Richer and Poorer: Subverting Wedding Vows in The Governess Affair

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

This post discusses a scene that takes place at the 2/3 mark of Courtney Milan’s The Governess Affair. If you’d like to avoid the mild plot spoilers in this post, it takes under two hours and (currently) no dollars to read.


Three months ago, governess Serena Barton was let go from her position. Unable to find new work, she’s demanding compensation from the man who got her sacked: a petty, selfish, swinish duke. But it’s not the duke she fears. It’s his merciless man of business—the man known as the Wolf of Clermont. The formidable former pugilist has a black reputation for handling all the duke’s dirty business, and when the duke turns her case over to him, she doesn’t stand a chance. But she can’t stop trying—not with her entire future at stake.


Hugo Marshall is a man of ruthless ambition—a characteristic that has served him well, elevating the coal miner’s son to the right hand man of a duke. When his employer orders him to get rid of the pestering governess by fair means or foul, it’s just another day at the office. Unfortunately, fair means don’t work on Serena, and as he comes to know her, he discovers that he can’t bear to use foul ones. But everything he has worked for depends upon seeing her gone. He’ll have to choose between the life that he needs, and the woman he is coming to love…

Image and blurb: from the author’s website. CW for rape (off page, before start of the plot) and unintended pregnancy. Both are discussed briefly in this review.

For my close reading, I’ve chosen Serena and Hugo’s wedding of convenience. Marrying Hugo will provide security – both for Serena and her illegitimate child – after she was raped by Hugo’s employer, the Duke of Clermont. Serena and Hugo are clearly falling in love, but they intend for this to be a marriage in name only, and to live separately after the ceremony. 

Let’s take a look at the scene, which is told from Hugo’s perspective. I’ve started the passage just as Hugo is imagining what a real marriage between him and Serena would look like, and quickly remembering that this is not an option. 

No. He couldn’t let himself dwell on that. 

But not thinking about his inchoate wishes left him unprepared when he reached the church where they were to be married. He felt off balance throughout the ceremony- as if he were on the brink of stumbling and couldn’t reach out to catch himself. 

He couldn’t bring himself to look directly at her. Her gown was the color of daylight just before sunset; if he looked at her too long, he feared he might be left blind once she was gone. The vicar stood between them, reciting words that Hugo couldn’t comprehend – richer and poorer, troth, wife. He repeated his vows in a dream; he barely heard her answers. 

But when he took her hand to slip his ring onto her finger, she was solid and warm – the only real thing in the room. He almost didn’t want to let go of her. The vicar gave him permission and he kissed her – not hard, for lust, nor long, for love, but a light brush of his lips for the brief space of time that she would stay in his life. 

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, 2012. p88.

This short passage actually contains the entirety of the wedding ceremony. Yet within these few words it accomplishes two major things: critiquing the traditional patriarchal framework of the wedding ceremony, and creating a layer of meaning that suggests Hugo and Serena will redefine marriage, with a focus on agency and consent. Let’s take a look.

Saying “yes” to forever, saying “no” for now

Weddings are generally thought to be about saying yes, pledging forever, and marking the beginning of something real. The first thing that jumped out at me about this passage is how many of these fundamental elements it reverses. There are several evocations of things either ending or seeming impermanent and unreal : “daylight just before sunset,” “a dream,” and a “brief space of time” all figure prominently in the imagery of this wedding. Each of these elements is linked to an aspect of the official ceremony: the dress is like sunset, the vows are like a dream, the kiss (for which a vicar grants permission) is a light, intemporal brush. It is only Serena, herself, who is “solid” and “real.” 

These reversals set up a crucial dichotomy : there’s the official ceremony, and then there’s the actual act of consenting to partnership. The official ceremony, at the very least, is characterized by impermanence, irreality and – perhaps most importantly – the word “no.”

