The Secret Duchess by Jane WalshThe Secret Duchess by Jane Walsh is the third installment in Jane Walsh’s The Spinsters of Inverley series, adding yet another lesbian couple to the population of the fictional seaside resort town of Inverely, making it probably the lesbian capital of Regency-era Britain. (It’s kind of like the real-world Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire)

Joan, the titular dowager Duchess of Stanmere, flees to Inverley from the humiliation of her late husband leaving her with a pittance in his will. The new Duke goes even a step further than his father, throwing Joan out of the family’s London home with hardly any notice, and steals her clothes and jewels. With only a select few servants as her entourage, Joan intends to start a new life in anonymity and heal her wounds. The problem is, her former in-laws, vipers that they are, try to fish Joan out of her hiding place by dragging her name through the yellow press. A mysterious woman wearing exquisitely expensive widow’s weeds is bound to attract attention, so Joan has no choice but to thrift some new, inconspicuous clothes. Which is how she meets Miss Maeve Balfour.

Maeve has been marooned in Inverley by her mother, who abruptly married an Italian nobleman holidaying in England. The kindly mother leaves Maeve with six months’ worth of money for food and lodging, instructing her daughter to better find herself a husband if she doesn’t want to end up on the streets. Being a friend of Sappho, Maeve is understandably not thrilled at the turn of events. To make her troubles worse, no one wants to hire a gentlewoman of marriageable age and good looks, who really ought to be finding herself a husband as her mother said. Worse still, Maeve cannot count on the hospitality of her friends in Inverley indefinitely, and must look for new lodgings. As it happens, the long-empty Fairview Manor at the edge of town has recently been occupied by a mysterious recluse of a widow. Might she be looking for tenants? Needing cash to pay for her board, Maeve gets her answer sooner than expected when she goes to a second-hand store to sell parts of her considerable wardrobe, and meets a beautiful stranger cowled in black.

Wring and Story

Ann Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall meets Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests in this charming romance by Walsh. Although the reasons for Joan’s flight from London are rather, let’s say fantastical, the humiliation, paranoia, and isolation of her position in Inverley are tangible and real. Walsh has done a good work of establishing the precariousness of the missing Duchess’ situation, the trauma of her former family’s rejection, and the impotent wrath Joan justifiably feels towards both the people in her former life who failed and betrayed her, and towards the legal system as a whole, which allowed the men in her life to exploit her as they did. In spite of the novel’s limited length, Walsh manages to competently craft her marooned heroines, and bring to life not just their inner turmoil, but also the strength of their respective spirits, how they trudge along in spite of adversity, determined to seize their fleeting chances at happiness.

The basic premises of the book promised to propel the novel above the level of your typical Austenesque sapphic romance, and for the most part they did. I can’t help but feel that the book could have profited from being lengthier, to do justice to the conflict between Joan and her step-son, the new Duke of Stanmere, and to further develop both the atmosphere and the relationship between the main characters. Still, Walsh has done as good of a job as can be expected given the genre’s limits and conventions, and the romance aspect of the story is nearly flawless. The chemistry between Joan and Maeve ignites instantly, but rather than it being based solely on physical attraction, it is fashion and dressmaking which bring them together at first. Indeed, the topics of fashion, needlework, and women’s handicrafts in general permeate the book, infusing it with another degree of thematic depth and breathing life into the its world and characters. Maeve’s struggles with her social standing and the question of work is another strong addition in this regard, as is the problem of married women’s legal rights in early 19th century, as showcased by Joan’s troubles.


The romance, for sure. Every scene between Joan and Maeve is both distinct and lovingly crafted. Whether they are perusing the local library, picnicking at the local Roman ruins, or bonding during a strangely intimate nightly encounter, their emotions and the growing romantic tension between them hum like strings of a bass. The dynamic between the reclusive widow and her baffling new lodger plays out delightfully, and it’s a joy to read Maeve drawing Joan out bit by bit. Oh, and the spicy bits are pretty darn hot.

Friendship between Maeve and her fellow Inverley lesbians—heroines of the previous two installments in the series—is another highlight, so I definitely recommend reading those books in order to get that warm sense of nostalgia that comes with recognizing the familiar characters from previous adventures as they become an established part of their fictional world.


