‘As if money was a substitute for fair play': feminist subtext in The Governess Affair

After the Vicki Essex review and the feminist heroine fiasco, I’ve been feeling like many of my latest posts have come down on the negative side of the critical spectrum. To balance things out, I kept an eye out for positive examples of romances with feminist leanings — and now I’m thrilled to say that Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair has a strongly feminist subtext based around power, money, consent, and women’s autonomy.

{Be ye warned: spoilers abound. Also, at present the novella is free on Amazon, so I’d run right out and grab it if I were you.}

Cover for Courtney Milan's The Governess Affair: a light-skinned woman with dark hair wears a long gold gown. She has her back to the viewer, and is turning to look at the viewer over her right shoulder.

The book opens with a description of two men, one of them a duke, and the other, our hero:

An untutored observer would focus on the Duke of Clermont, apparently in full command … his patrician features were sharp and aristocratic. Compared with Hugo’s own unprepossessing expression and sandy brown hair, the untutored observer would have concluded that the duke was in charge.

The untutored observer, Hugo thought, was an idiot. (2-3)

Less than a page in, the visible marks of patriarchal power—expensive clothing, “patrician features”—are irrevocably undermined. Hugo isn’t a servant. He’s a former boxer who is now something of an enforcer, working to eliminate the duke’s many debts. If he succeeds before a given date, he will be rewarded with enough money to launch his own business empire. He successfully helped the duke marry an heiress, but the new duchess’ father was canny enough to put her fortune in trust, to be doled out on a regular schedule—provided, of course, that the duke does not do anything to irritate his new bride.

This is worth unraveling further. The ‘official’ channels of social power—a husband’s authority over his wife and her property, a master’s authority over his hired hand, and an aristocrat’s authority over a coal miner’s son—are subverted by the ebb and flow of money. The legal actions of the duke’s father-in-law do much to thwart the duke’s own exercise of power, proving that emotional ties and competing agendas can complicate what should be straightforward hierarchies. As Hugo observes soon after: “A duke should have known how to take charge. But no; Clermont was so used to having others bow before his title that he’d never learned to command by force of personality” (5). I love how this reverses the usual romance trope where a titled hero is so used to getting his own way that he becomes autocratic or commanding or a force of nature. Privilege, in Courtney Milan’s text, means never having to work to exert one’s will upon the world.

Our hero Hugo, of course, has to work very hard to do the same thing. His past as a boxer means he has more than common physical power, of course, but his past as an abused son of a battered mother makes him wary of the uses of physical force, particularly against those less powerful than himself. His low-class birth and shady employment further exclude him from the halls of official authority—from government as well as from society. The solution he seeks is wealth, “his own empire” (7), which will allow him to exist comfortably outside the channels of official power. Money is, in the aristocratic system, unofficial power.

Again, at this point we’re still about seven pages into this novella.

Enter our heroine.

Or rather, say that she is revealed to be our heroine. She first appeared on page three, in a bit of description where the duke was looking at her and grinding his teeth. She wears a hat with a “thin pink ribbon.” She appeared again, “a smudge of pink for her lips,” on page seven. And she gets finally introduced in the least impressive manner possible: “‘You see,’ Clermont muttered, ‘there was this governess … that’s her, now. Waiting. Demanding compensation from me” (8). Our heroine wants money too.

Actually, she wants a great deal more than money. Unlike Hugo, who sees money as some kind of proof that he’s transcended the legacy of his abusive father, Serena Barton wants the things money can bring her rather than money for its own sake. She wants to buy a lavender farm to ensure her financial independence, and she wants a guarantee that the duke will pay for the future education of his unborn son (or a Season for his daughter, if the child is a girl).

Serena Barton, you see, is a survivor of sexual assault. She is also pregnant with the duke’s illegitimate child.

I’ve seen plenty of rapes in romance, whether by the hero or by the villain. I’ve even seen some heroines get pregnant after being raped by the hero, in a few romances of the ‘sweeping generational epic’ type. And there’s the heroine in Loretta Chase’s Not Quite a Lady, who has a bastard child with a deceased rake.

The duke is clearly, unambiguously not the hero.

And yet our heroine is carrying his child.

This is textual violence as well as sexual violence. Babies tend to be almost magical in romance. They embody hope, happiness, love, and the future. Secret babies bring long-estranged lovers together. Children’s troubles are often the inciting incident to reunite formerly feuding spouses and exes. Barren heroines are mystically un-barrenated by True Love in cherubic baby-filled epilogues. If a couple has One Night of Passion, the chances of baby go through the roof. (Does nobody understand how condoms function?) But this particular baby is an accident, an unfortunate consequence of a traumatic experience. This is not a baby born to solve its parents’ problems. In another romance, an author would let her heroine wonder if she could possibly love a child born from such a cicumstances. Serena Barton, however, seems to have simply accepted this baby as hers to protect—not out of defiance, but as a matter of simple responsibility. It’s very quietly powerful.

