An Unlikely Countess
An Unlikely Countess marvelously illustrates life in aristocratic Georgian England. The book tells the story of the relationship between titled Catesby Burgoyne and bourgeois Prudence Youlgrave. The novel teems with examples of how stratified life was in England at the time. The novel does not, however, teem with a great love story. While reading it, I felt as though it could easily have been assigned in one of my college European history classes as a study on gender and class in 18th century England.
Cate (he has not yet become Earl) and Prudence (her middle-class parents are dead and her lawyer brother barely gives her enough money to survive) first meet when he rescues her from an attack. They spend a chaste night together — he stays in her hovel rather than in an inn and gives her two shillings and a tiepin in payment — and then leaves her. Several weeks later, after he unexpectedly becomes the Earl of Malzard when his older brother dies, Cate wonders how Prudence is doing and seeks her. He finds Prudence about to be married to a violent older man (her brother’s idea) and, unable to see her so wed, Cate marries her instead. Cate and Prudence head off to Cate’s family seat, Keynings, where Prudence becomes the unlikely countess of the title.
Cate’s aristocratic mother and sister-in-law initially make Prudence’s life very difficult. Prudence struggles with her role as an Earl’s wife. Cate worries she’ll never fit in. Over and over again, the novel shows the many ways Britain’s social hierarchy shaped the lives of people from every class. The book is filled with detailed, historically accurate depictions of life in 1700’s England and does a fabulous job with the historical aspect of this historical romance.
It falls short, however, as a romance. Cate and Prudence’s relationship has no discernible passion — they come across as two people thrown into a difficult situation who become, under pressure, good friends. While they occasionally kiss; in this book, they never make love — they are waiting to make sure no one could call Cate’s child that of Prudence’s ex-fiancé. The problem isn’t just the lack of passion; it’s the lack of warm romantic love. Both the romance and the novel’s incidental plot lines are rather dull. An Unlikely Countess is well-written but not engaging.
Additionally, readers hoping to see other characters from the Malloren series will, with one small exception, be disappointed. Lord and Lady Rothgar do make a brief appearance at the end of the novel but even they, in this book, seem to have lost their verve.
In a note appended to the end of the book Ms. Beverley writes, “The eighteenth century could be a harsh time for women…. It was a hierarchical age, and men also had to bend to others — employers, a magistrate or judges, or people of higher rank in society.” The reader certainly learns the particulars of era from An Unlikely Countess. It is a very good history book. It’s not, however, a very good romance.