To love a duke: What’s in a title?

If you enjoy a good historical romance, particularly one set in the Regency, you’ve probably noticed the sheer number of aristocrats inhabiting its pages. A plethora of peers wandering around, filling ballrooms and masquerades with their noble presence.

Every second character, it seems, is Lord Fancypants, or Lady Ballgown (though with better names, of course).  It’s fairly likely that the hero of the book will be of noble birth. Even if he’s a spy, or he’s just come out of Wellington’s army, he won’t be your average Mr. Jones. Or even Mr. Darcy.

No, he’s going to be, at the very least, a viscount, maybe an earl. Chances are that he’s going to be at the top of the pecking order: a duke, no less.

Is Mr. Darcy not eligible enough anymore?

I think it’s fascinating to try to understand the allure of the titled hero. One of the things that attracts many readers to romance is the fantasy of the man who is not only heart-stoppingly attractive, but capable and powerful as well. The alpha male. The one who will fulfill both our sexual desires and our biological imperative to choose a mate who’ll father the strongest offspring. Then he’ll go out and pay the bills, and when he comes home, he’ll bring chocolate.

Or am I the only one who fantasizes about that last part?

In contemporary romance, the alpha male can take many guises: the ruthless businessman, the millionaire playboy, the leader of the werewolf pack, the firefighter, the cop.

For some reason, the choices for alpha male hero in the historical romance are more limited. Whilst the knight, the cowboy and the pirate have enjoyed a strong following in the past, it seems that we’ve almost forgotten the allure of most of these hero types in favor of the English nobleman.

What is interesting to me about this shift in preferences is that the knight, cowboy and pirate heroes all share a type of rugged physicality that, on the face of it, the aristocratic hero doesn’t have. The Regency lord may also be a Corinthian, able to negotiate turns in his high-perch phaeton that would intimidate a lesser whip, flooring Gentleman John Jackson with his punishing right hook. He’s probably also a bit of a dandy:  able to tie his cravat into creations that would rival a Gordian knot, his coat and pantaloons clinging to every well-toned muscle.

But a Corinthian or dandy is not required to hold a title.

The pirate hero: all at sea now?

So, if it’s merely about physical prowess, the aristocratic hero doesn’t qualify to be an alpha male at all. What may qualify him instead is the aura of wealth and influence that pervades the nobleman hero. Whilst Lord Fancypants may not be able to hoist his own sails, he’s the one who can keep the heroine in style, elegance and luxury, and ensure that her children are brought up in the warm, oversized rooms at Fancypants House, where the fires don’t smoke and they can burn as many candles as they like.

Whatever the appeal, I’m as much drawn to Regency aristocrats as anyone else. I enjoy writing about them, though not every one of my heroes is going to be a lord. There are so many wonderful fictional men out there, and variety is the spice of life (at least when it comes to the life of our imagination). Whether he’s titled or not, my hero is going to be wealthy and powerful—and he’ll have lots of leisure time to drink at his club, race his curricle and pursue the heroine (not necessarily in that order).

However, it seems that for many the hero must be not just a peer, but a member of a very exclusive club. Lord Fancypants has to be promoted to His Grace, the Duke of Fanciestpants.

Is it that, if an aristocratic hero is desirable, then a hero who is at the top of the aristocracy is most desirable? Are more and more of us being drawn only to the uber-rich and powerful? The elite of the elite? If that is so, then why aren’t there more romances with fictional princes as hero? Or kings? Because such stories take us out of the Regency England we are familiar with?

A real duke! This portrait of William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, was painted in 1811, when he was 21 years of age. This most eligible gentleman never married, though he did have a variety of banana named after him.

According to Jennifer Kloester in her book Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, there were eighteen dukes in existence in 1820. Subtract from that eighteen any who are outside the desirable age range, or already married, and you’re left with very few eligible prospects.

Yet, with the number of books out there with the word Duke somewhere in the title, you’d think the Regency was chock-full of them.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop making our heroes dukes merely because the odds of marrying one may have been extremely low in reality. A ducal hero is still plausible, and certainly speaks to the fantasy of that powerful alpha male. But can’t we love a lesser peer as well? Not every hero has to be at the very top echelon of society. There is nothing inherently less sexy about an earl, a viscount, or even a baronet (say, Sir Fotherall Fancypants) as the leading man.

Surely, there is even room in our hearts for a hero who doesn’t have a title at all: Mr. Plainpants.

After all, even Mr. Plainpants, if he’s anything like Mr. Darcy, will have enough wealth, assets, and social clout to keep the heroine in the style to which we’d all like to become accustomed. Not to mention just as heart-stoppingly attractive.

What do you think: is it a duke or nothing?


5 thoughts on “To love a duke: What’s in a title?

  1. The hero in my current regency WIP is a Mr Plainpants: a vicar. While I do like reading about peers, my imagination is more firmly rooted in the gentry, with characters of a similar social standing to those Jane Austen created. I think there is perhaps more drama when everything is not handed to the hero on a plate… and even if it is, I don’t think he must be titled to be extraordinary.

    I love your blog – it’s so beautiful!

  2. Thanks for commenting, Charlotte. I do rather like the idea of a vicar hero. I don’t know if you’re writing a sensual romance, but if so, there’s the potential for some great internal conflict–his desires vs. issues of his duty/a need to follow convention/his reputation. Or perhaps your hero entered the church, not as a vocation, but simply as a career, as many clergymen did in those days, of course. Either way, a vicar hero is refreshingly different. I remember one of the characters in Georgette Heyer’s Cotillion was a vicar. Not the hero, unfortunately.

  3. I don’t know, I kind of like Lord Fancypants and Lady Ballgown as names. 🙂 Titled men enthrall me too, Jillian, although I do have second sons as my heroes. I guess I’m not sure why these men appeal to me, and yet they do. The Regency is my favorite time period, although I read other historical’s as well. But I love the attitude of the time period, along with the clothing, the pageantry, and even the rounds of parties many felt obligated to attend. Perhaps it is as you say and these dukes carry a certain aura and mastery of self-confidence that tell a woman he is your hero. That this man will love, defend, and care for you like no other. I rarely have dukes as my heroes, because of the very reasons you mentioned. I do have Mr. Plainpants in my stories, but he’s often a secondary character, but that is not to say he doesn’t have a love story. I do find that my heroines often do not come from ideal backgrounds and I find it fun overcoming the differences in class structure and the strict morals of the time. I find this particularly fun when I write my Time Travels. I love taking a 21st century woman and throwing her back to the Regency Period. These scenes set up perfectly for my sense of humor. Great blog!

    LA Hilden

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