Octavius and the Perfect Governess
Emily Larkin is a favourite author and I’ve reviewed and awarded high grades to several of her historical romances. She’s a gifted storyteller with the ability to create interesting, three-dimensional characters, intriguing plots and sensual, well-developed romances, so I approached her new novel, Octavius and the Perfect Governess, eagerly anticipating more of the same. Unfortunately however, I came away from it disappointed, because most of the things I’ve loved about her other books are largely absent from this one. There’s a decent premise but as for the rest of it, the protagonists are bland, there is no chemistry between them and the romance takes a seat at the very back of the bus, the rest of which is filled with the machinations of the plot.
Octavius and the Perfect Governess is book one in the Pryor Cousins series, a spin-off from the author’s Baleful Godmother series, in which the heroines were given a magical gift by their faerie godmother when they reached a certain age (twenty-one, twenty-three or twenty-five depending on which branch of the family they belonged to) to honour a bargain made centuries earlier by their ancestresses and the fae. In this series, however, the recipients of the magical gifts are all male, a group of cousins all descended from the Duke of Linwood, whose gift is that of being able to hear lies (like Letty in Trusting Miss Trentham). The story opens with the cousins – Octavius, Decimus (Dex) and Nonus (Ned) – wagering on a race across the ballroom in the duke’s house, which Octavius loses. Dex and Ned gleefully announce that his forfeit is to attend Vauxhall Gardens with them the following evening – but that he must go as a woman. Like Charlotte in Unmasking Miss Appleby, Octavius chose the gift of transformation, but while he’s been pretty much every animal he can think of and has even, on occasion taken the shape of another person, he’s never assumed the form of a woman. Why would he want to? He’s handsome, wealthy and well-born:
Why, when he had all those advantages, would he want to see what it was like to be a woman?
But a wager is a wager, so Octavius transforms into a woman and accompanies his cousins to the pleasure gardens. And it’s here that he discovers another reason he most definitely wouldn’t want to be a woman. When he is unintentionally separated from his cousins, he narrowly avoids being sexually assaulted by the loathesome Baron Rumpole, and it’s only the timely intervention of his cousin Sextus that saves him. Furious, disgusted – and more than a little rattled – the thought that a man like Rumpole, an obvious threat to women, is able to walk around with impunity angers him, and Octavius vows to teach the man a lesson. To this end, he adopts female form again and, garbed as a housemaid, enters the Baron’s house late the following evening, finds him in his study and, when ordered to ‘play his flute’ bloodies Rumpole’s nose before making his escape.
On his way out of the house, Octavius (still a housemaid) literally bumps into a young woman on the stairs, who introduces herself as the governess, Miss Toogood. Octavius is instantly smitten, and on learning that the Baron’s late wife had been the sister of his friend Lord Newingham (making Rumpole’s daughters Newingham’s nieces) he and Dex come up with a plan that will enable Octavius to spend some time with Miss Toogood, and for them to teach the lecherous Baron a lesson he’ll never forget.
All this set up takes place in the first few chapters, which should have allowed plenty of time for plot and romantic development in the rest of the book, but sadly while the former happens, not enough time is spent on the latter. Most of the story is devoted to working out how to deal with Rumpole, talking about how terrible it is that he practices ‘master’s rights’ (droit du seigneur) and gets away with it, and how disadvantaged women are compared to men; there’s a long discussion between the cousins during which they come to the conclusion that women have it pretty tough. These are all perfectly, one hundred percent valid points – but I felt as though I was being hit over the head with them. In Unmasking Miss Appleby, the author addressed the issue of female inequality in a more subtle manner that felt integral to the plot; here I felt the plot had been conceived purely to make those points, and the characters were little more than mouthpieces for those ideas. The entire Prior family is shown to be pretty progressive in fact, which… okay, all the male members of the family have magical gifts so they’re not exactly a conventional family, and Octavius does have first-hand experience of being a woman and, as Miss Toogood notes towards the end, he’s learned from it and allowed it to inform his outlook.
I liked the depiction of the relationship between Octavius and his cousins and the scenes which featured the two little girls (who are not your typical romance novel annoying plot moppets), but the characterisation of the two leads is fairly flat. Pip Toogood is, well, too good to be true; she believes a governess’ job should be teaching her charges confidence and self-worth as well as the normal academic subjects, she’s sweet and kind and clever… but is sadly rather dull. Octavius is handsome, charming and has a well-developed social conscience, but he’s very much in the same mold. There were flashes of the sort of insight displayed by the author in her other books towards the end, when Octavius questions his right to administer ‘justice’ but as I write this review less than an hour after finishing the book, I can’t remember much more about him.
You’ll notice I haven’t said very much about the romance; sadly there isn’t much to say because there isn’t much of a romance here. Octavius pretty much falls in love at first sight, and there’s no spark or sense of connection between him and Pip. I know this author can create wonderful romances and delicious sexual tension, but that just doesn’t happen here.
I’ve ended up going with a middling grade for this one. The writing is strong and the premise is intriguing, but sadly, the author got too bogged down in the message and somehow lost sight of the need to create interesting characters and an emotionally satisfying romance. Emily Larkin remains one of my go-to authors for historical romance, but sadly, Octavius and the Perfect Governess didn’t hit the spot.