Lynsay Sands’ THE COUNTESS is an English historical romance starring Christiana, Countess of Radnor, and two men who both go by the name of Richard Fairgrove, Earl of Radnor. This screwball comedy is set up by the man Christiana married, “Dicky,” dropping dead one morning despite seeming to be in the peak of health. As Christiana’s marriage to Dicky was awful, she doesn’t exactly lament his death; instead, she does what she can to cover it up as her sisters, Suzette and Lisa, both need to make their debuts quickly due to her father’s gambling debts.
However, “Dicky” was actually George, the younger of two identical twins. George took his brother Richard’s place after doing his best to kill Richard in a fire, but Richard didn’t die; instead, the criminals who set the fire sent him off to America. (This romance is set in what seems to be the early 18th century, which was the American colonial period, but it’s never explicitly stated.) The mistaken-identity plot is aided by the fact that George put it about that it was George who died instead, which is why Christiana never suspects a substitution has taken place, especially considering she never met the real Richard; she only met George (“Dicky”).
The evening after Dicky — er, George — has died, Christiana goes to a ball in order to get her sisters launched properly in society. But to her complete surprise, “Dicky” shows up in the guise of the true Earl, Richard, who is back from America and extremely surprised that “he” is married. Richard, of course, knows nothing about Christiana except that she’s beautiful and after one dance, he’s smitten with her, while Christiana believes that Richard is Dicky, who’s risen from the dead.
Obviously, plot alone is not why anyone would read THE COUNTESS. Instead, it’s the humor behind it, the clarity of place and setting, and how well the true Richard and Christiana get along in and out of the bedroom. That humor is often excellent, based as it is by the initial mistaken identity of Richard as “Dicky” and the fact that Christiana hates Dicky with a passion, but falls head over heels for Richard.
There’s also a nifty secondary plot between Suzette, the elder of the remaining sisters, and Daniel, Earl of Woodrow. Suzette believes Daniel is penniless, and proposes to him on that basis; she, of course, is flat wrong, which adds to the comedic aspects. (Suzette’s story is more properly told in book two of this trilogy, THE HEIRESS.) Christiana and the real Richard obviously know this, but as both see the sparks between the couple — and because Daniel is Richard’s best friend — neither of them tell Suzette the truth.
So, how does Richard manage to convince Christiana to trust him, especially as she wasn’t sexually experienced prior to marriage and “Dicky” never truly bedded her despite a year of marriage? How does Richard learn to trust his instincts, which tell him that Christiana truly is the Countess of his dreams? And how will these two sanctify a proper marriage, especially considering the world believes they’re already married, while getting George decently buried when the world already thinks George has been laid to rest? (And for that matter, who really killed George, and why?) All of these questions will be answered in the way screwball comedies typically do things — in short, by a cursory wave of the hand followed by a detailed explanation at the end — but the explanations were enough to help satisfactorily end this novel.
Overall, THE COUNTESS, while not high art, is extremely funny in spots, especially when it’s being irreverent. That’s why despite the flimsy nature of the mistaken-identity and substitution plots, I enjoyed this novel thoroughly. And if you love English historical romance, the funnier, the better, you will, too.
— reviewed by Barb