Mr. and Mrs. North and their glam and fab murder life

A few years ago, I read The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. I had never seen the movie with Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles, but I had a mental picture that led me to believe that I would love this book. It would be fabulously glamorous, with sparkle – both in the champagne and the banter – to spare, and a side serving of crime detection.

Unfortunately, that’s not really what I experienced when I actually read the book – although that may well be the aesthetic of the movie.

And then I met Jerry and Pamela North.

First published in 1940, this is the book that I thought I would be reading when I read The Thin Man. Jerry and Pamela are a young couple who live in a Greenwich Village apartment. Jerry ostensibly works, and Pamela ostensibly does not. They don’t yet have children, although there is a cat who figures in the book. Being young, fabulous, moderately financially secure, and otherwise ordinary young people living in 1940’s New York, they like a good cocktail party. Pamela decides that the empty upstairs apartment provides a perfect location for a soiree, and when they jaunt upstairs to check it out, they find a dead body in the tub.

Jerry is fine, but Pamela is a delight – a total firecracker. The Norths meet Detective William Weigand, who inexplicably goes by Loot, and they make friends and commence investigating. I really enjoyed this book.

According to Wikipedia, Charles Silet, in his article Married Sleuths, states as follows:

“The Mr. and Mrs. North novels contain carefully crafted puzzles and the Lockridges usually play fair with their readers. The series also features Pam and Jerry’s warmly humorous domestic environment and the couple’s witty exchanges with the duller members of the police force. Although the Norths remain the focus of the series, the books contain a good deal of political and social commentary, a richly detailed look at the changing life in New York City, as well as glimpses of the outlying suburban counties. Also, the North’s stable marriage relationship presents a marked contrast—and a welcome one—to the traditions of the lone detective characteristic of much other American mystery fiction. Even though the Mr. and Mrs. North novels now may appear overly deliberate in their pacing, they still prove wonderful reading as mysteries, and the glimpses they provide of our past social history give them a nostalgic and authentic period flavor. Aficionados of classic crime fiction have always appreciated this long-running series, and new readers should be encouraged to discover this witty and charming couple.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Following up on The Norths Meet Murder, I checked out the second book in the series, Murder Out Of Turn, which takes place at a summer hideaway in upstate New York, where Jerry and Pamela vacation at a rustic cabin with their friends. We are reintroduced to many of the characters from the first book. The Norths have become quite good friends with Detective Weigand, so they invite him to join them for part of their summer holiday. Naturally, murder ensues, when a friends ends up with knife in the back.

There is a lot of tennis playing, canoeing and other recreation going on in this book, as well as quite a bit of back and forth between the city. Detective Weigand meets Dorian Hunt, who catches his attention and, possibly, also his heart. It was still delightful, although not so delightful as the first book.

The third book in the series steps outside of the North’s close circle of friends – which is good, because otherwise they probably wouldn’t have any friends left. Detective Weigand is trying to figure out if Dorian Hunt, whom he met in the last book, is as interested in him as he is in her, and, simultaneously, gets pulled into the poisoning murder of a socialite that happened on the ever so glamorous rooftop bar of the Ritz Carlton. Pamela, once again, proves that she is as quick-witted (more quick-witted) than any of the men in the story by working out the motive and the murderer before anyone else has it completely solved.

I’ve heard that the fourth book, Death on the Aisle is a terrific mystery. I have it checked out, so I’ll be finding out as soon as I finish up a book or two, so I can continue my acquaintance with the Norths and their very murderous life.

The Secret of Greylands by Annie Haynes

Title: The Secret of Greylands
Author: Annie Haynes
First published in 1924

Plot Summary from Goodreads: “There’s no dirty trick he wouldn’t play—it’s my belief that he wouldn’t even stop at murder!”

Her husband unmasked as a scoundrel, Lady Cynthia Letchingham seeks refuge at her cousin Hannah’s north-country home Greylands. But on Cynthia’s arrival, she finds Hannah an invalid, having recently suffered a mysterious paralysis; the house is devoid of servants, and Hannah’s husband, charming and sinister by turns, keeps watch over everything and everyone. Only the presence of charming Sybil Hammond and a darkly handsome neighbour relieve the atmosphere for Cynthia – but then a dark red stain appears mysteriously on the sleeve of her coat…

This was the first golden age side read for an Agatha Christie group that I started on GR, where we will be reading all 66 of Christie’s full length mysteries in publication order, starting in October in honor the Christie centenary. Prior to nominating Annie Haynes for our first side read, I had never heard of her – I happened upon her when I was googling for information about Christie’s first publisher, Bodley Head, and then I saw that Haynes had been picked up by Dean Street Press, one of my favorite small presses that is reissuing golden age mystery fiction. A little bit more research, and I was in.

If you are in the US, and are so inclined, you could purchase all 12 of her mysteries for your kindle for under $12.00, as they are all priced at .99. I’m not saying that I’ve done that, just that a person could do that. If they wanted to. OK, I confess. I did. I bought them all.

Which is why it’s excellent that I really enjoyed this book – because now I have 11 more to read! It had a wonderful gothic flavor and was just pure entertainment. Set on the well-trod ground of the English moors, it owed a lot of its sensibility to the Bronte sisters, with the mysterious manor house, the creepy husband and the inexplicably ill relative.

