This is an absolute trope-fest: an unexpected inheritance, an impoverished estate, two role-swapping impostors, a social outcast with a mysterious history, the whole trapped-in-an-inn scenario with compromising implications… and on and on. But somehow it still manages to be fresh and original, and the primary reason for that is the glorious character of Julian Langham, the virtuoso harpsichordist, who is like no Regency hero ever. He’s obsessive about his music, socially inept, completely outside all the norms of Regency heroes and yet he’s utterly compelling. I loved him.
Here’s the premise: Julian is on the brink of a brilliant career as a concert harpsichordist in Vienna when a lawyer arrives to tell him he’s a distant cousin and heir to a recently deceased earl. Julian doesn’t want to know, but the lawyer persuades him to go back to England, tidy things up at his unwanted estate and then return to Vienna. Julian agrees, only to discover that the estate is on the verge of bankruptcy, and there are three children, neglected by-blows of his predecessor, living wild. He finds that he can’t just abandon his responsibilities… which is precisely the point where the lawyers desert him. Julian is left with nothing, his only hope of salvation a long-neglected and mistreated harpsichord which he can restore, in time. At least then he’ll have music and life won’t be quite so unbearable.
But help is coming from an unexpected quarter. Two cousins, Arabella Brandon and Elizabeth Marsden, are faced with an impossible situation. Arabella, the sister of a baron with a good dowry, is invited to London by distant relations the Duke and Duchess of Rockliffe, but following a disastrous and humiliating failed betrothal, Arabella can’t bear the thought of it. Elizabeth is invited, too, and she’d love to go, but her impoverished clergyman father won’t hear of it. Instead, she arranges a post as housekeeper and governess. And so, inevitably, the two get their heads together and decide to swap places. Arabella will go into service for a few months, while Elizabeth will pretend to be her cousin and have a season in London. No one has ever seen them, so no one will know – what can possibly go wrong?
Experienced Regency readers will know the answer to that, of course. I found it interesting that one of the two heroines is called Arabella, in town pretending to be something she’s not. Familiar? Fans of Georgette Heyer will recognise the echoes of ‘Arabella’, who used her own name but was pretending to be a great heiress, but the similarities are enough to make me uneasy. If only the author had chosen a different name.
So Arabella, masquerading as Elizabeth, ends up in the home of Julian, the reluctant earl, and Elizabeth, masquerading as Arabella, is thrown by bad weather and an enforced stay at an inn (more tropes) into the path of Ralph, the Earl of Sherbourne, a world-weary and sophisticated man about town with a terrible reputation, not just as the all too common rake, but as a murderer (in a duel). As is the way with rakish heroes, Ralph turns out to be more sinned against than sinning, and something of a paragon with the heroine.
The plot proceeds pretty much as you’d expect, as the masquerade gradually unravels. The blurb talks about the Duke of Rockliffe’s ‘omniscience’, but here he works out the deception from some fairly clear clues, so no special skill is necessary. Then it’s merely a question of coasting downhill to the inevitable happy ending. One quirk of this author is that everything tends to work out for the best. Nothing horrendous goes wrong, and missteps by any character are quickly set right (usually by the duke being dukish and throwing his aristocratic weight around). But that’s fine.
I only noticed one historical error: legal adoption was not a thing until 1928. Before that, it was an ad hoc business, where children were informally taken into the household of a relation or friend and raised as if they were adopted, and they might even take the family name, but there was no legal process involved. There is one gratuitous sex scene, which is a pity. Otherwise, this is a beautifully written and compelling work, which I utterly loved (especially Julian). At the end, there’s more focus on Julian and Arabella, with Ralph and Elizabeth rather overshadowed, but ultimately this is Julian’s story, so perhaps that’s fitting. Five stars.