It’s clear from the first chapter of The Governess Game that author Tessa Dare’s irreverent sense of humor is in rare form. Readers are introduced to dashing ne’er-do-well Chase Reynaud as he is woken up by Rosamund, one of his two newly acquired wards, for a funeral that he has to officiate. The funeral is for Millicent, his other ward Daisy’s beloved doll, who is frequently dead or dying. Into this dysfunctional almost-family walks Alexandra Mountbatten, an aspiring astronomer who accepts the position of governess—and nurses a nearly uncontrollable crush on Chase. Of course, he soon finds her equally irresistible.
We talked to Dare about writing a governess romance in the midst of the #MeToo movement, the joys of Twitter and the real-life inspiration for her latest lovable heroine.
Something I really appreciated about Alex is that she wants to be sensible and no-nonsense all the time, but she also has a corner of her brain that is dead set on a sparkly, fairy-tale love story. What led you to write a heroine who is basically resisting the fact that she’s in a romance novel?
As Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice, “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.” I suspect a lot of women can relate to that quote. At least, I know I can! Sometimes, even though we know it’s absurd, we find ourselves plotting out a whole life with someone solely on the basis of a first date or even a chance encounter. That’s the situation Alex finds herself in. She bumped into a handsome, charming man in a bookstore—one she knows she’s unlikely to ever see again, much less marry—and yet she can’t get those thoughts out of her mind.
Alex’s backstory is inspired in part by your parents-in-law’s experiences as Filipino immigrants. What was it like to write a story where some aspects were based on people who are very close to you?
Alexandra isn’t based as much on my parents-in-law as she is on my own children, who are half Filipino and half Caucasian. After Alex’s mestiza (half Spanish, half native islander) mother died, she was raised by her father, a white sea captain from America, and she has lived in England since her adolescence. Basically, even though my daughter doesn’t read my books—understandably awkward for a 14-year-old to read her mom’s romance novels!—if she ever does, I want her to find a heroine who looks like her and shares a similar heritage. As for research, I lived in the Philippines for a year before I even started dating my husband (who lived in California—it’s a long story). A few of the story elements are from folklore and traditions that I heard about there or from my in-laws. I also tracked down the journal of one of the first American sailors to trade in the Philippines to read an outsider perspective of the era.
The governess trope in historical romance is well loved but also fraught with potentially sexist peril. What parts of this dynamic were you excited to write, and what parts did you know wouldn’t be in The Governess Game?
Governess romances have been a tried and true plot since Jane Eyre, and I love the trope as much as any reader. That said, I happened to be writing this book at the height of the #MeToo movement, and the power imbalance of rake/governess was something I worried about constantly. Any time you have an employer and employee pairing, it’s a delicate line to walk. I tried to acknowledge that in the characters’ thoughts and dialogue, and to make it clear to both the reader and Chase that Alexandra was equally interested in a physical relationship. In fact, she’s often the one initiating!
Romance heroes and heroines generally have a distinctive and alluring scent, as the gods of the genre demand. I’ve always wondered, how do you go about picking the perfect scent for your characters?
Hah! This is a funny question. Honestly, I don’t believe people truly ponder the particular ingredients of a perfume or aftershave, but I think many of us do have that instinctive attraction to a lover’s scent. Saying “he smelled good” over and over again would get boring for both me and the reader, so I use it as an opportunity to throw in a bit more historical detail or characterization. Alexandra smells faintly of orange flower water, which was a common scent of the era, but it’s also a clue to her personality. It tells Chase that she craves a little feminine indulgence, but she has to use the scent sparingly because of the cost.
This made me laugh out loud at my desk, so I have to ask—where on earth did the doll funerals come from?
I wish I could give you a specific answer! It evolved as I developed the characters. At first, I imagined the girls playing sick and/or dead, but then that felt a bit too bratty of them. So poor Millicent had to suffer instead. I liked that I was able to make it a comic element but also an emotional one. Everyone in the household knows the doll isn’t real, but Daisy’s emotions are. She’s still processing the realities of death and loss, and Chase is respectful of that despite the absurdity of the daily funerals.
As someone who adored The Duchess Deal, I was delighted to see Ash take on the role of the protective friend (albeit the most hilariously aggressive version possible). When did you know you wanted him to make more than just a cameo, and will he play a similar role for the remaining two heroines in the series?
Oh, Ash will always be protective. Chase will be protective of Penny and Nicola, too. By the time the fourth hero walks into the series, that unsuspecting guy is going to have a whole trio of protective, overbearing men to contend with—which will be so much fun to write.
Your Twitter feed is a total joy. What has been your favorite moment or tweet of the year so far?
I’m glad you enjoy it! I am pretty unfiltered on Twitter, so that’s always a relief to hear. My favorite Twitter experience of the year was most definitely the “Halloween Eagle” thread. A friend’s daughter saw a crow and said, “Look, mom—a Halloween eagle!” I posted this on Twitter, and people started chiming in with their own children’s hilarious and inventive names for common things. The thread kept growing and getting shared, and eventually it ended up being featured everywhere from Buzzfeed to “The Today Show!” The tweet is still pinned to my profile if anyone wants to read through the thread.
**Spoiler alert for the following question** Alex is a virgin, and the first time she and Chase have sex, it is physically painful for her at first. Why do you think that’s still a thing the genre shies away from depicting, despite the abundance of virginal heroines?
To start, I don’t actually consider it their first sex scene. One theme I enjoyed exploring in this book is that “sex” has a broader definition than just intercourse. That said, I know I’ve read quite a few painful deflowerings in romance, but it’s often that just-a-twinge-then-bliss sort of thing. And that’s not necessarily unrealistic. Every woman’s first time is different. However, Alex and Chase’s first go at it requires some communication, patience and collaborative problem-solving—all of which is so very them. Every couple’s love scenes should be very them, in my opinion. Of course, Chase and Alex do work it out and get to the bliss part pretty quickly!
What’s next for you?
I’m writing the third book in the Girl Meets Duke series, The Wallflower Wager. This will be Penny’s book. I don’t want to give away too many details yet, but Penny is a softhearted champion of wounded creatures and an incurable romantic—so naturally, her hero will be the opposite.