The main character is one of those swooning-and-blushing ingenues that we see a lot in early golden age fiction – so desperately dim that she can’t see what’s right in front of her face. She’s the 1920’s version of the cheerleader in the horror flick, who, instead of running away, hides in the shed behind the chainsaws, as Geico so hilariously points out in this commercial.

Drive away in the running car? Terrible idea! Let’s hide behind the chainsaws in the creepy barn!

Anyway, Cynthia’s dim-bulbery notwithstanding, this book is a whole lot of fun. It’s unlikely to fool very many modern readers for even one minute, but the setting and tone are fantastic and it’s a very fast read. I was strongly reminded of some of Patricia Wentworth’s mysteries, which also frequently seem to feature this same sort of young woman with no instinct for self-preservation, particularly The Case is Closed and The Black Cabinet. It felt like a precursor to the gothic romances of the 1960’s and 1970’s written by authors like Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney.

What else can you buy for .99 that will provide 3 or so hours of enjoyment? Nothing. That’s what.

Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

Title: Sapphira and the Slave Girl
Author: Willa Cather
First published in 1940

Plot summary from Goodreads: A novel of jealousy set in pre-Civil War Virginia.

One of Willa Cather’s later works, this story of Sapphira Dodderidge, a Virginia lady of the nineteenth century who marries beneath her and becomes irrationally jealous of Nancy, a beautiful slave, is considered by many one of her best novels.

“Sapphira and the Slave Girl ranks with Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Antonia and A Lost Lady.” -Commonweal

“In the beauty of line and the almost perfect selection of detail, this novel does Miss Cather proud.” -Atlantic Monthly

I think that this only leaves me with 2 more novels, and the collected short stories, to read in Cather’s oevre. It’s going to be a bittersweet ending – she is one of my favorite authors of all time.

Happily, though, she’s one of those authors that I can read again and again and get something out of the experience each time.

Plot summary notwithstanding, Sapphira and the Slave Girl isn’t considered as one of her best books. I have to admit that it is really uncomfortable to read a book that includes slavery as an element. She doesn’t glorify it, and Cather’s sentiments are very obviously abolitionist in nature, but there are many times that the “n” word is used by the characters, and this is extremely uncomfortable to read, so, even though I liked the book, “enjoyed” doesn’t seem to be the right word to use to describe the experience of reading it.

It had a really intriguing ending, though, that included a final chapter self-insert by the author as a small child. The novel itself is apparently based on an incident in which a young woman is assisted in escaping from slavery by the daughter of the slaveholder (who is a woman, by the way, which is pretty interesting). The young woman – her name in the book is Nancy – escapes to Canada, where she becomes the maid of a very wealthy family and gains a measure of affluence and independence that, at the end of the day, almost outstrips that of the slaveholder she left behind. This is apparently based on a real event in Cather’s history, when she was a child, and the freed slave returns to the county she ran from after the Civil War so she can visit her very elderly mother.

It’s a very uncomfortable read, and I would have a hard time recommending it because the subject matter is so difficult. The fact that it was written by a white woman in 1940 makes it even more uncomfortable to read. It’s not apologia for slavery – there are several characters who are openly abolitionist and, as I said above, Cather is not defending slavery, but it is told primarily from the perspective of the white characters, some of whom believed that slaveholding wasn’t wrong.

And, when Cather uses the voices of the slaves as narrators, I was left to wonder how accurate she could possibly be – how can a free white woman, almost 100 years later, create realistic slave characters given that she has no experience from which to draw in understanding the life and thoughts of an enslaved person pre-Civil War? And isn’t it presumptuous of her to even try? And, of course, isn’t it presumptuous for me to even ask the question of myself? I also have no real understanding of this part of history from the perspective of the enslaved. Just writing this has made me uncomfortable.

Anyway, I think that I need to read 12 Years a Slave: A Slave Narrative and some additional slave narratives in order to put history into a more accurate perspective.

Triple Play: Clare Darcy

I’m 54 years old. I mention this because I came of age as a reader long before the YA publishing explosion. Someone, astutely, realized that there was a lot of money to be made in marketing books directly to young adults (especially young women), which has spawned a hugely successful boom in YA lit.

However, back when I was a tween, in the late 1970’s, it was pretty much Nancy Drew, Lois Duncan and Judy Blume. Once a girl outgrew those authors, it was time to move onto greener pastures. In my case, the greener pastures were my parent’s bookshelves. My dad was a fan of espionage, which meant Helen MacInnes and Len Deighton, and my mom had a weakness for gothic romance, like Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt. At some point, she also picked up an omnibus edition of Clare Darcy’s regency romances.

I can’t be sure that this is the edition that I read, although those are the three books it contained, and I’m pretty sure that it is. I read the book into tatters. I really don’t remember which of the three that I liked the best, but Clare Darcy was my gateway drug to Georgette Heyer and, even, to Jane Austen. I remember reading, and rereading, and rereading again.

A few years ago, I noticed that a lot of backlist authors that I had read as a girl were publishing their books for the kindle. I’m a kindle user, and while I understand the issues with Amazon, and I do still very consciously buy books from non-Amazon sources, A lot of these backlist books are most readily available on kindle.

