A Debt Paid in Marriage
It’s quite refreshing to find a story set in this period in which the protagonists are ordinary working people. In A Debt Paid in Marriage, Laura Townsend and her mother are left to the care of her uncle following the death of Laura’s father, who was a prosperous draper. Unfortunately, Robert Townsend very quickly gambles away the family business and reduces them all to penury.
In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to salvage something, Laura sneaks in to the home of Philip Rathbone, the moneylender from whom her uncle had borrowed a large sum for which he’d used the business as security. She plans to force Rathbone into returning some valuable cloth to her so that she can recoup some of their losses and begin to repay the debt. Discovering her quarry relaxing in his bath, Laura confronts him at gunpoint. Rathbone is surprisingly unperturbed and makes no bones whatsoever about rising from the bath and dripping all over the carpet so he can show her – while completely naked – the paperwork proving his ownership of the business.
Shocked at his sangfroid and realising hers is a lost cause, Laura flees back to the dingy room in Seven Dials she shares with her mother, knowing that they will soon be unable to afford even that. Her uncle has disappeared on one of his regular drinking binges, and she has no idea what is to become of them.
Philip, meanwhile, can’t forget the quiet desperation and courage of the young woman who had challenged him, and thinks she may provide the solution to some of his most pressing problems. A widower with a young son and a thirteen year-old sister, he needs someone to guide and befriend Jane and a mother for Thomas – so he tracks Laura down and proposes a marriage of convenience. He will take care of her and her mother and in return she will run his household and learn his business and eventually, he hopes, bear him more children. Having no alternative, Laura agrees, and that very day Philip removes her and her mother to his home, but not before an unpleasant confrontation with her uncle, who makes clear his opposition and threatens them both.
The relationship between Philip and Laura is very well written, and I was particularly intrigued by the unusual profession Ms Lee has chosen for her hero. Through Laura’s tutelage, she gives the reader an insight to the workings of his business, and offers a different view to the one normally found in such stories, wherein the moneylender is a cruel, rapacious villain. Philip is a scrupulously honest, fair man who is above board in all his dealings and who even tries to help those who can’t help themselves.
Because of the situation in which she found herself – dependent on a man who gambled away their livelihood – Laura is initially wary of Philip and believes him to be a cold, unemotional man. But watching him with his son and seeing his affection for his sometimes exasperating sister gradually shows Laura that Philip’s not unfeeling, just someone who is very guarded and keeps his emotions on a tight rein. As she spends more time with him – in both familial and work situations –Laura comes to realise that behind his aloofness is a fear of emotional involvement.
Philip loved his first wife deeply and was devastated by her death following Thomas’ birth. He is attracted to Laura, but never wants to experience such hurt again and determines that he will not open his heart to her. But as time goes on, he just can’t help doing so, no matter how hard he tries not to. The one false note I felt is struck in the book is towards the end, after something happens to cause Philip’s fears to come thundering back. Laura is then faced with the choice of letting him retreat from her or fighting for their marriage – and Philip’s volte-face is so fast that it could have caused whiplash.
But that’s my one reservation. Otherwise, this is a lovely, gentle story about two people who have suffered tragedy finding each other and falling in love. It’s not plain sailing all the way of course –there are times when Laura’s view of Philip leads her to badly misjudge him and hurt him deeply, but fortunately, she’s a woman who is capable of owing her mistakes and apologising for them; and there’s also the shadow of her uncle’s threats hanging over them. Both are well drawn and likeable, and the same is true of the secondary characters – Jane, Laura’s mother, and Philip’s friend and colleague, Justin Connor, who I hope may get his own book at some point.
A Debt Paid in Marriage is a quick, but sweetly romantic read, and one I’d certainly recommend to anyone looking for an historical that isn’t full of dukes, earls, and debutantes.