The resolution to the basic plot—Joan’s troubles with her in-laws—in the final few chapters of the book, along with the resolution to the tension between Joan and Maeve which arises out of it, feel rushed. The setup established throughout the story is given an abrupt payoff, with only a few quick steps moving us from A to B. It’s not that the resolution is poorly handled, or entirely unbelievable, but I think it could have used a bit more drawing out. Certainly the rest of the book builds high expectations given the author’s craft, so I think it’s a shame we didn’t get just a little extra development in the latter chapters to fully pack the punch which is promised.

The Conclusion

If you are up for a subversion of genre expectations and conventions, especially those promised by the word “Duchess” in the title, then Jane Walsh will not disappoint you. This book does a good job of balancing a whole number of narrative and thematic elements, going beyond the mere pastiche of Regency era, the set-dressing so to say, and actively explores issues related to class, labor, legal status of women, and feelings of abandonment by the structures of marriage and kinship which were meant to be women’s main defense and comfort in the world then. It does all that while delivering a touching, life-like, and sweet lesbian romance without shattering its historical setting’s spirit. A strong recommendation by yours truly.

Excerpt from The Secret Duchess by Jane Walsh

Miss Balfour was not the kind of woman that a duchess should befriend. What could she have in common with a woman who worked?

And yet Joan wore her clothes. And Miss Balfour made her smile. Amid the recent mysteries of Joan’s life, she was refreshingly easy to understand.

“Yes, of course. Maurice is why I came downstairs.” She lifted the iron hook and swung the door open, and he bolted outside with enthusiasm. She wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders in the cool air. An ominous fog whirled around the grounds, and she hoped he wouldn’t stray far from the house.

“I am never in the kitchens at this hour,” Miss Balfour said, her voice a touch cool. “I assure you I am not here to pilfer the silverware.”

“I had no such thought.”

“There are many whose first thought of an Irishwoman would be her untrustworthiness.” Her tone was still cool. “Besides, I know I agreed not to treat this house as my own. This is nothing more than a sip of water after a long night.”

“I consider you to be more than trustworthy,” Joan said, and was surprised to find that she meant it. She knew next to nothing about Miss Balfour. For all Joan knew, she was here to fleece her. But she had already been fleeced out of most of her belongings by far more intimidating people, and she doubted Miss Balfour was here to take what dregs remained.

Joan studied the shadows under her eyes. “Was your sleep as poorly affected by the storm as mine was?” Where were these words coming from? They were too familiar. She would never have dreamt to imply that someone didn’t look their best. But she couldn’t seem to rein in her tongue.

Miss Balfour propped her elbows on the table, watching Maurice bound across the lawns with wild abandon. “A storm always sounds a good deal more romantic than it is in reality. It was rather loud, was it not?”

“I am grateful there was no thunder to accompany it, though the ocean roared enough to make Maurice and I both shiver.”

“Does he share your room? How generous a mistress you are.”

Joan bristled. “He is a tender-hearted creature, and I have found mysel attached to him.”

“Was he a gift? He looks to be a fine example of a foxhound.”

“He was my husband’s hunting dog.” She stopped, for though it was the truth, the story was much uglier than she wanted the fictitious sea captain to be.

“Ah. He must be a comfort to you then.”

He was, but not in the way that Miss Balfour meant. The sight of Maurice bore no fond memories of her husband. “He is a wonderful companion.”

Companionship is important indeed.”

There was something in the tone of Miss Balfour’s voice, and Joan was reminded that they were in their nightclothes together. She shivered, and she didn’t think it was only from the chill in the air.

Get It Online

When you use the links in this review and buy within 24 hours of clicking then we get a small commission that helps us run the site and it costs you nothing extra












Series: The Spinsters of Inverley

The Inconvenient Heiress

The Accidental Bride

The Secret Duchess

Bits and Bobs

ISBN number: 9781636795195

Publisher: Bold Strokes Books

Jane Walsh Online


If you enjoyed The Secret Duchess by Jane Walsh then you should also look at

Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones










Note: I received a free review copy of The Secret Duchess by Jane Walsh No money was exchanged for this review. When you use our links to buy we get a small commission which supports the running of this site