In 2011, Sourcebooks published most, if not all, of Georgette Heyer’s backlist for kindle, and then put them on sale in August, 2011, for her birthday, for $1.99 each. I bought 50 of them while they were on sale, which was $100.00 that I have never regretted spending. I’ve been reading through them for the last 9 years.

This all triggered my memory of that old, tattered, omnibus edition that I had read as a young teen and I climbed down the internet rabbithole to see if I could find it. I didn’t remember the author’s name, but I did remember the names of the books because, in particular, Lydia and Georgina remind me of Pride and Prejudice. After some searching, I was able to track down the name of the author and I checked to see if her books were available for kindle. They were not. I continued to check back from time to time, until this week.

Which brings me to the triple-play. It looks as though all of Clare Darcy’s backlist has been digitized and is available to borrow from the Kindle Unlimited library. After the aha moment, I borrowed three of them and began reacquainting myself.

The first one I read was Lydia, which I thought I remembered from the book. The titular main character is a young American who has arrived in London for the season, with the express intention of catching herself a wealthy husband.

Lydia is the heir of Sophy, from Heyer’s The Grand Sophy. She’s a bit madcap, as well as bright and frank about her ambitions. Her family is well-connected, but poor, and she is the only one with the ability to restore their fortunes. The love-interest, Lord Northover, is nice enough. There are a lot of regency tropes, but it’s an enjoyable, and even adorable, read.

Next up was Cressida, which features a slightly older hero and heroine. Cressida was jilted by Rossiter when she was just a dreamy, unsophisticated girl because they were both poor. Six years later, they are both rich – she has inherited a packet from an aunt, and he made a fortune with Napoleon’s defeat.

I liked the characters, but I found the reliance on the misunderstanding trope to be somewhat annoying. There is also a cartoon villain who is trying to ruin a young charge of Cressida’s that is straight out of Heyer. I haven’t read Bath Tangle, but several of the reviews argue that this one is basically the same plot.

Last up was Lettice, or Letty. This one takes place mostly in Vienna, which is a nice change from most regencies which take place in London. Letty is the most ingenue of all of the heroines and enters the story when she flees from marriage to Mr. Sludge and is rescued by Harry. She has a notable singing voice, so Harry, who has a reputation for being a disreputable card cheat, swoops in and carries her off to Vienna to restore his fortunes.

You can guess what happens next.

Again, I enjoyed this one. I did notice more issues with the digitizing process with this one – in particular, Letty was sometimes rendered as Lefty, which is an unfortunate, but hysterically funny, error, since Lefty brings to my mind the cauliflower-eared villain of a noir mystery as opposed to the slender, adorably innocent heroine of a regency romance.

So, what’s my verdict from this walk down nostalgia lane? Darcy isn’t as good as Heyer – her characterizations are slighter and she’s making use of the tropes that someone else perfected. But regency romance is a genre with well-defined conventions, and she’s playing by the rules. Overall, I enjoyed them even if I was ready to move on after finishing Letty. These are fast reads – I tore through all three of them in less than 7 hours. However, given that they are free, I’m confident that when the time is right for something that is frothy and as insubstantial as a soap bubble, I will turn to Clare Darcy again.

#Throwback Thursday: The Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer

For this throwback Thursday, I’m going to repost some old reviews of Georgette Heyer books that I wrote six years ago. They’ve been sitting in draft since I started moving things over to this blog and this seemed like a good time to get them published.

Previously published December 23, 2014

Title: The Talisman Ring
Author: Georgette Heyer
First published in 1936

Summary from Goodreads: A long-lost family heirloom, a young heir falsely accused of murder, a band of smugglers, two utterly delightful Heyer heroines, a taciturn, but highly resourceful older gentleman–all play their parts in a tale funny enough to have you laughing aloud.

I finished this one back in October, and have delayed writing this review for reasons I can’t entirely explain. Actually, I have two more Heyer posts to write, and I won’t allow myself to post the third – The Marriage of Convenience – until I get the other two up. That is probably the only reason I am forcing myself to do this . . . I have a lot to say about The Marriage of Convenience, and don’t want to forget!

The Talisman Ring is actually one of Heyer’s Georgian romances, set in 1793. It was published in 1936, during what I would call the end of the earliest part of her writing career. It is also as funny as hell.

Basically, The Talisman Ring is a triple threat: mystery, romance, and farce, and is actually really quite successful at all of them. Some of her earlier farce, notably Powder and Patch really didn’t work for me at all. I found those elements of that book to be more obnoxious than funny – the reductive nature of her treatment of Cleone really annoyed me. In addition, her mysteries, at least the two I have read, are not nearly as charming as her romances. In The Talisman Ring, she combines them, and the result is clever, funny and winsome.

There is a murder, and an heir who has been unjustly accused. The “talisman ring” is some sort of an heirloom ring that is, apparently, well worth the trouble of murder. And, there is an arranged “romance”, between Eustacie, a French ward who is meant to marry her much older cousin – Tristan – but Tristan is all together too even-tempered for her. This arrangement is inflicted on both of them by one of Heyer’s more irritating domestic tyrants, who puts together the arrangement without either Eustacie or Tristan being overly enthusiastic about it, and then promptly kicks the bucket. Thankfully for everyone. Because Tristan and Eustacie are not well-suited in the least.

