Once Upon a Marquess came out a couple of years ago to high expectations and was received with some disappointment. It was still a Milan, so it was still better than your average Romance, but it lacked the ease of her previous books. I am glad that I opted to reread it in anticipation of the forthcoming After the Wedding. Without the weight of expectation and with the context of some of the issues with which the author has struggled, it was a much better read.
One of the reasons many of us enjoy Courtney Milan’s books, apart from her excellent writing, is the depth she brings to her characters and world. Her books are fiercely feminist and a celebration of strong women and the men who love them. Milan has also been in the vanguard of opening up the romance genre to greater diversity. She isn’t content to smash the patriarchy, she also wants to dismantle white supremacy. I recently read a presentation by author Elizabeth Kingston on the normalization of white supremacy in romance. Not in the making Nazis into heroes way (though there are those books), but in the failure to include people of color and the reality of how British dukes made their fortunes way. It’s clear to me that Milan is trying to address the ugly reality of the world in the fantasy of romance. At the time of publication, Milan did talk about the difficulty she had with the book, scrapping one version of it entirely. It is an atypical and awkward story, but sweet and rewarding nonetheless.
Judith Worth is a strong woman. She has had to be strong. Just before she was to make her social debut, her father and brother were convicted of treason and the family was stripped of its wealth. Judith has cared for her younger brother and sister, Benedict and Theresa, and struggled to provide funds for her absent sister Camilla’s debut. She becomes concerned when her solicitor refuses to answer questions about the funds she laid aside for Camilla and seeks out the help of the titular Marquess, Christian Trent.
Judith and Christian both have to look past who they think they ought to be and how they think the world ought to be ordered.
If I’d married,” she said softly, “I would never know what I was capable of doing.”
The structures of class and social expectations have imposed unnecessary barriers to a happy and productive life on them both. As difficult as they are, Milan asserts that they also deserve a happy ending.
Once Upon a Marquess deals with the Opium Wars with China, the bad acts of the British in the tea trade, and references the brutality of the sugar trade. In addition, our hero has some real Obsessive Compulsive disorder issues that genuinely make life difficult for him, and the youngest sister, Theresa, is neuro-atypical. It’s a lot in one book, and was overwhelming when I read it two years ago. Now, with some understanding and on a second read, I enjoyed it much more. I think the soul of this book is really the friendship between Judith and her neighbor, Daisy. For years they shopped together, spinning fantasies and keeping things light. They have not fully shared the challenges and burdens they face. Finally, when Daisy can no longer ignore her financial situation and Judith faces the reality of her brother’s actions, they are honest with each other. In that moment of truth and connection, the women finally have the friendship they deserve. As a reader, I almost cried. The romance between Judith and Christian never gave me that catharsis.
I am so excited to read After the Wedding. Milan has grown as a writer and I look forward to seeing how Camilla’s story unfolds. It may not be easy, but it will be interesting.