Emma Brimley is running from a cruel uncle who would sell her to the highest bidder. She applies for a teaching position at the Pettibone School for Young Ladies, far away from London in rural Yorkshire. The only problem is that they wish for the applicant to be a widow. Emma is anything but, so she takes on the fake persona of a young widow to meet their requirements. When she arrives to discover that their reason for needing a widow is that they want to offer a class in bedroom etiquette to their students, Emma has no idea what to do. Afraid of her uncle and with nowhere else to go, she can't afford to lose the job, but she knows nothing of the intimacies between a man and a woman. When she hears of the school's scandalous neighbor, "Lord Bedchambers," a daring and potentially improper plan begins to take shape in her mind, but approaching the reclusive artist for his help may be her only hope of staying at the school.
Nicholas Chambers' family never appreciated his art or his burning need to paint, so he left them behind to live a solitary life in the wilds of Yorkshire. He knows that the women at the girls' school next-door don't think very highly of him and he doesn't really care. He lives life on his own terms. When the prim, proper schoolmistress comes to his door, looking for help with her class, he doesn't want to have anything to do with her, but the model for the new painting he wants to start working on is a no-show. Nicholas makes Emma a scandalous proposition in which he will answer one question about physical intimacy for each article of clothing Emma removes. It takes all the charm he can muster to win her over, but soon she's modeling like a pro and her bedroom etiquette class is getting rave reviews from students and staff alike. And Nicholas unexpectedly finds himself falling for the lovely teacher who has no idea just how beautiful she is.
Each new clandestine meeting with Nicholas fuels the fire of Emma's desire for him, but she doesn't know if she can trust the scoundrel. He tells her she's beautiful and she wants to believe it, but nothing in her experience makes her think that he's telling the truth. When Nicholas's masterpiece is finished and he takes a surprise trip to London after promising not to put the painting on display there, Emma is devastated, but the real danger lies in her uncle possibly seeing the painting and using it to track her down and resume his unscrupulous plan.
The Education of Mrs. Brimley was my first read by Donna MacMeans and also her debut novel. I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I picked it up. On the one hand, the premise sounded sweet and sexy, and I also discovered that the book won RWA's prestigious Golden Heart award. On the other hand, the GoodReads rating for the book is kind of middle of the road. I'm happy to say that I generally enjoyed the story and thought it was well-done for a first effort, but at the same time, it wasn't quite perfect, so I could see why some of the lower ratings came into play.
Our heroine, Emma, was born on the wrong side of the blanket. The author never really explains what happened to her father, but she was raised solely by her mother who passed away just a short time before the story begins. Emma and her mother lived under the good graces of her uncle, who treated them both poorly. He constantly berated Emma for being dowdy and plain, telling her she'd never snag a husband, and essentially using her as a servant to his own daughter. While Emma's mother still lived, she acted as something of a buffer between Emma and her uncle, but after her death, Emma overhears the uncle saying he's going to sell her to a man. At this point, Emma runs away. She responds to an ad for a teaching position at a girl's school far away in the country. The only problem is, they're looking for a widow to fill the job. After forging a reference and posing as a young widow, Emma gets hired. Then she finds out exactly why they wanted a widow: they need someone to teach "bedroom etiquette" or what amounts to sex ed. Of course, she knows nothing about the topic, but is desperate to keep the job. When the school library turns up no books that are helpful, she decides to risk a visit to the school's next-door neighbor, whom she's been warned is a rakish artist. Emma only intends to borrow a book, but soon finds herself making a deal with the "devil" to be the model for his latest painting in exchange for unlimited information about intimacies between a man and a woman.
Emma is a sweet, bookish young lady with a bit of an intellectual streak when it comes to literature, the other class she's teaching at the school. She has a particular interest in poetry, and discovers her neighbor apparently does too when they share a carriage ride at the beginning of the story. Even in an inebriated state he seems able to complete lines of poetry she begins, creating an instant connection between them. I could relate very well to Emma being made fun of and looked down on most of her life. Given those circumstances, it makes perfect sense that she doesn't believe Nicholas at first when he tells her she's beautiful nor does she believe that someone like him could be interested in a nobody like her. I enjoyed watching her grow to become more comfortable in her own skin as well as to accept her own beauty and her being deserving of the love of a good man. She's a great teacher, who immediately becomes a wonderful asset to the school and a friend to all the girls. The only thing that would have made Emma better is if she'd come to realize Nicholas's love for her sooner. With her perceptions colored by the lens of her uncle's cruelty, she has a tendency to often misconstrue things that Nicholas says or does and this continues right up until the very last pages of the book, which became somewhat tedious and frustrating.