Sir Tristram looked her over in frowning silence.

‘You look very cross,’ said Eustacie.

‘I am not cross,’ said Sir Tristram in a somewhat brittle voice, ‘but I think you should know that while I am prepared to allow you all the freedom possible, I shall expect my wife to pay some slight heed to my wishes.’

Eustacie considered this dispassionately. ‘Well, I do not think I shall,’ she said. ‘You seem to me to have very stupid wishes – quite absurd, in fact.’

When Eustacie flees, after deciding that she will become a governess – a job for which she is entirely unqualified – because it will be more romantic than marrying the prosaic (and let’s be honest, OLD), Tristan, she promptly runs into Ludovic (oh, goodness, what a horrible name) the dashing, wrongly accused heir turned smuggler who is shot by a pair of utterly incompetent Bow Street Runners. She is taken under the wing of Sarah Thane, who is travelling with her brother, Sir Hugh, who doesn’t stir unless there is a fine glass of brandy in it for him at the end.

Hilarity ensues. It’s like one of those lovely plays where no one ever really knows what is going on, and the characters are coming and going and nearly running into one another, and there is intrigue and people are furtively running about and making utter fools of themselves, but in the best possible way. Sarah and Eustacie set out to clear Ludovic of the murder, and there is a lot of sneaking about the countryside and breaking into drawing rooms and libraries in search of the talisman ring.

‘You won’t find yourselves in half such danger as you would if I let you have my pistols,’ said Ludovic, with brutal candour.

This unfeeling response sent Eustacie off in a dudgeon to Miss Thane. Here at least she was sure of finding a sympathetic listener. Nor did Miss Thane disappoint her. She professed herself to be quite at a loss to understand the selfishness of men, and when she learned that Eustacie had planned for her also to fire upon possible desperadoes, she said that she could almost wish that she had not been told of the scheme, since it made her feel quite disheartened to think of it falling to the ground.

In the end, of course, the feather-headed Eustacie, who isn’t nearly as feather-headed as she seems, marries the dashing Ludovic. And wonderful, fearless Sarah and the steady, secretly romantic Tristan, equally, fall in love. As is typically the case in these books of Heyer’s that include a younger couple and an older couple, it is the older pair that win my heart completely.

‘But, Sarah consider! You are romantic, and he is not romantic at all!’

‘I know,’ replied Miss Thane, ‘but I assure you I mean to come to an understanding with him before the knot is tied…Either I have his solemn promise to ride ventre à terre to my death-bed or there will be no marriage!’

‘It shall be included in the marriage vow,’ said Sir Tristram.

Eustacie looking from one to the other, made a discovery. ‘Mon Dieu, it is not a mariage de convenance at all! You are in love, enfin!’ she exclaimed.

There are a lot of similarities in the romance between this one and Sprig Muslin, which I read earlier this year. I love them both.

#Throwback Thursday: Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer

For this throwback Thursday, I’m going to repost some old reviews of Georgette Heyer books that I wrote six years ago. They’ve been sitting in draft since I started moving things over to this blog and this seemed like a good time to get them published.

Title: Faro’s Daughter
Author: Georgette Heyer
First published in 1941

Summary from Goodreads: An insult not to be borne
When Max Ravenscar offers her a fortune to refuse the marriage proposal from his young nephew, the beautiful Deborah Grantham is outraged.
A passionate reprisal
She may be the mistress of her aunt’s elegant gambling house, but Miss Grantham will show the insufferable Mr. Ravenscar that she can’t be bribed, even if she has to marry his puppyish nephew to prove it

This will be the one that ends up as my go to recommendation for people who are starting out with Heyer. It used to be The Grand Sophy, but there is that unpleasant anti-semitic streak that runs through it which has led me to be increasingly uncomfortable with recommending that as a first experience with Heyer.

Faro’s Daughter, for me, is as close to a perfect Heyer as I think probably exists. It is as sparkling and effervescent as Sprig Muslin, Deb is as strong-willed and honorable as Sophy, Phoebe is as adorable as Arabella, although not so headstrong. The romance between Ravenscar and Deb is as satisfying as Sir Tristram and Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring.

Like Sprig Muslin & Talisman Ring, Faro’s Daughter is a double ring romance, with a pair of younger characters and a pair of older characters. And, like both of those books, I absolutely loved the romance between the more mature characters.

Deborah Grantham is the titular faro’s daughter, a moderately impoverished woman of four and twenty, which makes her a bit older than the heroine of the average Regency romance. She and her aunt have opened up a card room in an effort to stave off bankruptcy, which is really not going very well because her aunt sort of sucks at money management, and Deb’s brother is – as is so often the case in these Heyer romances – a drain on the family finances.

Adrian is the young Lord Mablethorpe, who fancies himself in love with the delectable Deb. There’s also a lecherous older character, Lord Ormskirk, who has bought up all of Deb’s aunt’s bills in an effort to force Deborah into becoming his mistress. She is having none of that, of course, but she rather likes Adrian and doesn’t want to hurt him.

