TBR Challenge: The Counterfeit Husband by Elizabeth Mansfield

This title may be purchased from Amazon

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.

Rating: C

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.

TBR Challenge: A Brilliant Mismatch by Elizabeth Mansfield

a brilliant mismatch

Fiery Moira Pattinger vowed that her domineering father would rue the day he dared interfere with her choice of husband… and so made an impetuous promise to marry the next man to cross her path. Little did Moira realize that the next morning, the first man she laid eyes upon would be a bootless, rugged, and unsightly vagrant sleeping in the Pattinger stables.

Undaunted, the stubborn redhead declared her engagement — while convincing the confused stranger to play along with the charade. But Moira didn’t bargain for the discoveries she would make about her mysterious fiancé… or the tender longing he would arouse in her heart…

Rating: B

Reading an historical romance for a reading challenge is rather like a Busman’s Holiday for yours truly; the only difficulty being which one to pick from the YOOOGE number I have sitting on my TBR pile. In the end, I closed my eyes, metaphorically stuck a pin in the Paperback Pile of Doom that sits by the side of the bed, and ended up with A Brilliant Mismatch by Elizabeth Mansfield, which was originally published in 1991.

Lady Moira Pattinger is, at twenty-six, the eldest of four sisters and the only one of them to remain unmarried. That is not by design, however. She has in fact been betrothed twice… and jilted twice, each time in favour of one of her sisters thanks to the interference of her father, who offered each suitor a substantial sum of money to give up Moira and marry one of her sisters. Discovering that her latest beau has been “diverted” to her youngest sister by the same means is the last straw. Furious at what she believes are her father’s attempts to keep her from marrying so that she can continue to serve as both housekeeper and secretary, Moira confronts him in a rage and tells him that she intends to go out in the morning and marry the very first man she sees.

The Honourable Oliver Sherrard, brother of the Earl of Lydbury, is a happy-go-lucky, good-natured sort of chap who, having spent most of his twenty-three years doing what other people want, has decided it’s time for him to have a bit of an adventure. As a second son, he is going to have to make his own way in the world, but before he does that, he plans to undertake an extended walking-tour, taking with him only what he can carry in his backpack, the clothes on his back, a sturdy pair of boots and enough money to see him through.

He makes good progress on the first day and stops for the night at a less than salubrious inn, where the fact that he pays for his board and lodging with a gold coin attracts the wrong sort of attention. The next day, he is set upon, robbed and left for dead by the side of the road. Badly beaten, bruised and concussed, he eventually comes to and makes his way to the nearest building in order to shelter from the rain. He collapses, coming round hours later to see the most beautiful young woman he has ever seen staring at him and – here’s where he knows he must be dreaming – asking him to marry her.

Moira has Oliver conveyed to the house and sends for the doctor. Oliver is badly concussed and confined to bed for a couple of weeks, during which time he makes the acquaintance of Moira’s very pregnant sister and her husband, Horatio – with whom he strikes up a firm friendship – Moira’s youngest sister and her beau and Moira herself, to whom he is very much attracted. Recalling the promise he made to his brother before he left home not to do anything to disgrace the family name. Oliver introduces himself as Mr Thomas Oliver and makes no real attempt to correct the family’s assumption that he is some sort of labourer.

When he is well enough, Moira outlines her plan, which is not to actually get married, but to use the threat of marrying so unsuitably to force her father’s hand so that he will allow her to go to London in order to find a more appropriate husband. Realising, from his conversations with Horatio, that there is more to Moira’s situation than meets the eye, Oliver nonetheless agrees to go along with the scheme, all the time wondering how on earth he is going to stop himself falling head-over-heels with the lovely, bewitching young woman who clearly sees him as beneath her, in spite of her friendliness towards him.

The book is a fast-paced, quick read, but a satisfying one nonetheless. The star-turn is Oliver, who is an uncomplicated, honourable, kind and witty young man who bears with the veiled – and not-so-veiled – insults to his supposed low station with good-natured cheer, and whose sunny disposition gradually permeates through the entire household. His natural charm very quickly wins to his side the various members of Moira’s family, even her sister Bertie who was initially horrified at the idea of her sister’s marrying a supposed gardener. That’s not to say he’s perfect or a Mary-Stu; he isn’t above wanting to return the hurt Moira’s rejection inflicts upon him, and he is somewhat unpleasant to her towards the end of the book. But on the whole he’s a real sweetheart, and impossible to dislike.

Moira is a little more problematical, as for much of the book she’s selfish and single-minded in her determination to get the better of her father, and doesn’t much care that she’s using Oliver to do it. That said, I didn’t actively dislike her because she’s not mean-spirited and clearly enjoys Oliver’s company; and in fact, I almost felt sorry for her once or twice towards the end when she believes she has lost him for good.

The author draws a series of swift but clear portraits of the secondary characters, all of whom have their own distinct personalities, and I enjoyed the family dynamic she creates. Lord Pattinger, seen through Moira’s eyes at first, is hard-hearted and calculating; but is gradually revealed, through his interactions with others, not to be either of those things – and his final utterance made me smile.

The only thing about the story that doesn’t ring true is the way in which Moira and Oliver are allowed to spend time together in his room behind closed doors after he’s recovered, but otherwise, A Brilliant Mismatch is a well-written story that, while mostly lighthearted, has something to say about the class divide and that old adage about not judging a book by its cover.

A number of Ms Mansfield’s books have now been made available digitally, but unfortunately, this isn’t one of them. But second-hand copies are cheap and easy to find, and if you like older (clean) Regencies, then this is one you might want to seek out.