“For years I could not recall the day without a smoldering coal of remorse burning within me. I tried to bury the memory deep in the dark places of my mind, but now and again something would evoke it – a public house placard, a column of figures, a finely dressed gentleman – and I would wince as the memory appeared and then scuttled away, like a silverfish under the door…” p. 7
The voice is Olivia Keene, remembering a childhood incident with her alcoholic father in the prologue of Julie Klassen’s historical The Silent Governess. The actual story (told in third person) begins 12 years later, in 1815, when the now-adult Olivia comes home from work to find that same father in a drunken rage with his hands around her mother’s throat. Olivia hits him on the back of the head with a fire iron; he falls over unconscious and, fearful that she’s killed him, she flees toward a village where her mother has friends.
Before she arrives, however, she wanders onto Brightwell Manor, overhears a confidential conversation, is arrested for trespassing, and held captive to ensure that her knowledge goes no further. There she is eventually installed as a governess, wins the hearts of the household, uses her math prowess to straighten out the manor’s books and her wits to bring to light family scandals. (A plot twist in this book that was also in Klassen’s book Lady of Milkweed Manor is a baby secretly taken from a poor mother at birth and given to a set of wealthy parents to raise. Klassen likes that, I guess.) Of course, all the while our beautiful heroine is winning the heart of the somber heir-apparent, Edward.
Olivia is a complex, smart, though vulnerable heroine. Edward has his faults, though we readily forgive them. The father characters, Simon Keene and Oliver Brightwell, have good and bad qualities, which our leading man and lady struggle to come to terms with. Family members like Judith and Felix add interest with their selfish, sly and sometimes less than honorable actions.
I enjoyed the setting with its authentic-feeling paraphernalia of bonnets, gowns, reticules, horse-drawn carriages, and abigails. The social realities, with its upstairs/downstairs divisions, the need for women to gain station in life with suitable marriages, and the inability to pass on an inheritance except to a birth heir are all characteristic of the time. Klassen manages to use these elements to further her plot as well.
Klassen’s writing is brisk, though dignified in that she uses more formal language than what we’d find in contemporary fiction. A nice touch is the quote heading each chapter. These bits from 19th century writings fill us in on social customs and the common perceptions of the role that the governess should play in an English family.
Besides the theme of attaining and preserving one’s place in society, Klassen also addresses subjects relevant to modern readers. The way the Olivia’s childhood memory casts its shadow over her life brings to mind how such early incidents can affect the course of a life. The preoccupation with status and birthright and how they form self-image and define the characters’ identities directs our attention to the question, what things do we use to define ourselves? The theme of faith also runs through the story – a thread Klassen weaves subtly. What I enjoyed most about the book was its exposé of the governess life in 19th century England.
Finally, Klassen brings us to an ending with many surprises. (Some of the ending plot twists had me shaking my head, though, like when minor characters end up being responsible for some of the main action of the story.) An epilogue ties everything together in a neat package of domestic bliss.
The Silent Governess is an interesting and satisfying sojourn in 19th century England. Fans of the Janes (Austen and Eyre) won’t want to miss it. The paperback edition includes discussion questions, making this a good choice for book clubs and reading groups.