The book begins when Lord Ravenscar decides that it is incumbent upon him to save the callow youth from the clutches of the fortune hunter. He badly underestimates Deb’s integrity and kindness, and jumps to all kinds of conclusions. He is a huge conclusion jumper, which is the cause of the misunderstanding that leads to a delightful confusion at the end. Deb has no intention of marrying Adrian, she is much too honorable of a person and she isn’t a bit in love with him, so when Ravenscar offers her twenty-thousand pounds to leave Adrian alone, she loses her shit.

“The palm of Miss Grantham’s hand itched again to hit him, and it was with an immense effort of will that she forced herself to refrain. She replied with scarcely a tremor to betray her indignation. ‘But even you must realise, sir, that Lord Ormskirk’s obliging offer is not to be thought of beside your cousin’s proposal. I declare, I have a great fancy to become Lady Mablethorpe.”

Ravenscar has met his match with the indomitable Deb, but he has no idea. He is accustomed to getting his own way, and is just as pissed as Deb when she turns him down flat, leaving him with the distinct impression that she intends to marry Adrian as soon as Adrian reaches majority, in a bare 60 days. The pitched battle of wills and arms occurs, with Ravenscar buying the bills off Ormskirk, and Deb actually at one point kidnapping Ravenscar and locking him in her basement with the rats.

“‘You have had Ravenscar murdered, and hidden his body in my cellar!’ uttered her ladyship, sinking into a chair. ‘We shall all be ruined! I knew it!’

‘My dear ma’am, it is no such thing!’ Deborah said, amused. ‘He is not dead, I assure you!’

Lady Bellingham’s eyes seemed to be in imminent danger of starting from their sockets. ‘Deb!’ she said, in a strangled voice. ‘You don’t mean that you really have Ravenscar in my cellar?’

‘Yes, dearest, but indeed he is alive!’

‘We are ruined!’ said her ladyship, with a calm born of despair. ‘The best we can hope for is that they will put you in Bedlam.”

These are the only two people in London who could handle each other without asbestos gloves and a welding hood.

The second romance involves Adrian and Phoebe Laxton, who is rescued – by Deb and Adrian – from Vauxhall, where her mercenary family is trying to sell her like a lamb to slaughter to a way, way, way too old creepy aristocrat because in that family, as well, the men are useless, profligate gambles and women are commodities. Phoebe is adorable and sweet, and Deb figures out within about twenty seconds that she is just the girl for Adrian. While Ravenscar is accusing her of being the worst kind of gold-digger, she is neatly solving his problem for him, finding a suitable match, and watching Adrian grow up just in time to take care of the fraught Phoebe.

And so, we come to the end, after Adrian has married Phoebe, he returns to town, runs into Ravenscar, and tells him to wish him happy because he has gone and gotten married. Ravenscar again jumps to the conclusion that Deb has married Adrian just to spite him. He shows up at her house to get into a big fight, and tell her that had she not been in such a hurry, she would have gained a much bigger prize – him.

She tosses him out, furious, saying, in Lizzie Bennett fashion, that he is the last man in the world that she could be prevailed upon to marry.

Ah, young love. If only they’d had some electronics to toss around, a DVD player would clearly have gone out the window. It does, of course, all get worked out in the end, and I am convinced that Ravenscar and Deborah are perfect for one another – honorable, fierce, passionate, and slightly nuts. Their marriage will never be boring, and regency London would have been a better place with them in it.

#Throwback Thursday: A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer

For this throwback Thursday, I’m going to repost some old reviews of Georgette Heyer books that I wrote six years ago. They’ve been sitting in draft since I started moving things over to this blog and this seemed like a good time to get them published.

Post originally published on July 22, 2015

Title: A Civil Contract
Author: Georgette Heyer
First published in 1961

Summary from Goodreads: Adam Deveril, Viscount Lynton, returns home from war to find his family in financial ruin. To help his family, he sacrifices his love for the beautiful Julia and marries plain Jenny Chawleigh, whose father is a wealthy businessman determined to marry his daughter into a title.

Adam chafes under Mr. Chawleigh’s generosity, and Julia’s behavior upon hearing of the betrothal nearly brings them all into a scandal. But Jenny’s practicality and quiet love for Adam bring him comfort and eventually happiness. And over time, their arranged marriage blossoms into love and acceptance across the class divide.

I am going to gush.

I’ve read a lot of Georgette Heyer – as the originator of the regency romance, she is a hugely influential author. She is a talented, careful writer with a flair for comedy, and some of her best books are also some of her funniest.

A Civil Contract is a departure from her usual formula, and it knocked my socks off. It begins with Adam Deveril being forced to return home from his position in the Army, as his spendthrift father has unexpectedly died in a riding accident, and he has inherited Fontley, the rapidly deteriorating family seat, and a whole pile of debt incurred by his improvident parent. I’m sure he intended to remake the family fortunes, if he could step away from the gaming table/horse races long enough to stop losing money, but whatevs, dad. Way to go.

Adam is most definitely not cut from same cloth as his father, though they may share a tailor. He is a clear-eyed realist with some actual scruples, and it becomes apparent that Fontley is going to have to be sold to pay for the debts left behind when dad kicked off the mortal coil. His business manager is relieved to note that Adam doesn’t seem to have many illusions about winning back the family fortunes on the turn of a card, but isn’t thrilled to see the family seat go out of the family, and suggests that Adam look about for an heiress to marry.

