Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies appears exclusive and respectable, a place for daughters of the gentry to glean the accomplishments that will win them suitable husbands.
But the academy is not what it seems. It’s more.
Alongside every lesson in French or dancing or mathematics, the students learn the skills they’ll need to survive in a man’s world. They forge; they fight; they change their accents to blend into a world apart. And the staff at the academy find a haven from their pasts…and lose their hearts.
Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies contains two novellas from the pens of top historical romance authors Theresa Romain and Shana Galen, set in an unusual school at which young ladies are taught forgery, self-defence and pick-pocketing alongside the more usual french, music and painting! It’s an interesting idea, although I couldn’t quite see why the girls were being taught those particular skills – unless they planned to embark on criminal careers or become spies? In addition, the couple of scenes which feature some of the skills learned at the school feel a little forced. Anyway, both stories are second-chance romances and are, as one would expect of such experienced authors, well written, but both suffer from what I generally call ‘novella-itis’ in that they lack plot, character or relationship development and feel rushed in some areas. In her contribution, Ms. Romain takes a deeper look at what it means to re-unite after a prolonged time apart, while Ms. Galen has penned a more plot-driven tale in which the couple pretty much picks up where they left off eight years before.
The Way to a Gentleman’s Heart by Theresa Romain
Grade: C+ Sensuality Rating: Subtle
When the man she loved had to marry another woman in order to save his family finances and estate, Marianne Redfern left the small Lincolnshire village where she’d lived all her life and fled rather than face the pity of those around her. Arrived in London with nowhere to go, she was lucky enough to stumble across Mrs. Brodie’s Academy and decided her chances of being leered at or molested were less in an establishment run by a woman than anywhere else, so took a chance and asked if there was employment available. Now, eight years later, Marianne has risen to the position of cook, a post she’s held for the last two years, and which she enjoys immensely. Her composure is shaken, however by the sudden and completely unexpected appearance at the kitchen door of none other than Jack Grahame, the man who’d broken her heart years earlier.
Jack had truly loved Marianne, but when his father betrothed him to heiress Helena Wilcox, he knew he could not let down all the people dependent on him by turning his back on them and pursuing his self-interest. He’s spent the two years since his wife’s death continuing to improve his estate and the lot of his tenants, and now he has decided it’s time to live for himself rather than for other people. He hopes to obtain Marianne’s forgiveness for his actions eight years earlier, and then to persuade her that they deserve a second chance. But with all they’ve done and become in the intervening years, will love be enough to see them though now?
The Way to a Gentleman’s Heart is a poignant, subtle story about love and trust and forgiveness, and Ms. Romain writes with her customary warmth and insight. Marianne and Jack are both decent, mature individuals who never stopped loving each other, but who have to find out who they are now and who still have issues that they need to resolve before they can move forward together. The descriptions of the foodstuffs and recipes Marianne uses may make your mouth water, so make sure you’ve got something yummy to hand just in case you get hungry!
Counterfeit Scandal by Shana Galen
Grade: C Sensuality Rating: Warm
Shana Galen’s story also features lovers separated for eight years, this time a pair who had worked for the Foreign Office during the Napoleonic Wars. Bridget O’Brien, the daughter of a famous forger, continued her father’s work for the Foreign Office as a counterfeiter, which is where she met and fell in love with spy, Caleb Harris. The pair planned to marry, but Caleb disappeared suddenly and all Bridget could find out was that he’d been sent abroad and had died there. Pregnant and desperate, Bridget married Robert Lavery in order to give her child a name, but her husband’s tendency to make poor investments landed them in debtor’s prison, and Bridget had to put her son, James, in an orphanage. (Readers of Ms. Galen’s Survivors series will no doubt recognise the St. Dismas Home for Wayward Boys as the orphanage featured in book two, No Earls Allowed.) Bridget now works at Mrs. Brodie’s Academy (surely Mrs. Brodie is an homage to Muriel Spark’s famous creation?) where she teaches art – and forgery – and has finally saved enough money to be able to rent rooms of her own so that she can locate her son and bring him to live with her. (The boy is eight, so I have to say that I wondered what she planned to do with him all day while she was at work, but – moving on.)
She manages to find herself a rather dingy room in a lodging house, and as she is leaving, she is astonished to pass a very familiar face going in the opposite direction, who is introduced to her as ‘Mr. Smith’. Of course, this is Caleb Harris, back from the dead… or at least back from the continent, although he’s got to remain ‘dead’ until such time as he can leave England, owing to the fact that he has a price on his head as the result of his wartime activities.
But Bridget has other things on her mind, namely retrieving her son, but this is going to be much harder than she’d bargained for. The orphanage burned down three years earlier, and nobody seems to know what happened to it or its inmates. There’s only one man she can turn to; Caleb is stunned to discover that he’s a father but agrees to help on the condition that the boy never finds out who he is. Caleb is a wanted man and anyone close to him could be a target; and in any case, soon he’ll have disappeared again, this time for good.
Counterfeit Scandal combines a tale of lovers reunited with an adventure story as Bridget and Caleb search for their son. It’s an enjoyable read, and Bridget is an engaging, sympathetic heroine, but I had issues with the way James so easily accepts her as his mother, even though he hasn’t seen her for a number of years. I found Caleb to be a less well-defined character than Bridget and the ending feels rushed.
Mrs. Brodie’s Academy for Extraordinary Young Ladies boasts a couple of pleasant reads that can easily be used to while away a grey autumn afternoon, but ultimately, neither is particularly memorable, and this isn’t a compilation to which I’m likely to return.