This reading group guide for The Counterfeit Guest includes discussion questions and a Q&A with author Rose Melikan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the development of Mary Finch’s character. Have wealth and social status changed her? Do you agree with Mary’s self-assessment that she has become “concerned only with satisfying her own vanity”? If not, provide evidence to the contrary.
2. Explain Captain Holland’s reluctance to pursue a romantic relationship with Mary. Do you believe his fears are justified? How does Mary attempt to reassure him? Do you think she is successful? Why or why not?
3. What are the central elements of the plot regarding the military installations at Spithead, the Nore, London, and Woolwich? What roles do Crosby-Nash, Rabelais, Major Whittington, and Phoebus play with regard to mutinies at these locations, and why do their plans succeed or fail?
4. Compare Major Whittington’s way of thinking about his duties with Captain Holland’s. What insights do you gain about their characters and motivation? Do you believe that each could stand to learn from the other’s approach? Why or why not?
5. Revolutionary sentiments compete with personal or political expediency for a number of the characters in The Counterfeit Guest. Who do you believe are true revolutionaries, and how do they meet their respective ends? In general, how does Melikan appear to regard 1790s England and its conceptions of revolutionary France?
6. What is Captain Holland’s attitude toward the mutiny at the Woolwich Warren? Why does he confront the men in the barracks with the mutinous handbill? What arguments does he use to challenge the handbill’s propositions? Did you find his arguments compelling? Why or why not? How would you have approached that delicate encounter?
7. To what extent do you believe Mary was an effective spy? What are her greatest strength and her most serious weakness? How is Crosby-Nash able to build a “case” against Mary, and when do you think that he begins to suspect her?
8. How do Mr. Shy and his men hope to thwart the attack on the Magazine at Purfleet? What does Captain Holland believe to be the flaw in their plan, and what goes right and wrong in his and Drake’s attempt to save the day? What does Melikan’s portrayal of Holland and others seem to suggest about the nature of effective espionage work?
9. To whom does the title The Counterfeit Guest refer? Provide evidence for your choice. Do you believe there are multiple choices possible? If yes, why? If no, why not?
10. How is Mary changed by her latest adventure? What common ground emerges between her and Holland with regard to their respective roles in it? What does Holland come to understand about Mary’s true nature, and what do you believe this suggests about their relationship going forward? A Conversation with Rose Melikan
What have been the challenges of creating your second work of fiction? What lessons had you learned from the first novel that you were able to apply this time?
I suppose that the particular challenge of writing a sequel is to recreate the fictional world of the earlier book without retelling its story. By “fictional world” I mean not just the physical environment but the atmosphere—the degree of realism in the characters and situations, the extent to which either violent or comedic events occur, the rhythm and style of narration. I’d like readers to feel that they have returned to that version of late-eighteenth century England that they encountered in The Blackstone Key, and also to accept the new scenes, events, and characters as plausible in that world. On the other hand, no one wants to read about the same characters (or thinly disguised replacements) facing the same trials and tribulations—and certainly I didn’t want to write about them! At least regarding my own writing, I think that the experience of working through potential plotlines is a great help; the more times I have to ask myself whether this or that action is plausible, or whether I am revealing information in the most effective way, the better. So, the very experience of writing a first novel has helped me with the second. More specifically, because my stories are set in the past, the research for each book broadens and deepens my knowledge and hopefully makes my fictional world richer and more interesting. Did you already have the plot for The Counterfeit Guest in mind when you were writing The Blackstone Key? Did you find yourself writing to a certain ending in order for the third book of the series to pick up there?
