“Freddy Tyne’s gone and done it, by damn . . . Took him donkey’s years, but his sticky fingers’ll be lightening my purse from now till lilies bloom in hell” (1).
Playboy Valentine North is horrified when his cousin–who has spent his married life in the wilds of Canada–dies, leaving Val two little savages as wards. There’s no way that he’s going let the little monsters upset his comfortable life, and there is no way he’s going to let some sneaky governess trap him into the Parson’s Mousetrap! So, he concocts an outrageous plan: he’ll disguise himself as his own man of business, hire a house and a governess, and wash his hands of the brats. When his band of comrades wager that Val will be incapable of managing the affair and will end up married within a year, he is even more determined to carry out his plan.
Meanwhile, Lady Amelia Peasebottom, who has fled a distasteful marriage, must find employment. Although she’s equipped to be an excellent governess and definitely plucky enough to handle any job, her beauty makes her the target of her employers’ amorous advances. Plus, she mustn’t be found by her father!
By the time she answers a rather odd advertisement (“Superior governess sought. Dry sticks need not apply. Tolerance of frogs and mice is essential.”), Amelia is at the end of her rope. Using powder, hair-dye, ugly clothes, and a spinster-y name (Abigail Sparrow), she makes herself as plain as can be. Meanwhile, Val is busy making himself over as the hunchbacked old “Pericles Tidmarsh,” whom he intends to be his new governess’s only contact with her employer.
The resulting interview is an excellent piece of comedy. Val is delighted by “Miss Sparrow’s” beautiful voice, and is rather sorry that she is as plain as dishwater. However, she is the best candidate of the lot. He offers her an outrageous sum of money, but with strings attached–for each week that passes without her contacting Tidmarsh or North, she will receive a bonus. Each time she bothers them, she’ll pay a penalty. “Miss Sparrow” accepts, and North goes his merry way, certain that he’s solved the problem of his new wards.
Unfortunately in his rush to dispose of the children, he has made a few mistakes. For instance, hiring a former brothel in Mayfair to house Amelia and the brats. Allowing the owners and their floozies to remain on as butler, housekeeper, and servants. Underestimating just how monstrous Tyne’s kids would be (indeed, the little girl has a marvelous trick of vomiting at will to get attention).
Amelia has no choice but to hound Tidmarsh/North about the conditions. Yet, even as the irritated North begins to send her inappropriate gifts and shower the kids with presents that only make her work harder, she just can’t seem to get ahold of her employer. At least his bevy of friends seem to care–they do check in on her progress and protest to North. Of course, their interference only infuriates Val further.
Then, the worst possible thing happens: Amelia’s former fiancé turns up and sets off a disastrous chain of events that finally brings Val and Amelia together. As they (and Val’s friends) rush to set things right, our hero begins to find his dowdy governess uncommonly attractive. She, on the other hand, has no end of imprecations to rain down on his head. And perhaps he deserves them all.
The protagonists’ disguises, Val’s stubborn self-sabotage, and Amelia’s resourcefulness and acid tongue make Monique Ellis’s book a delightful read. Although the romance is hampered by the fact that Amelia doesn’t meet North until well into the book and North doesn’t see the “true” Amelia until near its climax, their battle-from-a-distance is entertaining and even creates a odd kind of chemistry–at least on Val’s side.
It’s difficult to create sexual chemistry between the dowdy Miss Sparrow and the hunchbacked Tidmarsh. Once North and “Miss Sparrow” do get together, An Uncommon Governess builds their relationship successfully. Moreover, the plot offers enough twists and turns to make a person dizzy.
Ellis has written an excellent romantic farce. Although at first, I had my doubts about the writing style of An Uncommon Governess, soon I was laughing out loud. Recommended.