Lady Rebecca Pierce escapes her forced betrothal when the ship she’s on is wrecked. Assuming the identity of a governess she believes has drowned, she enters the employ of brooding Lord Brookmore, who’s selflessly caring for his orphaned nieces. Inconveniently, she’s extremely attracted to the Viscount…but her only chance of happiness is tied to the biggest risk: revealing the truth about who she really is…
In this latest offering from Diane Gaston, two women from very different stations in life swap roles and, as promised by the book’s title, The Lady Becomes a Governess . The premise intrigued me, but misgivings set in early on when the two ladies, Lady Rebecca Pierce and Miss Claire Tilson, who meet while on a voyage from Ireland to England, discover their uncanny (and hugely convenient) resemblance to one another. As I read on, I was confronted by a series of contrivances, unlikely circumstances and clichés; the characters were dull as ditchwater, the romance non-existent, and the only spark of life in the whole novel was provided by the hero’s horrid fiancée, a stereotypical evil-other-woman type whose machinations, while predictable and ridiculously hackneyed, did at least provoke a reaction other than boredom.
Lady Rebecca is being forced by her half-brother, the Earl of Keneagle, to marry the elderly Lord Stonecroft and is en route to England for her wedding. Needless to say, she’s not looking forward to her life as the wife of an elderly baron who only wants a young brood-mare, but the earl wants his half-sister off his hands and marrying her off is the easiest way to do it. As a caper to take their minds off the fates awaiting them, she and Clare – who is travelling to England in order to take up a post as a governess – swap clothes and pretend to be each other, even going so far as to fool Rebecca’s starchy maid (who is laid low by mal de mer) into believing that Claire is Rebecca. What larks!
Until, that is, the ship is hit by a terrible storm. Around three-quarters of the passengers are lost, and Claire is one of them. Rebecca remembers getting into a small rowing boat and then falling into the sea, but nothing more when she awakens in a soft bed in an unfamiliar room to find an equally unfamiliar gentleman sitting at her bedside. Assailed by guilt that she survived where others did not, Rebecca is at first not at all sure what to do, and then realises she has been presented with an opportunity to escape her unwanted marriage. Learning that the gentleman at her side is Garret, Viscount Brookmore, who had engaged Claire as governess to his two recently orphaned nieces, Rebecca decides to continue the deception she and Claire had practiced aboard ship. After all, she’s doing the poor little girls a kindness by not being yet another person supposed to look after them who has abandoned them by dying.
Rebecca has no idea how to be a governess, of course, not only because she doesn’t know what she should teach the girls, but also because she has no idea how a governess is supposed to act. (Which, seeing she must have had a governess herself at some point, seems odd). Fortunately for her, Garret obviously has no idea either, which the author tries to excuse because he’s been away at war. Well, that doesn’t wash; he might not have had a governess, but a man born into the aristocracy would surely have at least some idea about how servants should speak and act.
A few days later, Garret and Rebecca arrive at his estate in the Lake District and she is introduced to nine-year-old Pamela and seven-year-old Ellen, who have been left to his care following the deaths of their parents in an accident. Needless to say, Rebecca very soon gains the affections and respect of the motherless girls and the lustful admiration of her employer – who is, of course, completely captivated by her.
Garret hadn’t expected to inherit a viscountcy. A younger son, he served in the army and fought against Napoléon until the death of his older brother, and he is foundering, not having been brought up to manage estates and a title, and guilty that he had to abandon his men in order to step into his late brother’s shoes. His intention had been to bring back the governess and then leave for London to take his seat in Parliament and marry Lady Agnes, a coolly poised and polished earl’s daughter to whom he had proposed, believing she had all the qualities he would require in a viscountess. However, upon discovering that his brother – whom Garret had always known was the preferred son – was not such a good master and that the estate is in difficulty, he is persuaded to stay longer in order to put things to rights. Naturally, this makes his decision to stay away from ‘Claire’ more difficult, especially as spending time with his nieces means spending time with the governess – but the girls are flourishing in her care and that’s more important than his own growing desire for a woman he can’t allow himself to want.
There are some good points to be found in the story. Garrett’s desire to provide a stable environment for his nieces is admirable, and his insecurity over his ability to fulfil his responsibilities is a nice touch. But Rebecca is completely unbelievable as a governess, and Garret’s behaviour towards her is equally unlikely. From the start, they act and converse together like equals; he provides her with a horse during their journey, he buys clothes and bolts of cloth for her (okay, so she needs clothes, but it’s still something he would have left to another servant), they dine together every night, she asks him about his life in the army and about estate business; and when, one evening after dinner, Garret has a glass of brandy and Rebecca asks for one, too, my credulity, which had already been precariously stretched, finally broke. Rebecca is selfish, naïve and silly, impersonating someone with no thought for how the deception will affect others; and when, near the end, she insists that in pretending to be Claire, she had not used her, but had lived life for her, I didn’t know whether to laugh or vomit at such a self-serving, self-righteous platitude.
The writing is simplistic and often choppy, the characters, as I said earlier, are bland, and there is no romantic chemistry between them whatsoever; Pamela and Ellen are a pair of plot-moppets who seem hardly bothered by their parents’ deaths and Lady Agnes is a crafty, manipulative bitch – although she is at least entertaining, But it’s a sorry state of affairs when a walking cliché is more interesting than the too-good-to-be-true hero and heroine in a romance, and when her escapades are more entertaining than that romance. The Lady Becomes a Governess isn’t a book I can recommend.