Lest he succumb: subjects and subjunctives, objects and objectification in A Duke in Disguise.

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Today’s close reading is from one of my favorite books of 2019: Cat Sebastian’s A Duke in Disguise.

One reluctant heir
If anyone else had asked for his help publishing a naughty novel, Ash would have had the sense to say no. But he’s never been able to deny Verity Plum. Now he has his hands full illustrating a book and trying his damnedest not to fall in love with his best friend. The last thing he needs is to discover he’s a duke’s lost heir. Without a family or a proper education, he’s had to fight for his place in the world, and the idea of it—and Verity—being taken away from him chills him to the bone.

One radical bookseller
All Verity wants is to keep her brother out of prison, her business afloat, and her hands off Ash. Lately it seems she’s not getting anything she wants. She knows from bitter experience that she isn’t cut out for romance, but the more time she spends with Ash, the more she wonders if maybe she’s been wrong about herself. 

One disaster waiting to happen
Ash has a month before his identity is exposed, and he plans to spend it with Verity. As they explore their long-buried passion, it becomes harder for Ash to face the music. Can Verity accept who Ash must become or will he turn away the only woman he’s ever loved?

Blurb from publisher. Buy link and CWs are available on the author’s website. None of the listed CWs are discussed in this post.

A Duke in Disguise is a m/f romance featuring, as the title suggests, a duke. It is also a queer m/f romance (Verity is bi) with one extremely reluctant duke. It’s a novel in dialogue with a set of traditional literary tropes that also makes critical variations on them. One phenomenon it’s critiquing is the literary convention of a male character presenting his female love interest in ways that can be reductive and objectifying.

Here’s the passage in question, which I’ll break down into three sections.

Ash knew all too well that there were two varieties of pleasure in life. The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch. But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

Verity Plum belonged squarely in the latter category. 

For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life, for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country, being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses, like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press, lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout. 

As a very young man he had compared Verity, pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose, to a bird diligently building a nest. Ten years later he knew it to have been the romantic delusion of a youthful idiot not to have straightaway seen the bloodlust lurking behind the spectacles; she bore more in common with a hawk picking the meat from its prey’s bones than with a songbird collecting twigs and leaves. 

Cat Sebastian, A Duke in Disguise, 2019. p 1-2.

I don’t have hard stats to back this up, but in m/f romance it seems far more common to open a novel with the heroine’s POV, just as we more frequently find single-POV m/f novels narrated from the heroine’s perspective. Moreover, because the couple usually meet on-page after some establishing scenes, it is even less common to have a hero’s description of the heroine serve as the opening gambit of a romance novel.

Too often in non-romance novels (and in some romance as well) letting the hero’s POV present the heroine means that his opinions and judgments are centered, that her physical aspect predominates, and that we experience her primarily in terms of a man’s impressions and value judgments. 

So what I want to look at in this passage is how A Duke in Disguise nods to this literary convention and subverts it through linguistic and structural choices that foreground the non-fixity of the hero’s opinions, downplay the heroine’s physicality, and reverse subject/object relationships.

Part One: Two Varieties of Pleasure

Ash knew all too well that there were two varieties of pleasure in life. The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch. But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

Verity Plum belonged squarely in the latter category. 

I love a good first line. This one recalls a specific subset of literary openers, namely axioms about topics like happy and unhappy families, men with property in want of wives, the best and worst of times. The balance in this opening line between the personal (Ash’s experiences) and the axiomatic (categories of pleasure) offers a little taste of what readers will encounter: nuanced individual characters who nonetheless operate in the shadow of the superstructures and gendered conventions of literary fiction.

The first words offer a straightforward contrast between two kinds of pleasure: one benign, the other dangerous. What’s of more interest to me, however, is the difference in structure between the two sentences that discuss them.

The first included art, fine weather, good company, and all the rest of the world’s benign delights. A man could hold these pleasures at arm’s length, appreciate them with the proper detachment, and not mourn their absence overmuch.

But a fellow could be ruined by overindulgence in the second category of pleasure: rich food, strong drink, high stakes gaming. 

There is a lot to be said about the differences between these two sets of statements: the extra sentence accorded to the benign pleasures, the “walling off” of the dangerous ones behind a colon. However, I want to focus on the verb choice used to talk about the two, because it has critical ramifications for the issue of objectification.

In the first bolded sentence, “a man” (understood as a generic placeholder for Ash) is the grammatical subject. He acts upon his pleasures via a series of active voice verbs (hold, appreciate, mourn) of which the benign pleasures are the grammatical object.

Once we reach the second set of pleasures, however, both the type of pleasures and the voice of the verb changes. The sentence plays with the “object” in “objectification” by comparing Verity to a series of things made available for consumption: food, drink, gaming. However, as it does so, it also uses verbal voice to reverse subject and object positions. “Could be ruined by” is a passive voice construction, meaning that Ash is no longer the subject of the verb. Ash is acted upon, and Verity takes up the subject position.

Playing with the objects of verbs allows the passage to disrupt processes of objectification. But the objectifying gaze is about more than subject/object positionality. It’s also about physical appraisal and fixed knowledge: assuming that by gazing upon the the heroine, the hero can describe and know and thus contain her.

One of the things we’ll see going forward in the passage is an emerging theme of reversal: structures and motifs that force the reader to go back and reappraise things they’ve already read. The first one, of course, is the introduction of Verity herself in a standalone sentence after the opening paragraph. Once we’ve been introduced to her, we have to go back and reevaluate the taxonomy of pleasures before moving forward. As we’ll now see, the second full paragraph also uses verbs (in this case, verbal mood) to execute a similar reversal.