Adam, on the other hand, is deeply infatuated with the sylph-like Julia Oversley, this year’s most popular and sought after debutante. And Julia reciprocates these affections. He realizes that he can’t marry Julia, given that once Fontley is sold he will quite literally not even have a pot to pee in, but in the interests of love, he is going to sacrifice himself on the altar of bachelorhood.

And then he meets Jonathan Chawleigh, a wealthy Cit whose made his fortune in trade. Here there be cashflow. Chawleigh has no illusions about Adam being likely to fall in love with his daughter, the ordinary Jenny, but that’s all right with him. He wants Jenny to marry into a social class to which he himself will never gain entry. While he was hoping for an Earl, Adam, a mere Viscount, will do.

He meets Jenny. Small, a bit plump, with a short neck, she is no Julia. But they get on, a bit, and agree to marry.

“He was obliged to master an impulse to retreat, and to tell himself that her acceptance of the proposed match was no more coldblooded than his own.

He was quite as pale as she, and he replied, in a strained voice: ‘Miss Chawleigh, if you feel that you could bear it I shall count myself fortunate. I won’t offer you false coin. To make the sort of protestations natural to this occasion would be to insult you, but you may believe me sincere when I say that if you do me the honour to marry me I shall try to make you happy.’

She got up. ‘I shall be. Don’t think of that! I don’t wish you to try to – Only to be comfortable! I hope I can make you so: I’ll do my best. And you’ll tell me what you wish me to do – or if I do something you don’t like – won’t you?’”

And so it begins. They marry, and try to make a life together.

There are several times in this book where my heart just broke for Jenny. She is obviously in love with Adam – she had been friendly with Julia and had met him while he danced attendance on her much prettier friend. But she is wise beyond her years, and realizes that while she cannot compete with Julia in looks or fairylike appeal, she is married to him, and Julia is not. She sets out to make a place for herself the only way she knows how: by becoming the mistress of Fontley, by not complaining if he is late, by making sure he has his tea how he likes it. If this sounds like Jenny is masquerading as a Golden Retriever, well, I can understand that. But that’s not how it felt. It felt wise. And generous.

And, in the end, Jenny shows herself to be a better person, and a better wife, than the immature and self-centered Julia would have been. Speaking to Julia as she makes the claim that it is Jenny who has gained the most as a result of the marriage, Adam says:

“He did not answer for a moment, and then he said gently: ‘I owe Jenny a great deal, you know. She studies all the time to please me, never herself. Our marriage – isn’t always easy, for either of us, but she tries to make it so, and behaves more generously than I do. Given her so much! You know better than to say that, my dear! I had nothing to give her but a title – and I wonder sometimes if she sets any more store by that than you would.”

Finally, charmingly, convincingly, Adam falls in love with “his Jenny,” not in the infatuated way that a callow youth loves a lovely girl, but with gentle and real commitment:

“Yet, after all, Jenny thought that she had been granted more than she had hoped for when she had married him. He did love her: differently, but perhaps more enduringly; and he had grown to depend on her. She thought that they would have many years of quiet content: never reaching the heights, but living together in comfort and deepening friendship. Well, you can’t have it both ways, she thought, and I couldn’t live in alt all the time, so I daresay I’m better off as things are.”

And so, Heyer convinces me that, in the end, they will be a truly happy couple. Adam will fondly remember his brief but passionate love for Julia. But he will always come home to Jenny, because she, as it turns out, is the love of his life.

“After all, life was not made up of moments of exaltation, but of quite ordinary, everyday things.”

#Throwback Thursday: Talking about female independence: Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer

For this throwback Thursday, I’m going to repost some old reviews of Georgette Heyer books that I wrote six years ago. They’ve been sitting in draft since I started moving things over to this blog and this seemed like a good time to get them published.

Originally posted on August 20, 2014

Title: Lady of Quality
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published in 1972

Summary from Goodreads: The spirited and independent Miss Annis Wychwood is twenty-nine and well past the age for falling in love. But when Annis embroils herself in the affairs of a pretty runaway heiress, Miss Lucilla Carleton, she is destined to see a great deal of her fugitive’s uncivil and high-handed guardian, Mr. Oliver Carleton. Befriending the wayward girl brings unexpected consequences, among them the conflicting emotions aroused by her guardian, who is quite the rudest man Annis has ever met…

Georgette Heyer’s historical novels have charmed and delighted millions of readers. Her smart, independent heroines and dashing heroes brilliantly illuminate one of the most exciting and fascinating eras of English history, when drawing rooms sparkled with well-dressed nobility, and romantic intrigues ruled the day.

“In this delectable Georgette Heyer novel, the lady of quality and her bit-of-a-rake swain are the ones on whom our eyes are fixed. They don’t play us false. Miss Heyer is in top form…romantic, amusing, and full of tart-tongued comment on the mores of the time.”—Publishers Weekly

This was Georgette Heyer’s last completed book, published in 1972. She died on July 4, 1974, at the age of 71, which means that she was writing Lady of Quality in her late sixties.

I am struck by a few things reading this book. First, the writing seems both tired and a bit manic at times, as though Ms. Heyer had perhaps become a bit exhausted with writing in the same style and theme for so many years. Lady of Quality was her 34th historical romance (georgian/regency) and, if wikipedia is to be believed, her 55th novel.

