bullying everyone into place on Penelope’s behalf. But the dowager duchess knows what she likes and she knows what she doesn’t like, and she just plain doesn’t like Charlotte.
Part of it is family history. Every time the dowager looks at Charlotte, the girl is a galling reminder of the marriage the dowager failed to prevent, a marriage between her only son and a mealy-mouthed little vicar’s daughter. The dowager is still gnashing her teeth over that one. It wasn’t just that she had a grand match planned for him (although that rankles, too)—it was that her only child dared to defy her. And was happy having done so. That she can never forgive. It doesn’t help that Charlotte looks like her mother’s people, small and fair.
Even so, had Charlotte been more like Penelope, the duchess would probably have taken her to her rather thorny bosom and enthusiastically coached her as a successor. But Charlotte is the dowager’s opposite in every possible way. Where the dowager is an old-fashioned dynast, Charlotte is a sentimentalist. The dowager reads Machiavelli; Charlotte reads Evelina. Having spent her life fighting, clawing, scheming for the advancement of the House of Dovedale, the dowager looks at Charlotte and sees the expiration of all her plots and plans, all wasted on a little chit who couldn’t say boo to a goose. The dowager takes Charlotte’s reserve for weakness, entirely missing the fact that Charlotte is, without making a ruckus about it, just as stubborn as her grandmother.
And perhaps, just perhaps, part of the problem is that the duchess is a born manager—and Charlotte won’t let herself be managed. Sometimes, hiding in a book can be a more effective (and irritating) means of rebellion than shouting back. In her own quiet way, Charlotte gives as good as she gets.
Perhaps we can say that the Dowager has a heart of… brass?