Part Two: The Emotional Equivalent of Gout

The second paragraph is in fact just one long sentence containing five clauses. I’ve separated them out to take a closer look at how they work:

For all she was one of Ash’s dearest friends and one of the few constants in his life

for all she and her brother were now the closest thing to family that he had in this country

being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses

like the bottle of French brandy he kept in his clothes press

lest he succumb to the emotional equivalent of gout.

This sentence is balanced around its middle clause, which is the only one that functions as a full sentence. However, if you read any other individual clause along with the middle one, it forms a full thought (try it!). Because of this, “being near her was a pleasure he meted out for himself in small doses” is the statement on which the rest of the ideas hinge. 

In my mind’s eye I see this sentence as a structural reflection of the way Ash tries to protect himself from the effects of his romantic love for Verity. On one end, he buttresses himself with the other ways he’s close to her: as a friend, as a constant, as family. On the other end of the sentence, we have the ways that he keeps her at a distance, much like all the other pleasures he has to keep at arm’s length. 

This sentence also contains another reversal, because for the second time we have a paragraph that ends with a change in the verb. In this case, following a paragraph full of indicative-mode verbs, we have something that made my French-teacher heart sing: a subjunctive! “Lest he succumb” is in the subjunctive mood, which is used (among other things) to express emotion, fear, or uncertainty: basically everything Ash is currently feeling about Verity.

In terms of what the subjunctive mood accomplishes when it comes to objectification, I think it does a few things. To begin with, the change in verbal mood also accompanies a different mood change: the sentence suddenly becomes funny. It thus invites the reader, as before, to retrace what they’ve read previously, this time taking it all a little less seriously. Ash may be a bit in love, but he’s not dying. The change in mood establishes the act of critical revision as an important readerly practice.

Moreover, because the subjunctive is a verbal mood that expresses fear or doubt rather than certainty, it also encourages readers not to take everything Ash is saying about Verity at face value. He may be telling readers about her, but he isn’t necessarily positioned as the ultimate authority on her. (Arguably, he isn’t even really a great authority on his own emotions at this point.) This is yet another way that the passage refuses to reduce Verity to a simple object of Ash’s knowledge.

In the final paragraph, we’re going to be even more clearly invited to question and reverse what we learn about our heroine, destabilizing any claim to mastery on Ash’s part.

Part Three: The Romantic Delusion of a Youthful Idiot

As a very young man he had compared Verity, pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose, to a bird diligently building a nest. Ten years later he knew it to have been the romantic delusion of a youthful idiot not to have straightaway seen the bloodlust lurking behind the spectacles; she bore more in common with a hawk picking the meat from its prey’s bones than with a songbird collecting twigs and leaves. 

I’ll be focusing more on the content than the structure of this paragraph, in part because these two sentences make explicit in content what the preceding two paragraphs have implicitly built into their structure. 

To begin with, the content of this passage contains the only physical description of Verity we get: “pen in hand and smudged spectacles balanced on the tip of her nose.” In fact, this description tells us far more about her interests and intellectual activities (writing and reading) than it does about her physique (having hands and a nose), continuing the theme of not focusing on her physical body as the first thing readers know or see about her.  

This final paragraph also extends the previous structural emphasis on reversal with the explicit mention of a change of heart: from “very young” Ash seeing Verity as a songbird to imagining her as a bloodthirsty hawk. Ash has engaged in growth and self-critique, and will continue to do so, specifically with regards to his (still hyperbolic and metaphorical) impressions of Verity. 

Ultimately, the genius of this passage is that it refuses to position Verity as an object of settled knowledge, either for Ash or for the reader, instead inviting us to revise our impressions of her.

Finally, I think it’s worth mentioning how this passage, while introducing Verity, also grounds Ash as a character. Sprinkled throughout the passage are a series of subtle modifying words that evoke Ash’s backstory and personality. Knowing “all too well” about the pleasures of both art and rich food hints not just at experience, but at painful life lessons. That Verity is “one of the few” constants in his life speaks to both loneliness and change. The idea that she and her brother are the “closest thing” to family “in this country” alludes to a complicated relationship to biological family, as well as to dislocation and travel. 

In reading and re-reading the passage, I’ve come to think of these little words as a formal metaphor for Ash’s personality. He isn’t the type to be obtrusive, to loudly tell others about himself or his feelings. So we learn about him quietly, in little words tucked in here and there: phrases like “all too well” and “one of the few,” that only take on meaning as they modify other words in the passage. It’s gently reminiscent of who Ash is: someone who asserts himself quietly and thinks of himself relationally, in terms of how he connects with others.  

Ultimately, then, this passage cashes in on the promise of the opening line, which gave us both an axiom and a hint of personal detail. We have two characters, about whom we can only glimpse the nuance to come, presented in ways that play with overturning conventions around the objectifying gaze.

Thanks for reading! I’ve got some fun things planned around here, including:

The next close read! It’s Katrina Jackson’s Layover, an *amazing* novella you can buy here. It’s also on KU, if that’s your thing.

More Friday Features, including a silly little Valentines Day post about my favorite romance declarations of love that don’t involve the words “I love you.”

Another forthcoming post about KJ Charles’ Band Sinister and invented intertexts.

Stay tuned 🙂

5 thoughts on “Lest he succumb: subjects and subjunctives, objects and objectification in A Duke in Disguise.

  1. This is wonderful analysis. I don’t really know what else to say because I feel that it will be insubstantial in comparison. Thank you for this – it’s nice to use my brain a bit more rigorously, even if it’s only to read someone else’s analysis.

    Also, I should probably add A Duke in Disguise to my reading list, eh?

    Like

  2. Pingback: Saturday Smutty Six: LGBTQ Romances on Holly’s TBR – The Smut Report

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