Miss Claire Yelland is in a tight spot: almost alone in the world, she has few options for employment. Therefore, she turns to the theatre, reinventing herself as the dashing Clairisse Deschampes. She goes to great pains to hide her identity beneath a raven wig and guards her virtue to such an extent that she becomes known as the “Iceberg.” Then, her younger brother gets into a scrape that requires a large sum of money fast. Claire must make an uncomfortable bargain to save him: she agrees to marry the jaded Sir Egon Hollister. Egon wants to thumb his nose at his imperious, matchmaking grandmother by parading a scandalous bride at her house-party. Now, Claire must give the performance of a lifetime: loving newlywed in public, indifferent professional in private–while enduring Sir Egon’s assumption that she is a loose woman . . .
When Egon makes his arrangements with Clairisse Deschampes, he considers her terms a bit unusual for an actress who must have accepted many a carte blanche. She will marry him, but he will not have conjugal privileges. After he has no more need of a wife, their union will end via annulment or divorce.
Of course, Egon is surprised when the raven-haired actress he hired doesn’t show up for the marriage. Instead of the dashing, outrageous, and offensive woman he expected, the blonde, well-born, and eminently respectable-seeming Claire arrives. The charade that Egon planned quickly changes color: her disguise discarded, Claire becomes a bride that his grandmother would approve of, and Claire plays her part well. His family is charmed. Instead of getting revenge, Egon is back in the running to inherit the family fortune. Worse, he discovers that he is more attracted to his mock-bride than he expected.
As for Claire, her situation is awkward. Deceiving Egon’s welcoming family is intensely uncomfortable. Worse, she is thrown by his behavior: loving husband in public and cynical and judgmental in private. Finally, she must watch the man she is beginning to care for flirting with his former fiancée, Mrs. Blyden, and fend off the latter’s womanizing husband, Jack.
Generally, I dislike novels that ride on the premise that the hero thinks the (inevitably innocent) heroine is “impure.” So often, they end up like A Scandalous Wager, in which the hero relentlessly “tests” the heroine’s morality by forcing himself upon her, then damning her character because she responds to him physically or doesn’t resist “enough” (whatever that may be). Fortunately, most of Dorothy Mack’s book focuses on the protagonists’ inner struggles and their tart verbal exchanges. These factors, plus a few additional details, save The Mock Marriage from being disturbing.
Although some of Mack’s secondary characters act in implausible ways (Geoffrey), others are appealing, among them Egon’s grandmother, the sweet little boy Cyril Blyden, and the unhappy Jessica, whose marriage with Egon’s cousin Michael is strained despite their love for each other.
In one of the most refreshing and unexpected scenes in The Mock Marriage, Jessica seeks help from Claire in order to resolve her marital difficulties. Apparently, on her wedding night, the inexperienced Jessica was so terrified of sex that she’d sobbed uncontrollably, mortifying her young husband into swearing he would never bother her again. He has kept his word ever since–despite the fact that Jessica now wanted to consumate the match!
The irony of the situation–the virginal Claire having to advise the equally virginal Jessica about how to seduce her husband–is only one part of the scene’s charm. The greater part is that this exchange is the first time I have seen a Regency romance deal with the potential consequences of keeping women ignorant about sexual relations: fear, confusion, and alienation between newlyweds.
The greatest problem with The Mock Marriage is its ending, which is (of course) happy. Unfortunately, the resolution is rushed. After an excellent setup that gives Egon a chance to redeem himself, a series of fortuitous and unlikely events lead to the protagonists’ rapid reunion. Mack would have done better to give Egon a few more obstacles to overcome.
At first, I had The Mock Marriage at a lowly “Ordinary” due to its hasty conclusion. Then, rereading passages for this review, I upgraded it to “Wicked.” Too much about the characters’ interactions shine for me to hold the ending against Mack. The Mock Marriage is by far the best “Fake Marriage” book I have read so far. Recommended.