There are… a lot of variations on negation in this 188-word paragraph, rendered all the more striking for appearing in a ceremony that traditionally relies on affirmatives like “I do” or “I will.” There are straightforward negation words (no, couldn’t, not, couldn’t, couldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t, not, nor); some adverbs that suggest insufficiency or opposition (instead of, barely), and a couple of words with negative prefixes (inchoate, unprepared). 

The various reversals and negations in this passage could simply signal Hugo and Serena’s wedding as a marriage of convenience rather than love. But I think the use of negation goes deeper. 

To begin with, this much use of negation recalls another scene: the first time Serena meets Hugo. Here’s just a small sampling of the things she notices he’s not

Everything about him was middling. He wasn’t particularly tall, nor was he short. He was neither skinny nor fat. The most that she could imagine anyone saying about him was that he was virulently moderate. 

He looked safe […]

His voice was like his face: not too high and not too deep. His accent was not the drawl of aristocratic syllables trained to lazy perfection, but a hint of something from the north.

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, 2012. p14

Ostensibly, these negations set up a surprise reveal: Hugo is not the safe, moderate man Serena thinks he is, but rather the “Wolf of Clermont.” He’s the Duke’s ruthless man of business, whom Serena has learned to fear on reputation alone. Once we get to know Hugo better, though, we’ll realize that “Wolf of Clermont” is, itself, a misnomer: Hugo is neither a “wolf,” nor is he anything like Clermont. 

Introducing Hugo via a series of negations reminds the reader of the one most crucial way that Hugo will be unlike the rapist Clermont :  he will respect Serena’s “no,” and be with her only on the terms of her enthusiastic “yes.” The theme of Hugo respecting Serena’s right to say “no” begins from their earliest scenes (when he places a small branch between them and promises not to cross it because “I don’t believe in hurting women”) to their culminating love scene (which I will not spoil, but involves some of the most creative and careful establishment of boundaries I’ve read in romance. For more on this, I will refer you to an excellent 2013 blog post by Olivia Waite here)

So, returning to the wedding scene, all these negations (in Hugo’s POV) signal Hugo’s recognition that their wedding – at least as an official legal ceremony – is not the most important form of consent he needs to secure from Serena. We see it in particular in their kiss:

The vicar gave him permission and he kissed her – not hard, for lust, nor long, for love, but a light brush of his lips for the brief space of time that she would stay in his life. 

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, 2012. p88.

Hugo denies that he has any right to lust or love or permanence, because so far it’s only the vicar, a patriarchal authority figure, who has given him permission.

However, I think we also start to see the beginnings of a different understanding of marriage in this ceremony, particularly through the four words that the passage takes directly from the wedding vows. They crystalize a wedding that may have solved the couple’s external conflict over money and a duke’s infidelity, but which more importantly opens the door to a marriage that will address their internal needs of understanding, fidelity, and affirmative consent.

Richer and poorer, troth, wife

It’s impossible to miss that this passage boils down an entire regency marriage ceremony (those things were long!) to just four words. In a novella as carefully constructed as The Governess Affair, the choice is obviously significant.  The way the list is written divides the four words into three units: “richer and poorer, troth, wife”. Let’s take them in order. 

Richer and poorer” provides an entryway into the literary work the vows are doing. The selection of words from the ceremony that evoke money recalls the primary external conflict of the novel : Hugo continues in the service of the Duke of Clermont because of a sum of 500 pounds he’s been promised; Serena needs financial support for her unborn child. The Duke of Clermont’s access to money, and both Serena and Hugo’s lack of it, forms the backbone of the novel’s external conflict.

However, the form the words take – the joining of two seemingly opposing concepts – is far more significant to the internal conflicts of the novel. The actual words of the 19th century ceremony are “for richer, for poorer,” so it’s Hugo who deliberately conjoins the two words with “and.” The idea of two opposite forces that must be reconciled, rather than chosen between, is a crucial theme throughout the novel. To give you a short sampling of the many opposites this novel holds in conjunction :

  • Staying and Leaving: Serena stands up to the Duke of Clermont by refusing to leave the bench outside his home until her situation is noticed; it’s eventually her departure to a house in the country that provides her security. Hugo, for his part, has to decide whether to stay in the Duke’s employ or leave to be with Serena. Eventually, he has to let Serena leave for a time, in order to create the conditions of permanence that allow them to stay together.

