As the Earl of Ashby, Lord Edward Granville has never been in short supply of luck, earning him the nickname “Lucky Ned.” Why should he not take risks most sensible men would run from, since the tide always turns in his favor? Making a wager that he can have any woman he desires even without his title, Ned switches places with John Turner, his friend and secretary. But once he does, Ned’s luck suddenly abandons him, for the ladies now have eyes only for Turner. When Ned meets governess Phoebe Baker, he becomes intent on gaining her affections.
Phoebe wants nothing more than to keep her head down, teach her students, and go unnoticed–especially by the Earl of Ashby. But his rakish secretary has the infuriating habit of constantly crossing her path. Yet Phoebe cannot deny that her pulse quickens in Ned’s presence. If this prim-and-proper governess lets her heart rule, will fate intervene where Ned’s luck has forsaken him?
Rating: B for narration; B for content
The Game and the Governess is a very strong start to Kate Noble’s new series, wherein she takes a seemingly trite plot and turns it into a compelling story which is by turns funny, charming and poignant.
The story opens upon Miss Phoebe Baker on her final day at the exclusive school where she has been a pupil for the last few years. Her father’s fortune has been lost in an ill-advised business deal, and his demise followed shortly afterwards, leaving Phoebe unprovided for. A friendly schoolmistress has helped her to find a position as a governess, and Phoebe must learn to adapt to her reduced circumstances and her new situation as neither master nor servant.
Edward Granville, Earl of Ashby – known as “Lucky Ned” – was plucked from obscurity at the age of twelve, having been discovered to be the sole heir to an earldom. He really does seem to have everything – wealth, good looks, and an inordinate amount of good luck whether it be with women, cards, or anything else. Given the ease with which everything he wants falls into his lap, he’s sure it’s due to his luck and has nothing to do with the fact that he’s an earl. With the carefree self-absorption of youth, he is quite happy to leave the management of his affairs and estates to John Turner, his friend-turned-secretary, who, we discover, left his own business concerns in order to help Ned out of a tight spot some five years previously.
Their friendship began during the war, when Ned, then a raw recruit, joined Captain Turner’s regiment; they have remained friends, although from some of Turner’s dryly ironic comments, it’s clear that their friendship has become somewhat strained of late. Eventually unable to listen to any more of Ned’s paeans to his incredible luck, Turner snaps and points out that it’s Ned’s money and title that ensures him plenty of female attention, good seats at the opera, and whatever else he wants. Ned doesn’t believe him, and the pair makes a wager which leads to them switching places during a business trip into the country. Turner bets Ned that he won’t be able to woo a woman without benefit of his title and all its trappings – in the guise of a humble secretary, for instance – and Ned is instantly determined to prove him wrong.
Of course, something like this is immediately headed for disaster, not least because we’ve already learned that Phoebe holds the Earl of Ashby responsible for her father’s ruin. But Ms Noble’s writing is so engaging and her characterisation so strong, that the rather clichéd nature of the plot was a minor consideration and I was quickly hooked and keen to listen to the story unfold.
Unusually for a romance these days, the hero and heroine don’t really start interacting until the second quarter of the story, but I didn’t feel that as a deficiency as it allows the author time to establish her characters and to have a little fun at Ned’s expense. When he and Turner arrive at the house party in Hollyhock in Leicestershire, Ned tries to charm everyone by being his cheeky-chappie-self and is astonished to discover that not only is nobody charmed, but he’s barely noticed.
At the beginning of the story, Ned isn’t a particularly attractive hero. He’s selfish, overconfident, and shirks his responsibilities, but Ms Noble redeems him admirably, gradually bringing him to recognise his arrogance and ignorance of the true workings of the world in which he lives. He grows up during the course of the book, gaining a determination and steadiness of character which make him worthy of the love of Phoebe, who is one of the most engaging heroines I’ve come across in a while. It would have been easy to have made her into a downtrodden, cowed-under-the-weight-of-her-tragedy sort of character but Ms Noble hasn’t gone down that path, and a most welcome change it is, too. Rather than spending her days hating the man she holds responsible for her straightened circumstances or chafing at the treatment frequently meted out to her by the mother of her charges, Phoebe has instead made the decision to be happy. She has a goal in life along with the determination to achieve it and is sensible enough to see that the only person who would be disadvantaged by hatred is herself.
The relationship which develops between her and Ned is charming and sweet, and listening to them getting to know each other and fall in love is a real delight. There is also a well-drawn secondary cast, an affecting back story for Ned, and the writing is confident and full of humour and insight.
Beverley A. Crick is a new-to-me narrator and although I have a few quibbles about her performance, overall, she does a very good job. Her voice is easy to listen to and sounds appropriately youthful for a heroine in her early twenties, and she differentiates well between all the characters. Lady Widcoate sounds as though she’s looking down her nose all the time and her sister Leticia is given a smoothly seductive tone which sounds suitably false, given the fact that she’s on the hunt for a husband and determined to snare an earl. One of my quibbles is that Ms Crick doesn’t portray the male characters by means of pitch differentiation, which meant that the first time I heard Ned speak, I was a little worried that I would find it difficult to tell the men from the women. But I stuck with it, and it soon became clear that my fears were unfounded, because while it’s true that Ms Crick performs all the characters in the same vocal register, she differentiates between them all by using a variety of accents and timbres, so that I was never confused as to who was speaking. She is suitably gruff for Lord Widcoate and Mr Fenwick, and the accent she has chosen for Turner is applied consistently and works very well for him, particularly when he’s being ironic or sarcastic. And while it’s true that Ned doesn’t sound especially “manly”, Ms Crick captures the essence of him – his youthful impetuosity and his innate charm – very well indeed.
My personal preference is for a narrator who acts, and Ms Crick is certainly a very skilled vocal actor. Her narration is well-paced and very expressive, especially in the more emotionally charged moments towards the end of the story, and she also has the ability to bring out the humour and irony in both dialogue and narrative. In this, her delivery reminds me somewhat of Carolyn Morris, another narrator with a deft touch for humour and who differentiates by means of tone and accent more than by pitch.
There are a few times when Ms Crick trips over a particular word, or is about to trip over one, but apart from that and the other issues I’ve mentioned, hers is a very enjoyable performance, and I will definitely be seeking out more of her work.