What A Difference a Duke Makes
By Lenora Bell
Release Date: March 27, 2018
Reviewed by Janga
Mari (“rhymes with starry”) Perkins arrives in London to take up a position as governess to the children of a tradesman that has been promised to her by Mrs. Trilby of Mrs. Trilby’s Agency for Superior Governesses, but when Mari’s soft heart and the theft of all her possessions make her fifteen minutes late for her appointment, Mrs. Trilby gives the job to someone else. Moreover, she proves that she is cut from the same fabric as her friend, the late, self-righteous, hard-hearted headmistress of the charity school where Mari grew up, when she refuses to consider Mari for another position and suggests that Mari look for a position as a scullery maid instead. Even though only one pound ten shillings preserves Mari from utter destitution, she rejects that suggestion. She worked too hard acquiring the knowledge that fits her for a governess post, a position in which she can support herself and still have time to look for information about her parents, to give up now. When she overhears a governess who has just departed from the household of the Duke of Banksford without notice encouraging Mrs.Trilby not to send another governess to the duke’s demon-seed children who have run through four Trilby-trained governesses in two months, Mari decides to try for that position.
Edgar Rochester (Shades of Edward Rochester!), Duke of Banksford, is a most atypical duke. He has two goals in life: to be as different as possible from his late father, a drunken, profligate, dissolute aristocrat who was a threat to every female servant in his employ, and to produce in his foundry (through which he has restored the family fortune that his father dissipated) a “steam-powered fire engine lightweight enough to be drawn by a single horse.” The duke’s integrity, intelligence, and wealth have not proved very helpful in dealing with the two recent additions to his household. He knew nothing about the nine-year-old twins, Michel and Adele, the products of his youthful affair with a “poetess” a decade older than he, until their Moroccan nurse sent them to him after their mother’s suicide. The children, sent from their home in France to a strange father and a strange country, are chronic runaways who defy attempts to discipline them. The duke can’t imagine anyone less likely to deal with his troublesome offspring that the too young, too small, too optimistic Mari, who is also too pretty for his comfort. Regardless of his doubts, when she proves resourceful in a crisis, he agrees to allow Mari a week’s trial.
Mari’s rapport with the children is immediate and effective. She cares for them, she respects them, and she understands them, and they quickly see in her a friend and a source of security. As Mari works to bring Edgar into a closer relationship with the twins, the chemistry between her and their father, potent from the beginning, becomes more powerful. Edgar begins to learn the lessons Mari has to teach him, and he discovers in her and in his children a joy that has been missing from his life. Despite the class barriers, he allows himself to dream of a life with her, but when Mari finally connects with her past, he questions if they have a future. Will his insecurity prevail?
What A Difference a Duke Makes is the first book in Lenora Bell’s School for Dukes series. In this charming tale, Bell combines elements of Jane Eyre and the spirit of Mary Poppins with a Regency setting that encompasses more than the typical aristocratic world. Discerning readers will catch the Jane Eyre references in more than the hero’s name. The charity school where Mari is abandoned is Underwood; Jane’s school is Lowood. Edgar’s illegitimate daughter shares a name with a similar character from Jane Eyre. These are only the most obvious connections. Mari’s name and the magic she works with the children evoke the iconic Poppins. But Bell makes the story her own as she weaves together the governess plot with the threads of Mari’s past, Edgar’s conflict with his parents, and his engineering dreams and the role of his foundry.
Mari and Edgar are both likable characters, and the children are winsomely and credibly drawn. Edgar’s sister India, an unconventional, free-spirited archaeologist, is another wonderful character, one who comes close to stealing every scene she is in. The key to enjoying this delightful story is a willingness to suspend disbelief. The Mary Poppins quality allowed me to do this regarding Edgar’s most undukish behavior and the touch of whimsy and coincidence associated with Mari’s learning about her past, but Edgar’s simplistic reunion with his estranged mother was a stretch too far for me. It was this flaw that dropped my ranking of it to four stars.
Nevertheless, this is a sweet, lighthearted novel and a successful introduction to a series that promises to be a rewarding, entertaining addition to the reading lists of historical romance fans. Bell’s voice is appealing, and she has a sure touch with dialogue that is one of the novel’s strengths. If you are a fan of Julia Quinn, Tessa Dare, and others who blend humor and emotional punch with skill and grace, I think you will enjoy What a Difference a Duke Makes. This fall (September 18) will see the publication of Lady India’s story, For the Duke’s Eyes Only, a friends-to-enemies-to-lovers tale that sounds as if it will be as much fun to read as this one was. It’s on my list.