The Counterfeit Marriage
I have much, much love for Joan Wolf’s traditional Regency romances and medieval historical fiction. I have touted her books to people and on social media constantly. That is why it pains me greatly to write this review.
The Counterfeit Marriage is set after the Congress of Vienna convened in 1815 in the wake of the defeat of Napoleon. The hero, Lord Allandale, was in charge of coordinating the Spanish guerilla activity during the war. His bitter opposition to the results of the Congress and the installation of the ruling monarchy in Spain led to his later work with Lord Castlereagh and George Canning of the Foreign Office. While this informs on his character and what drives him, it has nothing to do with his relationship with the heroine. I liked it and I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like it because the way it is handled is not integral to the story and can be taken away without affecting the main arc of the plot.
I liked it because I find competence and the sincere pursuit of work very attractive. Allandale is not simply languishing at the heroine’s feet and in his clubs or in ballrooms – though he does all of that, too – but he does have a job that is extraneous to his relationship with his wife which is very important to him and thus part of their married life.
The story opens with Allandale drinking himself to oblivion. When his friend thrusts a supposedly willing wench into his room, he proceeds to rape her, while somehow not realizing that she’s struggling wildly.
When Catherine was a child she’d been caught in a rockslide for a few hours, and as a result, she has nightmares about being confined in small spaces. Having Allandale’s weight on her and being unable to move as she was being hurt triggers her nightmare of being suffocated and makes the rape part of her nightmare. She’s seventeen.
When her scholarly father finds out, he’s devastated, confronts Allandale and forces him to marry Catherine with the proviso that if, after two months of marriage, she is not pregnant, the marriage will be annulled. If she does become pregnant then the marriage will stand. The only reason Allandale marries her is because he finds out that she’s gentry and not a mere serving wench; her grandfather is an earl and her father a knight. This is a reprehensible attitude although it’s one commensurate with the aristocracy of those times.
As things have a way of turning out, Catherine IS pregnant and goes to live with Allandale after extracting a promise from him that he will leave her untouched. For some reason, she believes him when he accedes. In the early days of their marriage, they connect with each other, and, if you can forget how they met, this part of the story is lovely to see; how the two of them negotiate their marriage and fall in love with each other.
However, the one time they try to cement their relationship with physical intimacy, Catherine’s nightmare rears its ugly head. Allandale is horrified at what he has done to her and this is the first time, we see genuine remorse for his actions. He decides to keep his physical distance from his wife even as he’s falling more in love with her and she with him. The situation is intolerable.
This is where the hero’s government work comes into play and takes him off to go do it. However, these are the weakest parts of the book. Running away – and he acknowledges that that is what he is doing – does not solve the central problem. So when he returns, the story picks up where it left off.
I could countenance the one instance of Allandale’s infidelity here due to the circumstances of his marriage, even though it is a circumstance of his own making. What I cannot countenance is his excuse that he was very drunk. That is unfair to his wife and unfair to his former mistress whom he uses for one night’s oblivion.
There is an external black moment in the book right at the end that miraculously resolves the situation for Catherine. The deus ex machina occurrence frees her from her nightmare, and Allandale and Catherine are finally able to celebrate their love in great intimacy. I didn’t buy this. There is one very well-written scene where their attempt at intimacy fails catastrophically. Given that and the failure of her every subsequent method to try to cure herself of her fears, I simply cannot believe that one thing is going to miraculously solve the issue. This is where the reader is supposed to suspend their disbelief, and I couldn’t.
So why did I not DNF this book after the rape? Well, I wanted to see what one of my absolute favorite authors was going to do with such an impossible beginning. Unfortunately, she did not succeed in making the hero palatable – he never grew heroic for me, and I never bought into their love story. The book died aborning.
A man who rapes a woman, no matter the circumstances, is never acceptable as a human being, much less a romantic hero. However, it’s Allandale’s reaction to first meeting Catherine at the marriage ceremony the morning after the rape that completely horrified me.
“Christ!” thought Allandale hilariously. “To think I raped that and was too drunk to even appreciate it.”
Every word there is an outrage.