One of the most popular tropes in, for want of a better word, women’s fiction from the mid-twentieth century through the 1980’s was the tale of the governess, ripped off and/or inspired from the mother of all governess novels, Jane Eyre. Victoria Holt returned to this well repeatedly, from her first novel Mistress of Mellyn through many others, including The King of the Castle. I even believe her heroine in On the Night of the Seventh Moon returned to the little German principality where she experienced whatever it was she experienced as a teenager as a governess to a young heir of the royal house; but it’s been years since I read the book so could easily be mistaken. Even the classic camp/horror soap Dark Shadows featured a governess as its young romantic lead, Victoria Winters. (Honey in the Trixie Belden series also has a governess, Miss Trask.) I don’t think there is such a job as governess anymore, or really, paid companions; I suspect everything like that, including private secretary, now falls under the title “personal assistant”, while the young women who were previously governesses are now “nannies.”
I could be wrong. It’s not like I know a lot of people who can afford either.
But for the genre known as “romantic suspense” (and I grudgingly include Mary Stewart in this genre; I think she was a terrific suspense writer more than anything else; and while her books did include some bits of romance they were never the driving force of the story–as I’ve said before, they sometimes seemed to be tacked on, to please publishers and readers and reviewers) the governess was an extremely popular trope, and very much Jane Eyre pastiches; inevitably she was young, orphaned and had nowhere to call home, making the job of the utmost importance. Inevitably the master of the house, who was borderline abusive to her (definitely was in Jane Eyre) eventually was won over by her quiet beauty, charm and devotion to his child, fell in love with and/or married her, which inevitably put her life in some kind of danger–and she had to mistrust and fear that her husband, for some reason, wanted to kill her.
Mary Stewart took that trope and blew it to smithereens in Nine Coaches Waiting.
I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.
We reached Paris just as the light was fading. It had been a soft, gray March day, with the smell of spring in the air. The wet tarmac glistened underfootl over the airfield the sky looked very high, rinsed by the afternoon’s rain to a pale clear blue. Little trails of soft cloud drifted in the wet wind, and a late sunbeam touched them with a fleeting underglow. And beyond the airport buildings the telegraph wires swooped gleaming above the road where passing vehicles showed lights already.
Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy’s initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London’s rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along the tarmac between a stour man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy’s old case had, dumped there among the sleek cabin-class luggage.
But I was here, home after nine years. Nine years. More than a third of my lifetime.
And so we meet Melinda Martin, called Linda by everyone. Her father was English and her mother French; she was born and raised in Paris and after her parents were unfortunately killed when she was in her early teens she was sent to an English orphanage. She is fluent in both English and French, and after aging out of the orphanage, one of the women who took a charitable interest in the place helped her get a job she hated at a boys’ boarding school–but when Madame de Valmy was looking for an English girl to be her nephew’s governess, the woman remembered Linda and recommended her. During the interview it became clear to Linda that the Valmys were looking for an English girl who would only speak in English to the nephew, a nine year old who’d inherited the ancestral estate as well as the title of Comte de Valmy; desperate for the job and desperate to get back to Paris, Linda allows Madame Heloise to mistakenly believe she doesn’t speak French–and is worried she’ll slip and betray herself, and get fired. She arrives at the imposing Chateau Valmy, and also as governess finds herself in that weird in-between where she is not a member of the family but isn’t considered one of the regular servants, either. The young comte, Philippe, who usually lives with a different uncle who has been called away for a lecture series in Greece as well as to work on a dig there (Hippolyte is an archaeologist) is very subdued, clearly afraid of his disabled uncle Leon (Leon is a dynamic personality Linda comes to think of as Lucifer after the fall–later in the book she calls him the King of Demons), handsome and strong and confined to a wheelchair after a car accident. Heloise is his wife, and he has one son from a previous marriage, Raoul, who runs Bellevigne, a chateau with a vineyard and winery, for his father. There are three family estates, each of which was left to one of the three brothers; young Philippe is the only child of the eldest brother and so the title and the vast ancestral estate belongs to him; Leon merely serves as his trustee.
Linda manages to navigate her confusing place in the chateau with the remarkable aplomb all Stewart heroines are blessed with; these are strong young women more than capable of taking care of themselves in a man’s world, and these women are courageous and smart. When Linda realizes her young charge is in danger–someone is trying to kill him because of the complexities of the Valmy inheritance–she has no problem whatsoever in taking the child out of the house in the middle of the night and venturing out into the woods in a desperate attempt to keep him safe until his uncle Hippolyte returns–the next day, which leads the plot against the boy to amp up. The journey to safety–and not knowing who she can and cannot trust–cranks the suspense way up, until the denouement when all is revealed and the truth comes out, with the young boy safe and Linda in the arms of the man she has fallen in love with–but couldn’t be certain whether or not was involved in the plot to kill the child. Stewart manages to make it all seem absolutely real, and once Linda and Philippe were in the woods it was hard to look away.
This book is peak Stewart at the top of her game–and that is truly saying something. I am looking forward to rereading her other novels even more so now than i was before.