Lucinda Elliot

Aristocratic Antagonists and Anti-Heroes in Classic English Novels: the Dukes


In continuing my posts on Aristocratic Baddies in Classic English Novels, I refer the reader again to the very funny post that inspired it:

The writer(s?) comment that fictional dukes were in most genres not usually evil or at least, opportunistic and morally questionable, like the barons and counts. This might be because many had earned the title of ‘duke’ through military victories, such as the real life first Duke of Marlborough (Winston Churchill’s ancestor, for those who don’t know and are interested).

On the whole, I tend to agree this was the case, before the resurgence of Regency Romance. In reality, of course, dukes have always been scarce on the ground in Britain.

In the world of Regency Romance now, though, if one counts the population of Regency Romance dukes – particularly with non-British writers, one would think that there were more dukes per square mile in Britain than you could shake a stick at. You would think that they were more usual, in fact, than commoners, so how they manage to get enough staff to run their stately homes and castles, let alone secure enough rolling acres in a tiny country approximately the size of Alabama, is a puzzle.

As I have said before, the sad reality is that there have never been more than about twenty-five to thirty dukes in Britain. Most of these were and are elderly and highly respectable (those whose ancestors didn’t win the title through military honours were and are probably making up for being descended from William the Bastard’s marauding robber barons or for the enclosure of common land done by their forebearers).

The problems associated with making an aristocratic pleasure ground of the Britain of the early nineteenth century are perhaps greater than those who defend this obsession with the highest grades of the upper class as harmless escapism are prepared to concede. They are touched on in this perceptive article by romance writers:

One of the writers suggests:

‘And I don’t think manufacturing hundreds of dukes never hurts anyone. Basically we’ve turned Georgian and Victorian England into a romance amusement park. We’ve erased the politically active working class, we’ve made Chartists and Luddites and agricultural workers into comic relief and/or people to be saved by the aristocracy. Sure, none of them are alive now, but their descendants are.’

Maybe all this obsession with dukes was sparked off by the anti-hero bad duke by the originator or of Regency Romances Georgette Heyer in her creation of the Duke of Avon in ‘These Old Shades.’ He in turn was based on another bad duke she had created – Tracy Belmanoir, the Duke of Andover.

Still, it is only fair to say that Heyer did create another duke, the good-natured, unassuming hero of ‘The Foundling’ (1947), The Duke of Sale, who is rather small, pale and quiet and usually, extremely kind to everyone. He is the antithesis of the later duke anti-hero of Regency Romance.

In other genres, I really can’t think of that many dukes in classical fiction who aren’t rulers, minor characters, or relatives of the protagonist,  outside Regency Romance.  I am sure there are various villainous dukes I can’t call to mind, but they are thin on the ground.

The ducal rulers in various stories set in the Italian states, including Shakespeare’s plays, seem to be a well meaning but dull lot. For instance, there is the interfering do-gooder duke in Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ who ends up marrying the novice nun Isabella.

‘Isabella’ by Francis William Topham (1888)

He is spying on his subjects in disguise, having decided to see  what goes on when he leaves governing the state to his icily virtuous deputy, Angelo. Angelo, naturally, soon goes to bad and develops  a passion for a nun, whom he tries to blackmail into going to bed with him. We can imagine the duke going round muttering in a prescient way, ‘All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…’

There are, of course, no dukes, villainous or otherwise, in Jane Austen, whose highest born antagonist is the detestable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, an earl’s daughter.   

There is, of course, the Duke of Holdernesse the Sherlock Holmes story,  ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’. He is revealed as an antagonist,  and is also highly unappealing, middle aged but prematurely aged, afflicted with both an enormously long nose and a great sense of self-importance. The reader is delighted when, having unearthed the kidnappers of his son, Sherlock Holmes rejects his suave attempt to bribe him and gives him a sharp lecture on his treatment of his young son and estranged wife. He does, however, accept the reward of £6,000 odd pounds – which I believe would amount to about £500,000 today.

Another unpleasant  – and much earlier – duke is the sixteenth century murderous Duke of Ferrara in Robert Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842). 

An heroic duke is who is, to put it mildly, a man of parts, is Dennis Wheatley’s Duke de Richeleau, Jean Armand Duplessis. Far from being an antagonist, he is wholly heroic. Among other things, he is:

  1. A soldier of fortune.
  2. An unarmed combat expert
  3. An expert lover, also twice married, once to an English middle-class girl, once to an archduchess, and the father of a son by a condessa.
  4. A formidable occultist .
  5. A linguist.
  6. A conspirator in the 1903 plot to reinstate the French monarchy and after that, a prisoner and an exile from France.
  7. A spy for Alfonso XIII of Spain and later for the British Empire.
  8. A financier
  9. A bon vivant  (Sorry for the foreign expression,  but he is after all, a Frenchman…)

And so on…His skills are limitless, save for sympathy with anarchists, communists, socialists and radicals generally. He is also very handsome, and drives a Hispano-Suiza with an entourage of footman.

His exploits are detailed over the course of eleven novels, and great fun, if you can accept that the point of view in the Days of Empire was rather different from the values considered acceptable now.

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