Now, onto Lady of Quality.

Annis Wychwood is the titular lady of quality, and the main character of the book. She is a lady of nine-and-twenty who considers herself to be quite on the shelf – a Heyerism for an unmarried woman who has outlived her place in the Marriage Market. She is also a woman of independent means. She has inherited a respectable fortune, and is able to support herself more than adequately.

A typical Heyer novel spends, if not equal time on the hero, much time developing the hero’s character. In this book, however, the hero remains little more than a cardboard cut-out plot device throughout the book. Heyer spends more time looking at the various types of woman who might have existed in regency society, and evaluating their independence.

There are really four women who are evaluated in this way: Annis, Miss Maria Farlow, Lucilla, and Lady Wychwood, the wife of Annis’ of brother. Of all four, Annis is the only female character who is not under the protection of someone else.

Miss Farlow is under the protection of Annis, and if she weren’t, she would need to find a different protector. She is a woman of no means at all – we are never told how old she is, although the implication is that she is elderly. Elderly in this case probably means about my age. As an unmarried spinster of no fortune nor employment whatsoever, she is the very definition of superfluous humanity. She exists in the nearly invisible world of genteel poverty, unable to work (too well-bred) unable to marry (too unbeautiful) and unable to live on her own (too poor). She is nothing more than a burden. She is reminiscent in some ways of Miss Bates, from Emma, but even Miss Bates has a home of her own, albeit a poor one.

The treatment of Miss Farlow is cringe-inducing. No one ever acknowledges her as a person with value, her humanity is barely acknowledged. People are impatient with her foibles, constantly rude to her, and she is shoved in and out of rooms with no thought at all to her feelings. Even Emma, as thoughtless as she often is, is made to feel shame for her rudeness to Miss Bates. Someone desperately needed to shame Annis, Mr. Carleton and Lord Wychwood for their utter disregard for her feelings. She had no choice but to take it from them, and imagining how she must have felt about having to accept such monstrous treatment is physically painful.

Lucilla, as well, as a young girl of seventeen, is also essentially unable to take herself out of the sphere of protection of a male relative or a well-meaning female. Annis takes Lucilla in hand when she flees from an unwanted marriage to her childhood friend, Ninian. The book leaves Lucilla’s fate unresolved – Oliver Carleton, the hero, is also her guardian, and he finds a place to stash her, like a piece of luggage, once he convinces Annis to give up her independence in order to marry him. She is charming, pretty, ingenuous and a bit vapid. No doubt she will marry well.

Lady Wychwood is married, and as a married woman, has some freedom that is forbidden even to Annis. She is a lightweight woman, but there are hints in the book that there is more to her than meets the eye.

Annis is an interesting character. She has never met a man who engaged her interest, which may say more about the men she encountered than it does about her. Heyer has created a character who has carved out some independence for herself in a society that does not generally allow for independence. The decision to marry, in fact, is a difficult one for her – not because she is unattracted to Oliver Carleton, but because she is disinterested in submitting to a “domestic tyrant,” and she is concerned that a husband will be just that. She declines his initial proposal, saying:

‘You have paid me so many extravagant compliments, that I need not scruple to tell you that yours is not the first offer I have received.’

‘I imagine you must have received many.’

‘Not many, but several. I refused them all, because I preferred my – my independence to marriage. I think I still do. Indeed, I am almost sure of it.’

‘But not quite sure?’

‘No, not quite sure,’ she said, in a troubled tone. ‘And when I ask myself what you could give me in exchange for my liberty, which is very dear to me, I – oh, I don’t know, I don’t know!

It takes some convincing, and a bout of influenza, to convince her that marriage need not mean an abandoning of self, and that, indeed, Oliver Carleton is not looking for self-abnegation in a wife. But ultimately, as in all Heyer novels, the heroine agrees to marry the hero, after perhaps one or two kisses.

I think I might have liked the book better if she had said no.

We never do find out what happens to poor Miss Farlow, and must trust to the goodness of characters who treated her so poorly that they did not simply set her next to the curb to be hauled away on trash day.

I didn’t dislike this book, and Heyer’s writing, as always, is nearly perfect. But it is not her best, lacking much of the charm and all of the sparkle of the best of her earlier works.

#Throwback Thursday: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

For this throwback Thursday, I’m going to repost some old reviews of Georgette Heyer books that I wrote six years ago. They’ve been sitting in draft since I started moving things over to this blog and this seemed like a good time to get them published.

Originally posted July 10, 2014

Title: The Grand Sophy
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published in 1950

Summary from Goodreads: New York Times Bestseller! “Sophy sets everything right for her desperate family in one of Georgette Heyer’s most popular Regency romances.”

When Lady Ombersley agrees to take in her young niece, no one expects Sophy, who sweeps in and immediately takes the ton by storm. Sophy discovers that her aunt’s family is in desperate need of her talent for setting everything right: Ceclia is in love with a poet, Charles has tyrannical tendencies that are being aggravated by his grim fiancee, her uncle is of no use at all, and the younger children are in desperate need of some fun and freedom. By the time she’s done, Sophy has commandeered Charles’s horses, his household, and finally, his heart.

