The Education of Mrs. Brimley
The Education of Mrs. Brimley is Donna MacMeans’ first novel. I thought the characters were quite delightful, and the author created a strong sexual tension between her hero and heroine. That said, though, the basic premise of the plot was a bit too much to be believed.
Emma Heatherston was born out of wedlock and she and her mother had a difficult time of it. They lived with Emma’s censorious Uncle George who lost no opportunity to remind them of their fallen status. After overhearing him plan to sell her in marriage, Emma assumes the guise of Mrs. Brimley – a respectable young widow – and takes a position as a teacher at Miss Pettibone’s School For Young Ladies. Emma assumes she only has to teach literature, but to her surprise and shock, the headmistress informs her that she is also to teach her charges the secrets of the marriage bed so they will be prepared for their future husbands. Poor Emma is almost as innocent as her pupils, but she has a source of information. On the way to the school she shared a carriage with Lord Nicholas Chambers, a rougish but handsome man whose house is next door to the school. Nicholas is perfectly willing to tutor Emma and tell her what she needs to know if, in return, she will model for him (he is an artist). They settle on a deal where Emma will remove one article of clothing for every question that Nicholas answers. Her students turn out to have a lot of questions, and while a Victorian lady’s wardrobe is quite voluminous, it does have its limits.
If you can accept that a girl’s school in Victorian England would have Sex-Ed classes, you will have no problem with The Education of Mrs. Brimley. I found the whole concept disconcertingly modern. Gently raised young women like the students at Miss Pettibone’s School For Young Ladies learned about marital matters from their mamas (or it came as a big surprise). The girls ask Emma lots of questions, she gives them very detailed answers and at one point she has them practice tongue exercises on a candy stick (ick). She also plans to make a model of a man’s “saber” out of cloth so the students will realize that the real thing is considerably larger than the drawing that she showed them. (She’s making the model out of flowered calico, the image of which had me in tears of mirth).
Emma and Nicholas are what’s best about the book. As the younger son of a duke, Nicholas didn’t want the usual careers open to men of his position. He loves art, he doesn’t like London life, and he has frittered away his life painting and drinking. Up till now, Nicholas lacked a muse – someone to bring out his real talent. Emma turns out to be Nicholas’ muse. She is sweet and pretty, but she is also intelligent. Nicholas has mostly been around women who were either silly debutantes looking to snare a husband, or tavern maids who could banter a bit but were not suitable for the long run. Emma has no idea of her very real worth having been put down by her uncle for her entire life. She poses as the goddess Artemis for Nicholas, and that picture turns out to be a masterpiece and is accepted in the Royal Academy.
The secondary characters are, for the most part, very well delineated. There are a few of them who are sketchy and whom I would like to see more of (most notably Nicholas’ older brother). Emma’s uncle is nicely hiss-worthy and I’d like to have seen him get his real comeuppance (but it happens off stage).
Despite the problem I had with the whole idea of teaching sex education in the 1870s, The Education of Mrs. Brimley is a slightly better than average debut. The author can portray sexual tension with real skill and she knows how to make her characters very likable. I know that paranormals are hot right now, but when it comes to romance, my heart still belongs to historicals and I am always happy to find a new author with promise.