The story that became The Blackstone Key
went through several drafts, and I wrote a great deal of The Counterfeit Guest
while The Blackstone Key
was taking shape. So, to a certain extent I knew quite early on that Mary Finch was going to have a second adventure and broadly what it was going to entail. I decided to focus on the mutinies of 1797 for several reasons. First, they were a very serious threat to British national security, so they would constitute a real challenge for my characters. Second, because they took place in England and involved the armed forces, they could legitimately draw in both Mary and Captain Holland. And finally, the army mutinies have received much less attention than those involving the navy, so I thought it would be fun to bring them to light. As far as the timing between the three stories is concerned, it was very helpful that the mutinies took place a year and a half after the events of The Blackstone Key
, as I wanted to give Mary time to settle in as the owner of White Ladies before plunging her into a new adventure. I didn’t have quite the same concerns between the second and third stories, but I did have to keep a date in mind. In March 1802 Britain and France signed the Treaty of Amiens, which brought a halt to the hostilities between the two countries, so I had to decide whether a third adventure might emerge before, during, or after the peace—which lasted until May 1803. Mary Finch is such a joy to read, yet she necessarily has had to evolve and grow, particularly as she adapts to her new social and economic status. How do you manage to develop a character while keeping her recognizable?
I find that the longer I work with a character, the more he or she becomes like a real person with a will of their own, and it simply isn’t possible to “make” them do or say something contrary to their personality—it just doesn’t work. However, different characters can present different challenges when it comes to their development between books. For example, Holland’s personality was deliberately obscured in The Blackstone Key
, so with him the process of development in The Counterfeit Guest
is one of making clearer those attitudes and motivations that had previously been suggested by what he said or did—but rarely by what he thought. With Mary, because her thoughts have always been revealed, it is easier to feel that we know her, and the challenge is to show her development in a plausible way. I think that the key to Mary is her intelligence and imagination. They don’t dictate her response to any given situation, but they indicate how she will arrive at a solution—by questioning, by posing alternatives, and by balancing an awareness of human foibles (particularly her own) with a strong sense of right and wrong. The novel focuses on the danger posed by revolutionary sentiments spreading across Great Britain. Was this a perceived as a serious threat to national security by people of the time?
Yes, and not just in the way that you might imagine. Especially after the French monarchy was abolished and the king executed, many in Britain developed a fear of abrupt political change—change that did not occur gradually, by a natural evolution in society. Even theoretically worthwhile reforms, they argued, were dangerous if imposed precipitously, because they swept away old assumptions and ways of doing things, and in the confusion that followed, greater changes might take place, leading to more confusion, more changes,and the ultimate breakdown of society.As a result,cautious government ministers in this period were worried not only about the small numbers of British people who actually advocated the overthrow of the government (whether or not they had the means of doing so), but also about advocates of apparently moderate reforms because of what these could inspire. For those of us who are not well versed in French history, what should we understand about the philosophical ideas that were compelling to the French patriots in The Counterfeit Guest?
The French Revolution went through several stages between 1789 and 1799, with different principles gaining and losing ground, but broadly speaking the revolutionaries believed in the natural liberty and equality of mankind (though not necessarily womankind). Consequently, those institutions that failed to protect and encourage equality but instead promoted privilege and servitude were themselves criminal and had to be curtailed or abolished, prominent examples being monarchical government, the Catholic Church, guilds and monopolies, and the aristocracy.
Rabelais, in particular, is described as being a great admirer of Maximilien Robespierre, the man most closely identified with the Reign of Terror. During this period (September 1793–July 1794) France was threatened by civil war, economic collapse, and invasion by foreign armies, and the government took extreme steps to “protect the revolution” from its various enemies. General military conscription was introduced, paramilitary forces seized property for national use, wages and prices were fixed, and new laws made it very easy to convict those suspected of counterrevolutionary activities. Robespierre argued that, while popular government relied on virtue during peacetime, it required both virtue and terror during a period of revolution. By “terror” he meant prompt, severe, inflexible justice (punishment) for all enemies of the state:“The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death.” Making a “good” marriage or avoiding a “bad” one seems to be a concern for several characters.Was marriage a theme you particularly wanted to explore in this novel?
Actually, I was more interested in the theme of wealth and the corrosive influence that gaining or losing it can have on a person’s character. Marriage is important in this context because it was a means by which wealth could be exchanged between families,and it was a mechanism that made women economically significant. Mary actually acquires her wealth by inheritance, but if she married she would gain new opportunities either for increasing it or squandering it. In a way Mary’s wealth depersonalizes her; she becomes “the Suffolk Heiress” and a topic of interest for strangers. How she and the other characters in The Counterfeit Guest
deal with the prospect or reality of wealth is an interesting barometer of their integrity and strength. Might it even be significant in this respect that Mary and Romney communicate by means of a peculiar sort of coin? Would you say that Captain Holland’s attitude toward the mutiny at Woolwich is typical of British officers of the period?
