The Footman and I
Valerie Bowman’s The Footman and I is the first in a series where a group of friends – a duke, a marquess, an earl, you get the picture – pretend to be servants. I thought this was an unusual premise that had the potential to be either very good or very bad.
Well. It was not very good.
Lucas Drake became the Earl of Kendall after his brother’s death, and he wants to avoid women who are only after his title. During a drinking session, his friends suggest he masquerade as a footman, because that way he’ll get to see how female guests treat ordinary men, and one of the friends, Lord Clayton, offers his home for that purpose.
One of the guests is eighteen-year-old Frances Wharton, whose mother hopes to use the house-party to get Frances married to a pompous bore called Sir Reginald. But Frances is drawn to the handsome footman, even though she knows the two of them can never have a future together.
In other words, this setup relies on the hero deceiving the heroine, and keeping her deceived for most of the book, so YMMV. I was still on board, but then the story becomes unbelievable – and worse, boring. Frances desperately wants the House of Lords to vote against the Employment Bill because it favors rich powerful employers rather than the working class. But her crusade is such an obsession that she goes on and on about the Employment Bill to every man she meets, no matter what the occasion. She does nothing else to improve the lives of servants, and makes advances towards the handsome footman in a way that could easily get him dismissed.
As for the Employment Bill, it’s mentioned well over fifty times in the story. I hope potential readers will find it as absorbing as Frances does. Naturally, Lucas is on the other side of that fence, since his brother’s dying wish was that the Employment Bill be passed. Other than that, Lucas is so generic he’s cardboard – handsome, kind, expresses frustration by clenching his jaw, etc. Even if you’ve never read this book, you’ve read about him a thousand times already.
Naturally, Frances hates noblemen (which Lucas thinks is magnificent) but she reserves her deepest loathing for the Earl of Kendall. At one point the heroine of the next book assures Frances that the Earl of Kendall is a decent person:
Frances couldn’t help but stick her nose in the air. “Well, he isn’t. I’ve never met him but believe me, he’s awful. I’m convinced he’s pudgy and hideous-looking too.”
Did I mention the fat-shaming?
She deserved so much better than the bloated knight.
So Frances and Footman Lucas meet regularly in the library for conversations and kisses, while Earl Lucas dodges Frances’s attempts to corner him for Employment Bill harangues. It’s a bit like that scene in the restaurant in Mrs. Doubtfire, just not as entertaining. And other than wearing livery and waiting at the dinner table, Lucas doesn’t behave like a servant. He constantly gives himself away with personal, friendly references to his “employers”. He smiles at Frances and rolls his eyes at Sir Reginald in the dining room.
Most of all, he happily meets Frances for long conversations and kissing sessions. Anyone would wonder about a servant who had so much free time and no concerns about what penalties he might face for ignoring class distinctions. But Frances is too wrapped up in the Employment Bill and in her romance with Lucas to notice little things like that.
Still, all good things must come to an end. So Frances is enlightened in the most humiliating way possible at the point in the story when I expected it to happen. The denouement is farcial, and the only sex scene occurs ten pages from the end, after Lucas has proposed and Frances has joyfully accepted. It felt as though the author was throwing it in because there must be at least one sex scene where the virginal eighteen-year-old heroine deep-throats the hero (I’m not kidding, the narrative describes her “sliding him into her throat”).
A story where an earl pretends to be a servant could be great. I was imagining something like Longbourn, where the earl comes to grips with hard work, the difficulties servants face, and the class distinctions involved. But here? He does nothing strenuous, he hangs out with his friends, and the lady he likes is so eager for intimacy that at one point he has to tell her no. The characters mean well, since they’re trying to do the right thing for the working class, but this doesn’t make up for the story’s multiple problems. So I can’t recommend The Footman and I.