The Game and the Governess
Certain authors have a confidence of voice that comes out in their writing, and I count Kate Noble among that number. In The Game and the Governess, she takes on what could have been an overly contrived setup, delivering both a comedy of manners and a touching love story.
Readers meet Phoebe Baker, the heroine, first of all. In a grim prologue, we learn that her father has died, she has stayed in her boarding school on sufferance, and now must go to work as a governess. Oh, and for mysterious reasons no one will learn until much later, she blames the Earl of Ashby for all her misfortune. Her last act before being cast out into the cruel world consists of writing a scathing letter to the Earl. Though short, the prologue has a greyish, foreboding feel to it that reminded me strongly of Jane Eyre.
Even when the action shifts to the lighthearted Edward “Lucky Ned” Granville, Earl of Ashby, that sense of something serious lying in wait remains. Ned is convinced that his inherent luck, rather than his social status, brings him all the wonderful chances in life he has enjoyed. His more practical and less aristocratic friends disagree, and Ned eventually makes a bet with his friend and secretary John Turner whereby they will switch places and see if Ned can woo a lady on an upcoming business journey while traveling under John’s identity.
Ridiculous? Oh yes. But the details make this story shine. We know from the backstory that Ned and John were close while fighting Napoleon. However, we see telling details all throughout the story showing how their relationship has become somewhat strained recently. John has financial and personal struggles of his own, and living the almost invisible life of a secretary dependent on a nobleman’s whims doesn’t exactly help their camaraderie.
And then there’s the business trip. As it turns out, some local businessmen want to buy the property that was once Ned’s childhood home. The emotional side of this journey for Ned is well done, and so too is the author’s vision of village society. We have the well-to-do family of Lady Widcoate (a miller’s daughter who married well) and her blowhard husband, together with their assorted houseguests. All lie in wait to entertain the Earl of Ashby and the single ladies hope to ensnare the desirable prize of an earldom. And then there’s the governess. It just so happens that after her sad turn of fortune, Phoebe Baker has found her way into the employ of Lady Widcoate.
Phoebe blames the Earl for her misfortunes and she also occupies a very humble social station, so her choice to avoid the Earl of Ashby makes perfect sense within the story. For his part, Ned’s attempts at wooing the nobler ladies fall short and his failure to understand his changed station make for some awkward and at times quite funny moments in the story. Even better, these moments cause Ned to gradually realize just how arrogant and blind to his world he has been. He grows up a lot over the course of the novel, and the change in his character makes for satisfying reading. Ned also strikes up a rapport with Phoebe and over the course of the hilariously uncomfortable house party, the two begin to fall in love. Naturally, their secrets will have to come out at some point, but exactly how that will happen makes for good tension within the story.
Noble’s insightful and sometimes pointed observations of character make this story a true delight. While the book sometimes meandered off into the past and various backstories a bit much, we primarily get a good picture of the various characters who make up the gathering that lies at the heart of the story. The main romance definitely entertains, but so too did the setup of what I hope will be another character’s love story. And the development of the friendship between Ned and John Turner kept my attention almost as much as the romance.
The revelation of Ned’s deception needed a bit more page space than it got, so the ending of The Game and the Governess feels a bit rushed. However, the writing is definitely a cut above, and I truly enjoyed reading this one.