Holland’s situation is slightly unusual, in that he is an officer without a command, so he has little direct contact with the ordinary enlisted men until the mutiny breaks out.Therefore, he has developed neither a paternalistic nor a condescending attitude toward them, but simply responds with the mixture of idealism—in this case loyalty to the regiment—and pragmatism that characterizes him generally. His attitude, however, is certainly not exceptional for the period. There was no officer caste in Britain with a common background and a shared political outlook. Officers in the army and navy might be aristocrats—typically younger sons—but they were more likely to have sprung from the rural gentry or landholding class, both of which were quite broad in terms of their economic circumstances. It was also possible to obtain a commission in either service after having served as a common soldier or sailor. There were Whig officers and Tory officers, and those with no particular political views. Strictly speaking, all had to adhere to the principles of the Anglican Church, but it was possible to avoid this requirement, and the degree of Anglicanism required was often nominal.
The evidence from the two navy mutinies indicates a range of views among the officers affected. Some wished to take a very firm stance against the mutineers, but others were sympathetic— particularly as regards the demands for increased wages and improved conditions of service. It is difficult to imagine any officer sympathizing with those who advocated armed resistance to the government or surrendering their ships to the enemy, but it is also difficult to estimate how likely were either of these threats. The army mutinies did not last long enough for any such views to emerge, but even during the Nore uprising, many of the mutineers professed their loyalty and maintained that they would fight if the enemy were to appear. Only a few months after the mutiny collapsed, crews from formerly rebellious ships fought bravely in the Battle of Camperdown. How did your own research background contribute to the content of this story? Were you surprised by any of the historical details that you unearthed?
Fortunately, I knew quite a lot about the general political background and the mutinies before I started working on The Counterfeit Guest
, and that was a big help because it allowed me to set the story in what I knew would be an interesting period straightaway and then focus on the details that I would need to know in order to place my characters in and around actual historical events. For me that process of digging deeper—sometimes to find out what ministers did during a crisis on a day-by-day basis, and sometimes to learn which spring flowers would have been grown in England during the eighteenth century—can be both rewarding and frustrating, but it’s always interesting. I particularly enjoy delving into new areas, and I suppose that’s where I tend to find the most surprising details,things that I had never really thought about. For instance, while looking up eighteenth-century hymns, I discovered that hymn singing was not yet the norm in the Anglican Church in that period.A conservative rector in a rural parish would probably prefer the older-tradition metrical psalms, which the congregation would sing to the accompaniment of a small church band rather than an organ. What can we expect in your third installment of this series? Have you considered going beyond the trilogy? If not, what do you wish to tackle after you have finished this series?
I don’t want to give the game away, so I’ll say that the title is The Mistaken Wife
, but let readers discover who is the wife and who is mistaken.The time frame is more compact than that in The Counterfeit Guest, but I think that the scope of the story is wider—certainly this adventure will plunge both Mary Finch and Robert Holland into a very different sort of danger. . . .
I can’t honestly say what will come next, but it will undoubtedly be historical. I do have an idea for a fourth Mary Finch story, but whether it develops beyond that stage—or when it might do so—hasn’t been decided. Perhaps Mary and I will have to discuss it. As you continue to make the transition to fiction, what intrigues you about writing historical fiction?
I love learning about history—understanding how things worked in the past, why wars were fought, the process by which ideas developed—and I’m fascinated by the great men and women of the past and their stories. I don’t know that I would like to have lived in the past, particularly when I consider pre-modern medical and dental techniques, but by creating characters and placing them in the past, I suppose I am able to experience that life more vividly than if I were researching a work of nonfiction. I also enjoy the challenge of fitting my stories into an actual historical framework. It’s fun to have a calendar of real events and see if I can weave my story and characters into it, without sacrificing either the excitement of the story or the historical reality. I’ve heard it said that the truth should never get in the way of a good story, but I like to think that the harmony of fact and fiction makes for a better story.