The Countess and the Butler
by Elizabeth Brodnax
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-21340-8
***
Readers who prefer Regency Lite will find this book pleasant enough reading. The characterization and plot are slight, the hero and heroine are essentially 20th century people in Regency costume, and the author consistentlytells us anything we need to know, rather than bothering to do any of that pesky showing stuff.

Natalie Chesney, the dowager Countess of Amesworth, is preparing to move into the dower house where she expects to live an agreeably quiet life. Natalie, who is in her early twenties, married Alden Chesney, the Earl of Amesworth, thirty years her senior, when her first love was killed in the war.

Unfortunately, her husband was felled by a stroke just two days after their marriage. She nursed him until his death. Now, nearly a year later, she is expecting the new earl and his wife who are arriving from Jamaica.

Unfortunately, Natalie’s calm transition to the dower house is disrupted by Alden’s cousin Max. Max has decided that a house party – one with a few eligible men in it – is just what Natalie needs to celebrate the end of her mourning. To spare her trouble, he has even sent out the invitations, and hired a butler.

Unbeknownst to either Max or Natalie, the new butler, Michael Schmidt, is actually prince Michael of Estavia. Michael, who left Estavia thinking to avoid civil unrest over whether he or his half-brother, Carl, should rule, finds himself in an awkward position. Carl thinks that Michael was behind the unrest and has cut off his funds, and Michael is being supported by his valet. Michael is also concerned because Carl is pressuring Michael’s sister, Antonia, at school in England, to marry some relative of Napoleon’s.

When Michael hears they’re looking for a butler at Amesworth Court, he decides to go for the job. That way he can support himself while he decides what to do about the whole Carl situation. Apparently, the lonely Michael hung out with the servants a lot, as a child, so he’s sure he understands everything relevant about being a butler.

I think the biggest reason I didn’t find his book convincing was the lack of compelling characterization. Natalie never makes it past two dimensions – she essentially wears a label that says “young Regency woman” and we’re supposed to fill in the rest for ourselves. And for some readers, I’m sure that will be acceptable.

Michael isn’t much deeper – but he is a bit of an oddity. Although I’m not a fan of the ‘aristocrat posing as a servant’ storyline, I was rather intrigued by the role reversal – in my experience, usually it’s the heroine who’s hiding in the servants’ hall. Unfortunately, Michael behaves very much as a female character would under similar circumstances. While he doesn’t make a lot of dumb mistakes, he scarcely has an ounce of aplomb. No matter what he’s supposed to be doing as butler, whenever he’s in Natalie’s presence, he’s just standing around daydreaming about how attractive he finds her. No one seems to notice that the other servants are constantly having to elbow him into the present while he remembers that, oh right, he’s the butler. Not the prince, the butler.

I like a beta hero, but I’d like him to be a beta male, not a Regency miss in trousers. And it sure doesn’t make him look intelligent.

For most of the book, Michael and Natalie wander around, mooning over each other and making little speeches rather than having conversations. Towards the end of the book, the author seems to realize that nothing much is happening and introduces a meager suspense plot that makes the book longer if not better.

Because the hero and heroine have not been strongly established as characters, their crises seem shallow and forced. The climax of the book, what romance authors call the Black Moment, is, therefore, more of a Taupe Moment – pale grayish brown and unconvincing. Natalie’s turmoil seems henwitted rather than tragic, and Michael’s reaction makes him look like a shallow jerk.

If you just want an hour of Regency Lite escapism, this book might satisfy you. If you will grind your teeth when Natalie calls her butler “Mr.” Schmidt, perhaps look elsewhere.

-- Judi McKee


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