Virginity, too, is fetishized in romance, and Serena Barton was a virgin until Clermont came along. But Serena Barton does not spend a lot of time mourning her lost innocence. In a romance so concerned with money, it would have been easy to depict the heroine’s rape as a robbery, in the commodity model of sexual relationships. Especially since it also cost her her governess’ wages. But this is not what Courtney Milan does. Yes, Serena is traumatized by her rape—she has nightmares, she gets triggered (though she doesn’t of course use the term), and she has been fired from her position as a result of her pregnancy. She fears being silenced, she wonders if she should have fought back harder, if there was something she could have done to protect herself—all very standard responses for victims of sexual violence. But while her rape has affected her, it has not taken something from her femininity, and this is hugely important in feminist terms.

Serena Barton has no money, no character, no prospects, no power. But she still has agency: “I am done with things happening to me. From here on out, am going to happen to things.” (38)

Reader, I admit that I flat-out cheered.

And this is the moment when Serena first begins her assault on Hugo’s bleak and tender heart. Though she doesn’t realize it at the time.

Because Hugo is sensitive to the workings of power, and one of the other visible marks of official power is that it allows men like Clermont to succeed in abusing women like Serena. “I’m a duke,” he says in the first chapter. “I have no need to force women.” (10) Astute readers will notice that this is not the same as saying I did not force that woman. And it’s true he did not use physical force—but then, he didn’t have to. “He promised not to wake the household” (98) Serena explains later. His wealth, his title, and his gender all allow him access to unpunished violence. The duke is not a moustache-twirler in the classic romance tradition—unlike, say, my own heinous and much-beloved Lord Wart—he’s an average man, with average appetites, and the unshakeable conviction that he is entitled to satisfy those appetites no matter what it costs anyone else. “I was so bored, and she was the closest thing to a woman around. What would it hurt?” (171)

As a governess, Serena has no official recourse against abuse and violence. All the duke has to do is tell her to be quiet, once during the rape, and once when she takes up her vigil on the bench outside his home: “She’d been cut deep by her own silence, cut to the point of shame … Silence could cut both ways—for instance, when one failed to repudiate rumors that might cause damage. She wished Clermont much joy of her silence.” (17-18) Privilege thrives on being unseen, so Serena makes her silence conspicuously visible: “What do you suppose the gossip will run to once I begin to show?” (109)

Hugo, whose instincts for abuse are finely honed, sees through the duke’s feeble lies about the rape; he even sees through Serena’s insistence that she was not forced under the legal definition of the term: “Somehow, what had happened seemed even worse than physical violence—as if Clermont had taken not only his pleasure and her future, but had robbed her of the right to believe herself blameless.” (99) Note that the robbery metaphor here pertains to Serena’s sense of herself, not to her status as a virgin. It is the damage to Serena-as-a-person that matters in this text, not the damage to Serena-as-a-sexual-object. Her virginity is barely even established as having been taken—a brief mention of blood on the sheets when it wasn’t her time of the month—but the results to her security, happiness, and peace of mind are thoroughly explored.

Hugo, unlike Clermont and unlike many other romance heroes, is very very good with boundaries. A list:

  • When he first suspects Serena has been raped, he sets a twig on the bench between them, declaring his intention of treating it as a wall. He does not move the twig; Serena does, at the end of the scene.
  • He tries to take her glove off to warm her hands, chilled from standing all day in a downpour. When she flinches at the touch, he stops, lets go, apologizes, and asks if she can take her own gloves off. When she can’t manage it with stiff fingers, he asks her permission again before gently removing the gloves, not touching her any more than he has to, not turning it into a caress or a seduction. (Since I love Lord of Scoundrels, I read this as a clear callback to the famous glove scene between Dain and Jessica.) If she’d refused, he would not have touched her, even though it meant she continued to shiver and drip in the rain. He would not have manhandled her “for her own good,” as so many heroes are wont to do.
  • In the scene where they finally consummate the relationship, he turns it into a game, with hairpins as tokens, and pre-arranged rules. The rules apply to him, not to Serena: “You can make me touch you,” he says. “I can only make you touch yourself.” (132) He deliberately gives her more power. She is explicitly the one in charge of this encounter. He never loses control and breaks the rules he’s set, never pushes her, even after they both forget about the pins.
  • When Serena mentions how clever the games with the twig and the hairpins, he explains that things like this were how his mother dealt with the reality her own abuse. Hugo’s mother is not shown to be a passive victim—she has coping strategies, mental tricks to avoid being dragged down by hopelessness, which she has passed on to her son. The fact that she was killed by her abuser is a tragedy, but it does not dehumanize her in the text or in Hugo’s eyes.

