The Plot: Nineteenth Century England. Elizabeth “Bet” Smith and Will Gardener are sixteen. Will is the nephew and heir of wealthy Paul Gardener, and Uncle Paul wants Will to the the education befitting his station in life. All Will wants is adventure — specifically, the adventure of joining the army! He gets sent home from boarding school after boarding school.
Bet, like Will, is an orphan. Unlike Will, she has no rich relatives — she is the child of a maid, and Paul Gardener, in a moment of kindness, offered her shelter when her mother died. Bet has been raised in a no-man’s land: not quite a servant, not quite family, always aware of her place. All Bet wants is the education Will takes for granted.
Bet comes up with a plan. Simple, brilliant, foolproof. When Will goes to school… it will really be Bet! It’s yet another new school, so no one will know what the real Will Gardener looks like. While she learns, Will will be free to join the army. She’ll put on one of Will’s suits, cut her hair, learn how to walk like a boy. What could possibly go wrong?
The Good: What could possibly go wrong, indeed. Let’s see….
Will has been “sent down” (or expelled) from three or four schools, which means that the school Bet is now at is not quite top-tier. Or second-tier. And while Will has coached Bet on how to stand, how to tie a tie, how to write, he didn’t quite explain to her the bullying, the meanness of the boys. Bet is totally unprepared for the social dynamics of an all-boys boarding school. Will, a semi-brother, always treated her as an equal, despite their social differences. Bet doesn’t realize, well, that boys will be boys.
Bet is also totally unprepared for falling for her roommate, James, who, of course, thinks she’s boy.
The first half of the book was fun, as Bet tries to figure out this brave new world of boys that she is so unprepared for. She excels at school — loves the learning — but figuring out the bully culture of school? Not so much.
What really made me love the book was two specific moments, about half way through: the dance and sports. When Bet learns that there is a dance coming up she decides that she will attend. As Bet. So that she can dance with James. I just giggled through the entire comedy of errors (and yes, one of Bet’s loves is Shakespeare.) And as for sports — Bet, who was raised to sew and read quietly, whose desire is education, makes her initial decision on what sports to play based on the uniforms. Who doesn’t love the look of a cricket sweater?
I found myself initiailly underestimating Bet, much like those around her do. Bet is so sheltered, with her books and sewing, that it took me a while to discover just how impulsive she is. Perhaps it was because she never really had the opportunity until the moment to be Will came about. Also? Bet’s skirts and needlework hide a stubborn personality. Her thought-out plan for becoming Will (cut hair, get suit) soon reveals itself as something not so well thought out — she didn’t factor in getting her period. Bet was so caught up in “look at me, I’m doing this, I’m going to school” that details like that? Didn’t occur to her. The same thing happens with her decision to go as Bet to the dance. She gets the idea, and nothing will dissuade her from carrying out her best idea ever: not little things like a dress, shoes, and, oh, having to be two people at once in the same place.