School for Dukes, Book 1
Heat Factor: Sexy but not spectacular
Character Chemistry: Solid
Plot: Standard Governess Saves the Family Arc
Overall: Fun / Annoying, depending on how you feel about borrowed details
As I was reading, I really enjoyed myself. But every once in a while, there was a little detail that threw me out of the zone. After I finished What a Difference a Duke Makes, I tallied up all of those little details and… I got really annoyed.
Here are some pieces of information about our heroine, Mari Perkins:
- She grew up at an orphanage / charity school, where she was repeatedly told that she was sinful
- Her only friend, Helena, died when they were children
- Mari believes that she is plain
- As an adult, she goes to work as a governess for Edgar Rochester
- Edgar Rochester is dark and brooding
- One of her charges is E.R.’s illegitimate daughter who was raised in France and abandoned by her mother; her name is Adele
- Someone burns down E.R.’s house in a fit of madness
- In the end, she finds her long lost family, who had previously been searching for her, through a series of completely unbelievable coincidences; also, she’s an heiress. Surprise!
Now, many of these things are tropes of the genre. OF COURSE our hero the Duke is Dark and Brooding. Of course the orphan girl finds her family and is actually an heiress. But it’s the little details that threw me here. Why did the dead friend have to be named Helen(a)? Why include the dead friend at all, when she never appears on stage and doesn’t seem necessary for Mari’s personal growth? Like, Helena is mentioned as the impetus for Mari deciding to better her life – but wouldn’t have been growing up in an orphanage enough? To be fair on the Rochester front, since Edgar is a duke, the other characters always refer to him by his title; I didn’t even realize his name was Rochester until he refers to his daughter as “Adele Rochester” towards the end of the book. Sadly there was no madwoman in the attic – Edgar’s father burned their house down when Edgar was a child. A madwoman would certainly have made things more interesting.
Let me include another list of characteristics of our heroine:
- Just a reminder, her name is Mari Perkins. She goes and works for the Duke of BANKSford.
- She is a governess. And not just any governess, an excellent governess who is definitely fixing these sad sad children with her magic sparkliness
- Who also, by the way, was not exactly sent by the governess agency
- But rather, was brought to the front door when the wind blows her umbrella; she then brazens her way through her job interview
- By the way, that umbrella? The handle is a parrot head
- And her only luggage is a carpet bag
- She gives the children fake medicine at bedtime which tastes like delicious cordial
- There is a scene involving sidewalk chalk
- She notes that another character “can’t see past the end of her spectacles”
- A pivotal moments of family bonding occurs when Edgar flies a kite with his children
SERIOUSLY? Again, the governess with SUPER EMPATHY POWERS is standard, but look at all these details.
What I’m saying is: this book is Jane Eyre plus Mary Poppins (as imagined by Disney, not the slightly less feel-good book version) minus inhibitions and also minus overt feminist speeches.
Now, I found this annoying and distracting. It also meant that things that are tropes of the genre felt like they were reduced down copied details – particularly in the case of Edgar Rochester and his brooding. Especially given that Bell is partially paying homage (or taking details from) Jane Eyre, but completely missing a lot of the subtext that makes Bronte’s work so brilliant.
However, I could also see a reader thinking that this is especially fun. It’s like a scavenger hunt! (When I was writing this review and pulling up places to buy this book, I came across other reviews that found tons of other details that I didn’t even notice.) Maybe this is a thing Lenora Bell does in her writing?
In either case, now you know what to expect.
If we set aside the details, we have a solid book. The characters have pretty good chemistry. Edgar has the hots for Mari from the beginning, and becomes completely besotted quite quickly. It helps that he’s an unconventional duke, having spent several years working in a foundry after a very public and humiliating fight with his terrible father. The children are charming, and add a bit of levity to things. The sex is decent.
Writing a Governess love story is a challenge. There is definitely an extreme power dynamic at play – particularly when said governess is also a penniless orphan. Like most of the governess stories that I’ve read, What a Difference does not acknowledge that part of the appeal of the governess / duke thing is that the power dynamic can be hot. (Understandably so, I don’t know how one could write this in a way that would play to Avon’s Regency audience and also not get rapey.) Bell gets around the potential ickiness of the situation in two ways.
First, she makes Mari outspoken, and the instigator of their physical affair.
“Listen to me Edgar… All my life I’ve hid my true feelings and desires beneath a stifling cloak of obedience and silence. I’m through with it. Do you hear me? I want you to make love to me.”
Mari’s sexual awakening is explicitly linked to an awakening in all parts of her personality, and thereby neatly sidesteps the problem of an imbalanced power dynamic.
More importantly, Bell gives Edgar a HUGE inferiority complex. He is convinced that he is not good enough for Mari, partly due to his history with women. After all, the first woman he loved got pregnant, and then ran off to France without telling him about the children. He reflects back on this relationship early in the book, so the reader knows from the beginning that we’re getting a very maudlin Duke:
Not good enough for a husband. Not good enough for a father.
“She wasn’t much for family, Sophie, if I remember correctly,” said India.
“She didn’t like anything hemming her in. Lovers. Children. Walls.” He’d been infatuated with the worldly poetess, ten years his senior, with the epic, unheeding love of callow youth.
She’d crushed his heart and left him with nothing but a deep-seated belief that love was a twisted, damning emotion that gave another person far too much power.
As you can see, very self-flagellating. This continues right on through the end of the book. When he is getting ready to finally propose to Mari, he thinks:
He had a goddess to propose to tonight.
The only problem was that he was merely a duke.
Romantic? Maybe. But he is still a sad sack, who because he is so down on himself, could never have acted in a coercive manner towards his feisty employee. Right? Right?
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