Every month I browse through the LT review books and select anything that sounds interesting. The Silent Governess captured my attention because it was described as a cross between Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, so that was enough to pique my curiosity. I did not know at the time that it was published as Christian fiction, which may have skewed my perception and made me turn away; however, I am glad that I was unaware of this because the novel was a delightful surprise and not at all the moralistic treatise that my personal prejudice would have led me to expect.
Miss Olivia Keene, schoolteacher, faithful daughter, and mathematical genius, has but one ambition–to open a school for girls, until she becomes tangled in a series of events that will make her question her very identity and change her life forever.
When Olivia witnesses a man attacking her mother, she rushes to her aid. Thinking only of saving her dear mother’s life, Olivia strikes the man with a fire-iron and sees him drop to the ground, wounded and unconcious. Certain that she has murdered him, she flees at her mother’s urging, seeking shelter in the woods and planning to travel to St. Aldwyn’s School for Girls, where she hopes to find shelter and a situation. But one complication inevitably leads to another and Olivia encounters a group of poachers in the woods and comes under attack herself before a grizzled, haggard man named Croome secures her escape.
With nowhere to turn, Olivia wanders into the town of Arlington and makes the acquaintance of the local vicar, who offers to assist her and help her on her way. After a run-in with the local earl, Lord Bradley of Brightwell Court, Olivia becomes curious and decides to take a look at Brightwell Court. It is just her luck that she happens to overhear a conversation that can destroy Lord Bradley’s position as an earl and his future as a peer. Caught by the manor’s gamekeeper, Olivia is imprisoned in the local gaol in a cell with one of the poachers that threatened her during her journey through the woods. When the poacher tries to strangle her, Olivia is saved just in time, but temporarily loses her voice as a consequence. Not trusting her to keep his dreadful secret, Lord Bradley takes her into his home and assigns her a position in the nursery, looking after his two young step-cousins. Olivia’s strength and integrity, and her innate generosity make her a favorite among the members of the household, but when her voice returns, Lord Bradley refuses to believe she will not divulge his secret and ensures that she will stay on as a governess.
No longer a member of the staff, Olivia’s position places her above the other servants, but beneath the family. It is a lonely life that she leads as a governess, until she unexpectedly finds a friend in Lord Bradley, who comes to view her in a new light when he learns that Olivia also has secrets she would rather keep.
A touch of romance and mystery lend suspense to the tale in a way that would make the Brontes proud, while the manners and setting are Austenian indeed. The plot is fast-paced and the characters genuine. I was afraid that Olivia would be a self-effacing, highly moral miss (Christian fiction, silent governess… my prejudice again), but she was smart and daring, and defended her honor with untiring grace. Lord Bradley’s admiration for Olivia evolved naturally, and the bond between them emerged in a manner similar to Jane and Mr. Rochester’s, a pair of flawed equals. The mystery subplot was engaging and kept me guessing throughout, while the glimpse of life in a country house added to the idea that Olivia and Lord Bradley were part of a community filled with individuals, each of whom had their own story to tell.
Olivia’s experience of life as a governess reminded me of the series “Berkeley Square,” and the epigraphs at the head of each chapter (quoted from documents and texts concerning the lives of governesses) were particularly insightful. Overall, a great read for any Regency fan.