In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas. His cockiness and noble bearing make him perfect for the role, but Camilla is surprised to find herself wishing the deception would last forever.
The synopsis for this short novel (originally published by Signet in 1982) says: In order to escape the matchmaking efforts of her late husband’s sister, the Countess of Wyckfield pretends she is already married—to her new footman Thomas. As a result, I thought I was in for a fake-relationship story, but that element of A Counterfeit Husband is, in fact, a very small part of it, and only comes into play well into the second half of the book. The story is more about the widowed Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield, learning to trust her own judgement and developing the backbone necessary to stand up to her domineering sister in law, with some commentary about the dreadful practice operated by naval press gangs thrown in for good measure.
Thomas Collinson has just returned to England at the end of a three month voyage on the merchant ship of which he is mate. He has just said goodbye to Daniel Hicks, his closest friend, when he hears a commotion and jumps into the fray to save Daniel from a press gang. This practice is supposed to have been dispensed with, but the Navy is desperate for men – it’s a time of war after all – and will do whatever it takes to get them, especially men like Daniel and Thomas who are experienced sailors. After an unequal fight, both men are taken aboard HMS Undaunted and into the presence of Captain Brock, a man whose reputation for cruelty is notorious among seamen. Thomas is openly defiant, knowing that his contract to the merchant ship means that he cannot be impressed – but Brock simply destroys his papers. Thomas is furious, seeing the life and career he had planned out for himself disappearing – so when a chance for escape presents itself, he and Daniel take it, fighting their way off the ship.
Meanwhile in Dorset, Camilla, Countess of Wyckfield is listening to yet another diatribe from her late husband’s sister, Ethelyn, a woman of strong convictions and religious observance who criticises everything Camilla does and generally makes her life a misery. It’s clear that Camilla’s marriage –made when she was just out of the schoolroom – wasn’t a happy one, and also that one of the reasons she doesn’t stand up to Ethelyn is her reluctance to open a rift between her late husband’s family and her ten-year-old daughter, Philippa (Pippa). It also seemed to me that Camilla was just so worn down – by her decade of marriage to a controlling, unfeeling man, and now by Ethelyn’s constant carping – that she is almost too exhausted to stand up for herself. But following yet another argument about the behaviour of the butler, Hicks – whom Ethelyn detests (mostly because he’s loyal to Camilla) – Camilla finally takes a step on her path to self-reliance and decides to take a house in London, then sends Hicks there with instructions to find one and then staff it.
By this time, Thomas and Daniel have made their way to the Crown and Cloves Inn in Twyford, where Daniel’s pregnant wife, Betsy, works as a barmaid. Worried that they could be recaptured, the men intend to go on the run, but then Betsy comes up with another idea. Why not go to see Daniel’s uncle, who is in service in to the Countess of Wyckfield. Surely he can find them places as domestics in that household or will be able to help them to find work elsewhere. Nobody will be looking for Daniel and Thomas as domestic servants, and it’s surely got to be better than life on the run.
After a couple of small setbacks, Betsy, Daniel and Thomas are engaged by Hicks, and commence their lives as servants – Betsy as Upper Housemaid, the men as footmen – in the Countess of Wyckfield’s London house. Thomas and Camilla’s first meeting does not go well – he mistakes her for a servant and flirts outrageously – and It’s immediately clear to Camilla that something is ‘off’ about Thomas; he’s not nearly deferential enough for a servant, and seems far too self-assured and accustomed to giving orders rather than taking them. The fact that she notices him more than she should, and is always conscious of his presence is… discomfiting, to say the least.
I liked both principals for the most part, although I frequently wanted to yell at Camilla to stand up to Ethelyn, who really has no hold or power over her – if anything it should be the other way around, seeing as the house belonged to the late Earl and he presumably left it to Camilla to live in for her lifetime. Camilla’s reasoning for continually giving in to her sister-in-law is weak – she even admits as much herself! – although fortunately, once she’s out of Ethelyn’s orbit, she does begin to assert herself more. Thomas is kind, loyal and charming, although his inability to be properly servile lands him in hot water more than once, and I liked his affinity with Pippa who, it has to be said is an extremely precocious ten-year-old and wise beyond her years.
There are things to like about the story. The writing is sprightly, and even though Ethelyn is terribly overbearing, she’s oddly entertaining; I found the information about the press gangs and naval procedure interesting and the book as a whole is very readable – but the big problem with The Counterfeit Husband is that it is rather short on romance. The interactions between Thomas and Camilla are very limited up until the point at which she asks him to pose as her husband – and even beyond it – and there’s no real sense of two people getting to know each other, let alone actually falling in love, which is why, ultimately, I can’t rate it more highly.