For the eighth round of Buy, Borrow, or Bash, I decided to read a couple of romances that are out of my comfort zone. On a whim, I picked up a Christian romance set in the Edwardian era and a holiday romance set in the Victorian era. To top this all off, I picked up a Mary Balogh novel because I’m incredibly biased against novels with the word “mistress” in the title.
(I’m not kidding. I think some words should never be part of a title, words like ho, sluttish, rapine, secret baby… you get the idea.)
So…did these romances manage to win me over to their sub-genres? Let’s take a look.
Carrie Turansky’s The Governess of Highland Hall (2013)
The Governess of Highland Hall is like Little Women amped up to eleven: the main character’s a saintly Beth and a maternal Meg rolled into one neat package.
Julia Foster is the plucky daughter of English missionaries, and she’s spent most of her young life in India. Now that her father is ill, her family’s returned home and Julia must take a post as a governess to help pay the bills.
A widower who came into his title recently, Sir William Ramsey hires Julia to care for his two children and his two debutante-aged cousins. He finds himself increasingly attracted to his new employee, but he tries to stifle the attraction. The estate he inherited is bogged down with debt, and a marriage of convenience is the easiest solution to all his problems.
Many obstacles are thrown into Julia’s path—territorial senior servants, Sir William’s douchey brother, an American heiress named Alice Drexel—but Julia always manages to pray and philosophize her way out of difficult situations.
Since the book is marketed as a Christian romance, there are lots of references to prayer and the Bible. Since I was raised a disgruntled Catholic, this bothered me less than I expected it would. After two hundred pages though, it got grating. I’m obviously not the target market of this work.
I also wonder if any readers of Indian descent will take offense at the historically accurate attitude taken by some of the book’s characters. While it’s almost refreshing that the book is brave enough not to be revisionist (in the sense that not all the characters are enlightened), I still question the wisdom of the portrayal. It’s treading on thin ground, really.
It bothers me, too, that Julia refers to India as a whole, and never talks about growing up in a particular region in the subcontinent.
While the book’s main conflict is resolved in the usual fashion, some of the subplots are left at loose ends. Does the housemaid reunite with her stable boy? Does the housekeeper, Mrs. Emmitt, ever accept that the former governess is now her new boss? Do I really care? Does it really matter?
I can imagine the nuns in my old high school stocking the library with this book, and other Christian romances just like it. There’s absolutely no sex, whether implied or explicit. Even a character’s unwanted advances amounted to nothing more than a drunken fumble. This romance is so clean you can serve hors d’oeuvres on it.
heat meter: one chili final rating: borrow
In His Mistress by Christmas, Lady Veronica Smithson attends a book lecture and makes the rash decision to seduce the charismatic speaker. The man she lusts for is the amateur explorer Sir Sebastian Hadley-Attwater, a well-known adventurer—in every sense of the word. He also happens to be a cousin of a good friend.
Portia, Lady Redwell, almost regrets making the introduction when she finds out what Lady Veronica’s secret intentions. For his part, Sir Sebastian is intrigued by Lady Veronica. He’s returned to England to settle down for good. He’s finally decided he wants to do all the grown-up things he’s expected to do—buy an estate and come into his inheritance—and he’s even willing to add a wife to the mix. So when Lady Veronica presents herself so willingly, it’s difficult for Sir Sebastian not to want her.
Except now, with the idea of marriage just stirring in his brain, Sir Sebastian wants something more than a conquest. He tells Lady Veronica, rather hypocritically, “One does not seduce the woman one intends to marry.”
So what does Sir Sebastian do to get his way? Of course the man decides to lie to everyone. He lies to Lady Veronica so that she visits his estate, thinking that she’s there for a liaison. He then lies to his extended family, saying that they got speedily and secretly married.
Then things happen…
This is one of those novels in which the central conceit runs out of steam way too fast. The heroine wants to be independent but she’s just going the entirely wrong way about it. She starts off as a merry widow with a coterie of female friends; I don’t understand why she feels the need to become a mistress of a particular guy, no matter how attractive. I mean, there are obviously other alternatives, like hiring a string of strapping young footmen. For a rich, smart woman, she has a rather limited imagination.
The scene where Lady Veronica tries her hand at seduction just made me go “eww.” (Really. That’s all I wrote down in my notes. “Eww.” If I can’t be bothered to make notes, it means I really want to forget the scene as quickly as possible.)
I reserve some ire for Sir Sebastian, too. For a gentleman explorer, he’s not quite perceptive. Sir Sebastian’s lack of foresight and his poor communication skills causes most of the shallow conflict in the first place.
Surely there are Christmas-themed romances that won’t make me feel like hurling the book against the wall. After His Mistress by Christmas, I almost wanted to boycott the holiday season. Maybe some other titles in this sub-genre will be more to my liking.
heat meter: three chilies final rating: bash
Mary Balogh’s The Secret Mistress (2012)
This book’s title is incredibly misleading because the main plot has nothing to do with mistresses. Unlike His Mistress by Christmas, Lady Angeline Dudley’s main goal in life isn’t to be some guy’s kept woman.
Impulsive, good-hearted, and yet very sheltered, Lady Angeline is shocked when a strange gentleman mistakes her for a tart. Just because she’s in a posting inn waiting for her brother, it doesn’t mean she has to put up with the man’s lewd suggestions. So when yet another stranger leaps to her defense, Lady Angeline naturally develops a crush on this chivalrous gentleman.
Lady Angeline’s knight in shining armor is Edward Ailsbury, the new Earl of Heyward. All the rakes think he’s dull and he’s okay with that. He’s eager to differentiate himself from his older brother, the previous earl, a man who died recklessly.
Edward’s determined to be responsible and dependable. One of Heyward’s new responsibilities is to get married and secure the lineage. His back-up plan is to propose to his friend, Eunice Goddard. Yet Eunice wants to marry for love.
As the London season begins, Heyward finds himself being pushed in Lady Angeline’s direction. As the most eligible bachelor and debutante on the market, everyone thinks they make a perfect match. But nothing is easy, especially with rakes on the prowl and a pretty bluestocking with a mind of her own…
Apart from the book’s awful title, The Secret Mistress is actually a charming romance. Both the hero and the heroine are developed equally, and they sort out their misconceptions about marriage while finding each other. There isn’t much sex in it, but since I’m a sucker for straight-laced heroes who keep their passions well hidden, I’m not going to pick on Heyward’s gentlemanly behavior. Quality trumps quantity, even with sex scenes.
heat meter: three chilies final rating: buy