My Last Duchess
The first of two novellas, My Last Duchess is a prequel to the author’s Wildes of Lindow Castle series. Set in 1766, it explains how Hugo Wilde, the Duke of Lindow, persuades Ophelia, Lady Astley, to become his third (and last) Duchess. Despite their powerful physical attraction, she rejects his first proposal, preferring the advantages of being a wealthy widow in control of her own life. When he turns his attention to another, however, she suspects her refusal may have been too hasty. Fortunately, the rest of the Wildes, including Hugo’s redoubtable twin sister Lady Knowe, decide to help out. The bedroom scenes are rather protracted, but the interaction with the supporting characters is delightful.
The second is “Storming the Castle”, one of James’ so-called “fairytale inspired novellas”. After she ill-advisedly allows her fiancé to seduce her, Philippa Damson decides she dislikes him and runs away to a castle on the other side of the great forest. There she becomes a nursemaid and falls in love. Unfortunately, Berwick, the illegitimate half-brother of the Prussian prince who owns the castle, recognizes that she is a lady and considers himself unworthy to propose marriage. Nice touches of ironic humor enliven the unlikely plot.