There were “few openings for women in the nineties” and, so, Mary Wakefield is forced to consider work as a governess in the 1890s.
She is fortunate, in fact, that Ernest Whiteoak is seeking a governess for his brother’s young son (nine years old) and daughter (seven years old).
Their mother died seven years ago and they have had a series of serious women as their governesses; now they are about to have a supremely unqualified, but young and pretty, governess.
Ernest, whom readers last saw in Morning at Jalna, running away as a young boy with his siblings (unsuccessfully), is all grown up and viewing his history from quite a distance.
“I was the first child born in it,” he says, of Jalna, after describing the way his parents met when his father was an officer in India, how they journeyed to Canada some forty years ago with his mother (Adeline) and his sister (Augusta) and elder brother (Nicholas), who was born in Quebec, to live on 1000 acres in Ontario.
Eight years later, he explains, his younger brother (Philip) was born there too. Readers are now all caught up in the Whiteoaks family doings, aware that most of the key players are still alive and well, somewhere in Canada (only the patriarch, Philip and his namesake’s wife the exceptions).
Mazo de la Roche establishes the setting in subtle terms. Just two books ago, Gussie and Nicholas were the children playing at Jalna. Now Adeline’s and Philip’s grandchildren are playing there. But, rather than talk of time tables, fashion trends set the stage.
“Those were not the days of shorts and pullovers, of scant dresses and bare legs or abbreviated play-suits. Renny put on an undervest, a shirt, trousers held up by braces of which he was very proud, and a jacket, brown stockings and laced shoes. Meg, still sleepy, got into an undervest, black stockings held up by suspenders from a heavily ribbed garment called a Ferris waist, frilled white drawers, a white starched petticoat that buttoned down the back, a pleated navy blue serge skirt, coming just below the knee, and a white duck blouse with a starched sailor collar. It was to be a hot June day.”
The prejudices of the household help are broadcast loudly upon Mary Wakefield’s arrival. Mrs. Nettleship (Old Nettle, the children call her) makes her opinion clear. “I’ve never crossed the ocean…I believe in staying at home and earning your living in the country you was born in.”
In turn, Mary responds with sass, just as a young Adeline might have retorted: “But how would this country have got populated if everyone had stayed at home?”
Mary is given to “frills and flounces” and Philip “did not know and could not learn how to behave towards a governess, any more than Mary knew how to behave like one”. Which is a problem when Adeline eventually returns to Jalna. “She stood like a queen with courtiers encircling her, a pleased smile curving her full lips.”
When he was hiring for the position, Ernest didn’t recognise the threat that Mary could pose to the stability and propriety at Jalna, but when the matriarch Adeline returns, she cottons on immediately. Mary must create at least the charade of an engagement just to maintain her position as governess.
She does formalise an arrangement with a country gentleman, sho is sincerely smitten with her frills and flounces, and this commitment is enough to satisfy Adeline before she and other family members travel overseas for a few months. While the Whiteoaks are abroad, Mary works to shift her focus from Philip to her admirer.
“His name was like a cold hand laid on her heart. Her exalted brain halted in its imaginings. Her taut nerves slackened. Suddenly her legs felt weak and she sat down on the bed. She stared blankly in front of her. She did not know how long a time passed, but she began to be very cold. Her mouth felt unbearably dry yet she could not bring herself to the point of getting a drink. She sat like one doomed, while his name rang like a bell through the empty chambers of her mind.”
Adeline doesn’t really want another woman at Jalna (perhaps a silver lining to her daughter-in-law’s death) but if there must be one, she has an eye on Muriel Craig, who – in turn – has her eye on Philip. This matter of marriage is of the utmost importance.
“Now your father will always tell you you’re a Whiteoak and the Whiteoaks are English, but you must remember you’re part Irish too. And your Irish blood is your best. My grandfather was an Earl.”
Inviting anyone else into the bloodline is serious business. And no matter that Philip likely had his hand slapped for marrying an Irish girl, way back when; now that Adeline is the dowager, she is not easily distracted by frills. The novel ends with Adeline looking towards the future, riding off with young Renny, who will be at the heart of the next volume in the series.
Written many years after the initial Jalna story was published, Mary Wakefield works hard to establish the importance of tradition in the post-war years, even though the upstart governess threatens all of that. (Progress is inevitable.)
Readers who equate a wedding with a happy ending will be pleased, and those seeking a new heroine as passionate and head-strong as the young Adeline will be curious to see what Young Renny holds.