Nicholas has endured his own share of ridicule. His father never believed in his ability as an artist and frequently derided Nicholas for his continued pursuit of art. As a result, he's taken up residence in a country manor house practically in the middle of nowhere, far from his family. Aside from traveling around to the local taverns and occasionally bringing one of the serving wenches home to model for him, he's pretty much a loner, who's completely immersed in his work. I think what frustrated me a bit about Nicholas's character is that there aren't very many scenes from his POV (at least not until toward the end) and those that are present generally don't last for more than a couple pages. This made it somewhat difficult to get inside his head and understand what he's thinking. The author hints at a lot of things about him, such as family conflict, a possible connection with one of the girls at the school, sensitivities about both his crippled leg and his art, and what exactly happened to cripple his leg, but she takes quite a while to actually reveal much about him. Even when she does, some of the questions I had were merely answered and then over with in the blink of an eye. Some examples of this were nothing more than a very brief mention of what happened to Nicholas's leg and his father and brother instantaneously coming around to support his artistic endeavors after viewing just one painting (though granted it was a masterpiece). I just think Nicholas would have been a fuller richer character if more of these things had been explored in more detail. As is though, I did like him, most especially for how he's able to put Emma at ease and help her come to believe in her own beauty and worth. I also loved how he's so much more than the rake he's perceived to be, and in reality can be a true gentleman and a trustworthy secret-keeper.
Where I thought the book could have really been improved is in certain aspects of the writing and plotting. From the moment I read the cover blurb, I was intrigued and thought the premise would lend itself well to being a rather steamy book, but unfortunately it didn't quite get there. Yes, there are certain parts that are rather sensual, but despite Emma modeling for Nicholas wearing (eventually) next to nothing, I didn't feel a great deal of sexual tension until quite a ways into the story. Part of the reason for this is probably that Emma is very prudish and even a little fearful in the beginning, so there's not much of a turn-on factor there. Once she begins to emotionally reveal herself to Nicholas, the sense of connection does improve dramatically, but just as things are getting good, the author takes a step back from their burgeoning relationship, leaving them dangling in the wind again. Then they keep doing this same dance throughout the rest of the story. I've never been a big fan of miscommunication or misunderstandings being used as the primary conflict in a book and here I felt like they were somewhat overused and at times felt rather forced. It seems like every couple of chapters one of them, usually Emma, is misconstruing something, which became rather tiresome. As to the sexual tension, my personal favorite scene is when Nicholas gets Emma to undress in front of him, telling her every little thing to do. That scene was exceptionally well-done. On the downside, after all this build-up of Emma and Nicholas frequently discussing sex and her modeling nearly nude, I was expecting some great love scenes that sadly never materialized. There's only one, which wasn't anything all that special and which was over in a matter of a few paragraphs.
There were a couple of other little things that also bugged me. Firstly there are a number of incorrect words used. In most cases they're the type that sound and/or look similar but simply aren't the right word for the situation. Eg. soothed instead of smoothed, shuddered instead of shuttered, crumbled instead of crumpled, etc. I realize typos are to be expected in any book, but there are enough of these mistakes to call attention to themselves and to make me pause in my reading to figure them out. Also I found a factual error. Late in the story a character is kidnapped using the old cloth saturated with a drug over the nose trick, making them pass out. The problem is the drug used is stated at least three times to be laudanum. I immediately questioned the veracity of that. Upon looking it up, I discovered, as suspected, that there is no indication for the use of laudanum in that way and that it would only render a person unconscious if taken internally in a liquid or pill form. What the author should have and probably meant to say is chloroform, which would also match her description of the odor quite well.
I freely admit that I'm not entirely certain of the historical accuracy of the premise of the story either. It seems somewhat unlikely that a proper girl's school would offer what amounts to sex education, but I was willing to go with it. Especially after it's revealed how that class came to be taught, it made a good deal of sense, so in the end, I felt like my trust wasn't misplaced. It certainly made for an entertaining premise even though the sexual tension of the situation wasn't fully realized the way I was hoping. Generally speaking, the characters were likable, and flaws aside, the story was reasonably well put together. I was somewhat confused by where the author was going with Nicholas's brother, William. At times, he comes off in a less than favorable light, but I guess he must be a pretty decent guy, because he becomes the hero of The Seduction of a Duke, the next book in the Chambers Trilogy. Although we barely get a glimpse of her, their sister, Arianne, the heroine of the third book, is seen as well. Overall, The Education of Mrs. Brimley may not have hit the heights of perfection for me, but it was still a pretty good read, good enough to make me continue with the series at some point.
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