THE DUKES by Malcolm Ross

THE DUKES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Another table-bending British family saga, 1849-1917--which begins with Dickensian humor and brio but gradually lapses into the standard parade of domestic problems and historical cross-references. The splendidly earthy opening chapters introduce us to the old, ill, financially insecure Duke of St. Ormer, who is at last about to learn the results of his hunt for an heir from among the family's lost lines. And meanwhile we meet the unsuspecting, lost heir himself: 23-year-old Alfred Boyce, a small manufacturer of lacquer boxes with dreams of becoming the ""Metal-Box King"" via a new lacquering process. In fact, uncouth but shrewd Alfred is far from enchanted when he gets the news that he's a duke-to-be--and Ross has great fun with the interplay between the irascible old Duke and his unlikely, reluctant heir as they match wits and grow fond of each other. Also charming: the Duke's scheme to make Alfred marry neighbor Flora Kinnaird--a penniless, non-beautiful but fine, practical sort whom Alfred does indeed come to love (as a ""woman"" as well as a ""person""). But after the Duke's death and Alfred's ascension, the vigorous wit fades and familiar melodrama/soap/pageantry elements take over. Alfred adulterizes with gorgeous married neighbor Hermione (the one twist here is that both Flora and Hermione's cloddish husband tacitly consent to this arrangement), goes to the Crimea, strives to forge aristocracy with industry, and fights off rival claims to the Dukedom. Son Richard has a doomed affair (his quasi-bride dies in childbirth), guiltily vows celibacy, and goes off to fight suicidally in Africa. Incest arises, rather lightheartedly, with the marriage between Alfred's daughter (by Flora) and Alfred's son (by Hermione). Diplomat son Charles weds a tart American heiress and does the European-capital circuit. Granddaughter Georgina (the inevitable suffragette) marries a Socialist who turns out to be a secret claimant to the Dukedom. And so on--with deaths from cholera and the Titanic, cameos by Queen v. and the Prince of W., a Jack the Ripper theory, etc. Isn't all this disappointingly hackneyed fare after that zesty first half? Yes indeed. But Ross does drop wicked touches in all along the way, and even when this saga is at its most ordinary, it's never less than competent or literate. So: for fans of English bluebloods and family tangles--somewhat-above-average entertainment.

Pub Date: April 30th, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster