Prudence Youlgrave and her mother lived in genteel poverty, having sacrificed most of their comforts to allow her brother to be educated and established as a lawyer, so that he could then support them. Mission accomplished, however, Aaron is now shirking his duties, even after his mother dies and he has married a wealthy woman so it is only Prudence who needs support. In a great scene, Prudence visits her sister-in-law and demands her due, their support and the introduction into society so she can marry and establish her own life. Her only suitor, though, is the not very pleasant Mr. Draydale. She agrees to the marriage thinking she has no choice but is rescued at the altar by Catesby Bourgoyne.
Prudence and Cate met when both were at their lowest ebb, financially, Cate having left the army and his beloved family home after an argument with his brother, the earl. Though their acquaintance was brief, it was very sweet and neither has forgotten the other. Now Cate has inherited the earldom of Malzard, duty presses on him from all sides and he escapes for a day. Hearing of Prudence's wedding in a neighboring village, he attends to see her happy and victorious in her struggle with her brother, only to discover that the man she is about to marry is a brute and she terrified about it. Cate claims her as his betrothed; the wedding is off, they are hastily married and now they must face the consequences - and his family - back at Keynings, the earldom's seat.
Neither Prudence nor Cate were raised to assume the roles they now have, though Cate, at least, does not have the social and class problems that Prudence faces. They both have a steep learning curve, Cate with estate matters, and Prudence with the running of the large house and staff, with two previous Lady Malzards present and looking over her shoulder. Beverley has certainly done her research on the running and working of a Georgian earldom. It was very interesting to see just what was entailed in the running of an estate, the myriad servants and their roles, the sheer size and breadth of it all.
It was all very reminiscent of a book I'd read a few years ago, The Gentleman's Daughters by Amanda Vickery, about the lives of gentry women. This all made sense to me when I read in Beverley's Author's Note that she based An Unlikely Countess on Vickery's follow up book, At Home in Georgian England. It was very interesting information, but in the end, I felt it came at the expense of the romance. Once Prudence and Cate arrive at Keynings a little more than halfway through the book, the focus changes from them and their relationship, to the estate. There were still some nice, sweet moments between them, but the romance definitely took a back seat.
Jo Beverley is one of those authors who get their history right. You don't have to worry that someone will use an incorrect title or do something completely historically inaccurate - such a relief for a stickler like me. I learned a lot while reading An Unlikely Countess, but in the end, I wished I had less history and more romance.
Reviewed by Cheryl Sneed, March 5, 2011