  • Inside and Outside: This novella does a lot with what is visible (Serena’s bench vigil is all about being seen) and what is invisible (her assault, to most people). Part of what is important about Hugo is his ability to internalize the truth of her rape without the outward proof of having seen it. The novella also explores what it means to be forced outside (Serena’s sister is agoraphobic and at one point is thrown out of her house), and what it means to feel safe both inside and outside one’s home.

  • Yes and No: The iconic love scene from this book involves not just Serena saying “yes” (enthusiastically), and Hugo saying “no” (strictly delimiting what he will not do without her permission), but also, more importantly, redefining consent in general as the freedom to say both “yes” and “no.”

So, starting off vows with Hugo inserting an “and” between two seeming opposites feels deeply meaningful. Serena and Hugo are fighting for the power to say “yes” and “no” to sex, the power both to leave when when they need to and stay when they want to. The word “and” is crucial to how the novel defines consent, and to the internal journey Serena and Hugo have to travel to their HEA. 

Troth is the most opaque word of the four. While the narrator tells us Hugo doesn’t understand any of the words of the ceremony, troth is the one that we 21st century readers are least likely recognize. (It’s defined as “loyal or pledged faithfulness”). Once again, we have a word from the wedding vows reflecting both external and internal conflict. Externally, the Duke of Clermont’s infidelity to his wife – and his fear that it will be discovered – puts the events of the story in motion.

Internally, fidelity – trust and stability – are at the heart of what Hugo must offer Serena for their HEA to work. Fidelity as Hugo’s internal conflict should be understood as more than promising not to cheat on Serena. Rather, Hugo has to transfer his loyalty from the Duke of Clermont, (his “master” who is going to make him rich) to his wife, who who needs him to actively renounce one loyalty before pledging another. It’s this shift that echoes in “troth” : Hugo cannot give his freely without first rebuking the Duke and everything he stands for, allowing “troth” to represent an important symbol of his internal conflict.

Wife, the last of the four words, represents the culmination of the ceremony, and it also carries an external and an internal meaning. Externally, in legal terms, becoming a wife in 1835 would mean that Serena had to give up significant aspects of her financial control and personhood. Wife, at the end of this list of words, reminds us that any official ceremony may solve Serena’s external conflict, but it’s also risks taking away exactly what she’s been fighting against all throughout the novel.

Luckily, we have Hugo’s proliferation of “no”s in this scene to remind us that he, too, is willing to seek a different kind of relationship with Serena outside the “I will” of a traditional patriarchal marriage ceremony. The word “wife” comes at the end of a set of words which, as we’ve seen, also have a different, internal meaning for the couple: one that celebrates the ability to hold contrasts together with and, to say both yes and no, fidelity promised through trust rather than legality, a joining of two people who both consent. 

That’s the HEA that will come as they tackle their internal conflict, and it requires several more negotiations outside the system of legal marriage, including one of the most beautiful love scenes I’ve read. I highly suggest you do as well. (Link at the top of this post) 

Thanks for reading. Coming up next, if you want to read along, we have:

  • A Duke in Disguise, by Cat Sebastian (in which starting a m/f book with the hero’s perspective on the heroine can still very much refuse the objectifying male gaze).
  • Layover, by Katrina Jackson (in which a podcast transcript builds bridges between the written word and music).
  • Band Sinister, by KJ Charles (in which Georgette Heyer and a fake novel serve as metatexts for queer regency romance).
  • A time-travely sort of post inspired by Twitter, in which I attempt to aggregate novels that successfully time-hop in 1-2 sentences. If I can remember enough books.

Stay tuned!

One thought on “Richer and Poorer: Subverting Wedding Vows in The Governess Affair

  1. Pingback: Audible Escape Recommendations – firewhiskeyreader

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