Hugo, despite his declarations of ruthlessness and his nickname (the Wolf of Clermont), is incapable of true cruelty. Serena notices this, recognizes his value and strength, and makes her decision. I’m going to quote at length:

She’d thought of the Wolf of Clermont as the duke’s tool, his thing. Yet Mr. Marshall was sitting in the rain feeding her sandwiches. Maybe this was some twisted, diabolical strategy on his part. It seemed unlikely. It would have made more sense to keep her cold and hungry.

Her heart beat hard, half fear, half excitement. This was the man who, if the gossip papers had it right, had brought Clermont’s estates back from the verge of imminent doom. The duke relied on him for everything. Without him, Clermont was nothing.

She could steal him away. (62-63)

To clarify: she’s initially looking to use Hugo, but this quickly changes: “She wanted to steal him away—not to deprive Clermont of his use, but to have him for herself.” (91)

This is precisely what she does.

It’s a beautifully inexorable plot. One step at a time, Hugo becomes Serena’s. She mentally declares him hers at precisely the midpoint of the novel—in the same scene where she agrees to marry him in name only, for the legitimacy of her unborn child. In the same scene she ends with this thought: “He was fooling himself if he thought she would settle for a half-marriage. She’d vowed to win him from Clermont. She’d be damned if she stopped with less than full victory.” (116) I kept expecting it to fall apart; I kept expecting she would have to humble herself, or change, or compromise what she wants in some way.

Instead, she gets married, gets one night with Hugo—on her insistence—and gets her lavender farm. After she leaves for the country, the reader stays with Hugo, watching him suffer (in the best romance-y sense of the term). He writes her letters; she writes back with wit, and warmth, and friendship, and a few delightfully prosy innuendoes. He watches the money come rolling in, and can’t think why he used to feel it was so important. Unofficial power is still power, which is not the same as love. It’s not the same thing as trust, even. The duke returns, having reconciled with the duchess, and asks Hugo what to buy first with all this lovely, lovely money.

Hugo punches him right in the stomach. And does it again, once the duke has admitted to the rape. Physical violence finally has an appropriate use and an appropriate target. Hugo then blackmails the duke into handing over everything Serena wanted, both funds for the child’s education and a written confession of what he’s done.

And then Hugo shows this confession to the duchess, saying: “I think you’ve lied to quite enough women.” (173) It’s not a prosecution, not really justice. Justice is impossible under the laws of the time. But Hugo, through the duchess, can change the balance of unofficial power—money—in such a way as to be a punishment. (A punishment the duke can’t really openly discuss, either, echoing Serena’s position that silence is a weapon.)

Then—only after Serena has everything else she’s wanted—Hugo goes to the lavender farm and tells her he loves her. This is what he says next: “I want to be somebody. Let me be your husband. Let me be the father of your child—of all your children.” (177)

I couldn’t believe that passage was real the first time I read it. A romance hero was defining himself in relation to the heroine, rather than the other way around. Possessing and stealing and claiming and owning tend to be the domains of the hero, not the heroine—but here, Hugo is the one being claimed. He even—I can’t believe this, either—he even asks permission to be claimed: Let me be yours. This ending is not papered over with gender essentialism; it’s not the you woman have taught me to love and open my manly heart to your nurturing feminine ways trope. It’s not about power, because Hugo and Serena have always related to one another as equals, even when they were on opposite sides. There’s no magical shower of money gilding this particular lily. It’s just sweet, and human, and utterly romantic. (Side note: there’s something intensely poetic about the idea of a lavender farm—why hasn’t this come up before? It’s ready-made for romance heroines.)

In sum, this ending? It’s fucking revolutionary.

I’ll stop before this post hits the 3k mark. I know I’ve practically written a novella analyzing Courtney Milan’s novella. But strongly feminist romances are still rare and remarkable, and this was not only a strong feminist book, it was a strong book. I can’t wait to get started on The Duchess War.

{You can find digital copies of The Governess Affair at Amazon, ARe, and Third Place Books. It’s also a finalist in this year’s DABWAHA, if you feel like a bookish brawl.}

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5 thoughts on “‘As if money was a substitute for fair play': feminist subtext in The Governess Affair

  1. Well, if you liked that, you should read basically everything else that Courtney Milan has written, because they’re all feminist fairytales and therefore awesome.

  2. I’ve been working through the ones I’ve missed — if her writing was a person, I would want to ask it to dance.

  3. Stellar analysis and spot on in my opinion. I felt the same way about the novella and I agree with CD that her other books are feminist-ly satisfying too.

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