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Book Review: ‘Duchesses – Living in 21st Century Britain’ by Jane Dismore

9781905825851This latest book by Jane Dismore explores the lives of ten non-royal Duchesses living in Britain today. Dismore was given the chance to enter into the world of these modern-day aristocrats by visiting their ancestral homes and interviewing the Duchesses personally.

With a different chapter focusing on each Duchess, readers can learn about how these women met their aristocratic husbands, what their expectations were when they married into a noble family and what their roles are in today’s society. Each Duchess has also picked a ‘favourite’ Duchess who has previously held their noble title, and discussed what their role in their society at the time was and why they stick out to them as a remarkable Duchess.

The women included in this book are the Duchesses of Abercorn, Argyll, Montrose, Rutland, Bedford, Buccleuch, Northumberland, Somerset, Leinster and St Albans.

Duchesses is the perfect kind of book to keep on your bookshelf to flick through on a cold, rainy Sunday afternoon. Although it may not be the most academic of books, it certainly displays interesting questions about the relevance of our modern day nobility and takes a peek into the lives of 21st century aristocrats. With glossy pictures and portraits of the Duchesses, their family members and ancestral homes, along with plenty of historical background and insight into the Duchesses’ personal lives, it makes for quite light reading.

After introducing each Duchess in their own chapter, the description of their background and lineage may confuse readers by all of the different names, titles and jobs described for (what seems to be) every single person that’s mentioned throughout the book. In this sense, the focus of the chapter can become distorted, as it moves away from the Duchess in question and begins to describe all of the people who have some form of connection with her or another family member.

However, this was the only real issue that I had with the book. The genealogy of each Duchess is fascinating, especially when learning about where and when their title originated from. Those who are fans of the Tudors will take an interest in the Duchess of Somerset’s chapter; the background on Thomas and Edward Seymour during the sixteenth century is particularly clear and informative for readers.

The Duchess of St Albans’ chapter was particularly fascinating to read, especially because of the background surrounding the creation of the title of St Albans. Charles II produced this dukedom after persistent demands from his mistress Nell Gwyn forced him to present a title to the first of their illegitimate children. It’s interesting to read about how the present-day Duchess looks back on her title’s fascinating history with great romanticism, especially when discussing Charles and Nell’s relationship in comparison to the King’s relations with his other mistresses.

A great deal of research has certainly gone into this book and this is demonstrated in the ‘favourite Duchess’ chapters, chosen by each of the current Duchesses. No one can doubt that each of the titles included in this book are steeped in great history and enchanting stories. It is quite saddening, as Dismore highlights, that there are only 24 non-royal dukedoms left in Britain today, especially when they all have such historical significance behind them. In this sense, it is reassuring and enjoyable to read about the current Duchesses of Britain who we do not hear about very often, or at all for that matter.

Duchesses has embraced technology and created an app to accompany the book. By using this app, readers can watch videos focusing on five of the Duchesses featured in the book, and witness footage of their homes and family trees, alongside interviews with them and other additional content.

The blurb of Duchesses states: “The title of ‘duchess’ has long been part of Britain’s heritage. In 2011, it was brought up to date with the marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, when the Queen conferred a number of titles on her son, among them Duke of Cambridge. Catherine joined that select group of the highest ranking duchesses, well-known royals whose husbands are dukes as members of the Royal Family.

But another group of women sit just one notch down from royalty, at the top of the aristocratic tree with their dukes. These non-royal duchesses enjoy titles that were bestowed by monarchs for centuries but they are a dying breed: it is unlikely that any more non-royal dukedoms will be created.

Here, for the first time, ten of Britain’s non-royal duchesses speak candidly about their role and their lives in the 21st century, an era when privilege is an unpopular concept. Each duchess also selects her favourite ancestor in the role, providing a colourful gallery from the 17th to the 20th century. The parallel biographies provide a thought-provoking comparison – for what does it mean to be a duchess in the 21st century? The results are often surprising and always fascinating.”

About the author: Jane Dismore previously worked as an English teacher and a solicitor. Her first non-fiction book (The Voice from the Garden: Pamela Hambro and the Tale of Two Families Before and After the Great War) was published in 2012. Dismore’s debut was included in the top twelve books listed for the New Angle Prize for Literature in 2013.

Duchesses Living in 21st Century Britain was published by Blink Publishing on 4th September. Hardback copies are priced at £20.

  • Cheryl Webb Clair

    Just one thing wrong with all of this, in the blurb, it says the Queen conferred a number of titles on her son, among them Duke of Cambridge. Prince William, Duke of Cambridge is not her son, he is her grandson. Other than that, I hope I can find this book here in Ireland, it looks fascinating.

  • xashax007

    The book sounds interesting. I am interested in the royals and this read sure looks worth buying.

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