The American Heiress
Could you be easily replaced? Could someone that knows you become you? Does anyone actually know you well enough to fake being you? Or is your life so unique, so compartmentalized it could never be copied? These are the questions that run through my mind any time I read a book about people switching spots or completely replacing another.
Harriet (Hetty) Brown has worked as maid to rich New York socialite Miss Clemency Jervis for several years. Hetty and Clemency have a peculiar relationship. They grew up together, sharing a schoolroom for several years. Their similar education is not all they share in common; the girls could pass for identical twins they look so very alike. No surprise since they share a father, even though Hetty was born on the wrong side of the sheets. But as the girls have grown older, their lives have ceased to be similar. Hetty’s is one of hard work where Clemency’s is all about making a spectacular match. When Clemency becomes engaged to an English gentleman it looks like their lives will diverge even further. Hetty will go to London and help get her mistress wed but after that she will leave service and pursue a life of her own. She has no desire to spend a lifetime watching Clemency be married to her crush.
There is only one small problem with the girls’ grand plans. England has just entered WWI and travel there is difficult and dangerous. Dismissing any possible trouble in getting to her goals, Clemency boards the Lusitania, determined to flirt her way across the ocean until she reaches English soil and heads into matrimonial bliss. Hetty is, of course, pulled along. And in spite of the dire warnings they received before leaving home, the journey goes well. Clemency finds herself the belle of the ball on the upper decks while Hetty takes the first tentative steps toward a romance of her own. Then everything is destroyed just miles from British soil.
Happy circumstances have Hetty both surviving the bombing of the infamous ship and being mistaken for Clemency. Taking her late mother’s advice to heart, Hetty seizes the opportunity to become her dead mistress and gain the riches which rightfully should have been hers. She marries the dashing Major Hugo, Lord Hazzard of Loburn, and begins life as a wealthy, titled Lady.
Married life turns out to be harder than she thought. Hugo heads out to war almost immediately after they are wed. Loburn is in deep disrepair and the million dollars that was Hetty/Clementine’s dowry has to go to pay previous debts. Her mother-in-law is far from warm and welcoming. But hardest of all is sharing a home with Julia, companion to the dowager Lady Hazzard and a former love of Hugo’s. Julia, whose love for Hugo is far from dead, watches the new Lady Hazzard closely and makes it very clear she is suspicious of what she sees. Will Hetty be able to pull off her charade? Or is she one step away from being found out?
I typically struggle with accepting the big switch but in this case, given the period and the fact that no one in England truly knew Clemency, I accepted the fact that Hetty could now step into her shoes. Additionally, everyone (except Julia) desperately wants Hetty to be Clemency. Clemency’s death would mean the loss of the marriage and for Hugo’s family that would be financially catastrophic. It therefore makes sense that they would brush aside minor doubts and focus on the positive. Finally, the ruse mainly works because of Hetty/Clemency’s ordeal in surviving the sinking. Any and all changes in her personality are ascribed to a “sea change” from that trauma.
And I actually liked the telling of said trauma. I thought the author did a good job of capturing what it is like to go through such a tragedy, to wonder if and how you will survive and then to find yourself in a strange land surrounded by strange people with nothing of your own around you. Having survived some tough times myself I can attest to the fact that the events do change you, especially if you were a happy, frivolous person like Clemency was noted as being.
But while I found the book very interesting and easily readable I can’t say I ever really warmed up to the characters. Both Hetty and Hugo were fairly selfish people. While the war slowly changed them into being slightly nicer selfish people, their kindness and interest never seemed to extend beyond their own circle. Hetty especially surprised me. Given her roots of being a maid you would have thought she would have more interest in the working class. They instantly become servants to her and nothing more. The staff at Loburn doesn’t even play into the story. All the novels I’ve read recently regarding WWI center around everyone doing their part for the war. Hetty volunteers but we receive barely a paragraph or two about that, which felt odd. There’s also something towards the end of the novel that really disturbs me regarding Hetty’s friendship towards others. It emphasized Hetty’s sense that she deserved anything and everything she got.
Hugo, being an English Lord, also clearly believed firmly that he deserved everything he was receiving. His having accumulated gambling debts and needing someone to bail the family out never fazed him. It was clear he planned to burn through Hetty’s money as well. His avarice was made clear in a letter Hetty found where he placed cash before love. Or love of people at least. He did love Loburn and intended to do all in his power to keep it. The war changes him from the horse mad brat he was into a slightly more mature man, but he never, in my mind, really becomes hero material.
There was also no sweeping romance. Their love story, which takes place before and after the war, is rather on the mild side. It’s very quiet, with no deep declarations and you get the feeling there were any number of people each could have been content with.
But as much as I didn’t love the characters, I did enjoy their story. The villain is obvious, but the question of how or if she will show Hetty up keeps both the heroine and the reader on edge. The author does a nice job of showing us life in an English manor. The book captures a bit of what it was like to be a house of women during war. And I enjoyed the reminiscent feel of reading a gothic which reminded me of the old Victoria Holt or Mary Stewart books. Would I recommend it? If you are looking for a gothic, sure. If you don’t like that genre, I don’t think this novel will hold much appeal.