The Grand Sophy was published in 1950, between Arabella and The Quiet Gentleman. It is set in 1816, in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.

In spite of one glaringly problematic aspect, which will be further discussed below, The Grand Sophy is my absolute favorite Heyer of all that I have read because I adore Sophy. She is a simply wonderful heroine – outspoken, self-confident, and well-liked in spite of her occasionally unconventional behavior. She is basically the Annie Oakley of regency England right down to the pistol.

Her verbal sparring with the ultimate hero, Charles Rivenhall, is laugh out loud funny:

‘I’ll take care of that!’ he retorted. ‘Let me tell you, my dear cousin, that I should be better pleased if you would refrain from meddling in the affairs of my family!’

‘Now, that,’ said Sophy, ‘I am very glad to know, because if ever I should desire to please you I shall know just how to set about it. I daresay I shan’t, but one likes to be prepared for any event, however unlikely.’

Charles is obviously confounded by Sophy, when she shows up at his house with a dog, a monkey and an attitude. He likes her, at times a great deal, but is befuddled by her lack of fainting spells, her out-spokenness, and her meddling nature as she starts to set things right with his family. Charles is engaged to the antithesis of Sophy, Eugenia Wraxton, who is well-bred, humorless, and smug. One of the funniest aspects of this book is watching Charles struggle with the priggish Miss Wraxton because he is completely loyal to his family, and while he is perfectly comfortable criticizing them, woe betide the person who has the audacity to be critical of them in his presence. Eugenia makes this unfortunate mistake on more than one occasion.

There are two events in the book that really establish the worth of both Sophy and Charles Rivenhall, though. The innocent young man stumbling into debt through gambling is often a feature of Heyer’s stories, and this one is no exception – Charles’ younger brother, Hubert, has found himself deep in debt from gambling and tries to recover his fortunes by taking out a loan from a usurer and betting on a horse race. This – of course – goes badly, and Hubert is deeply ashamed as well as completely demoralized. Sophy is able to extract the truth from him with some skilful and sympathetic questioning, and offers to loan him the money to repay the lender, which he refuses. When Hubert is too ashamed to come clean with Charles, Sophy, naturally, takes matters into her own hands and visits the moneylender.

This could be a successful and funny device to show Sophy’s intrepid nature because she handles the whole thing with aplomb and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, Heyer endows the blackmailer with many of the most pernicious stereotyped character traits of a Jewish moneylender, which makes the entire interaction uncomfortable for the modern day reader. Whether or not Heyer was actually anti-Semitic I will let scholars who have studied her critically address. All I can say about this part of the book is that it detracts from the story in the same way that the unfortunate caricaturing of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s detracted from that fine movie. It didn’t ruin the experience for me, although I can see how it could for other readers. It is doubly unfortunate because there was simply no need for it, so the only conclusion I can draw is that Heyer did it on purpose for effect. Her narrative goals could have been served by any character that was greasy, unpleasant, and criminal. There are – were – plenty of character types from which she could have drawn without bigotry.

Leaving aside that blight on the book, Charles, as well, shows to advantage as a result of this episode. Far from reproaching his younger brother, he takes Hubert into his confidence and explains that the gaming of their father has left the family essentially destitute, and accepts responsibility for the rift that made it impossible for Hubert to confide in him.

‘Well, I had better make a clean breast of the whole! I went to a rascally moneylender, and I borrowed five hundred from him, for six months. I thought I should have won every penny back, and more beside, at Newmarket. But the damnable screw was unplaced!’ He saw his brother’s expression, and said: ‘You need not look like that! I swear I shall never do so again as long as I live! Of course I ought to have come rather to you, but –’

‘You should have come to me, and that you did not must have been far more my fault than yours!’

The second event relates to the youngest sibling, Amabel, who becomes extremely ill during the course of the book. Charles returns home to find the house in disarray, his mother taken to her bed, and his sister, Cecilia, and Sophy, in charge of nursing the ill child.

‘Oh, yes, tell about the time you were lost in the Pyrenees!’ begged Amabel drowsily. Sophy did so, her voice sinking as the little girl’s eyelids began to droop. Mr Rivenhall sat still and silent on the other side of the bed, watching his sister. Presently Amabel’s deeper breathing betrayed that she slept. Sophy’s voice ceased; she looked up, and met Mr Rivenhall’s eyes. He was staring at her, as though a thought, blinding in its novelty, had occurred to him. Her gaze remained steady, a little questioning. He rose abruptly, half-stretched out his hand, but let it fall again, and, turning, went quickly out of the room.

Am I crazy, or does this remind of this:

Swoon. No, seriously. I just died.

For the ending, Heyer brings together all of the disparate and mostly unwitting participants in Sophy’s plans, and shuffles the partners until everyone ends up with their proper match. It is a consummate game of romantic chance, deftly managed, with an eye toward perfect propriety, and only the clever Sophy could have pulled it off. There are a few important side stories that are worth mentioning, most particularly Cecilia’s romance with Fawnhope and Charling, and the indolent Sancia, Sophy’s putative and unwilling step-mama. This is, to my mind, Heyer’s most enjoyable novel to date – witty, sparkling, and genuinely funny.

#Throwback Thursday: Arabella by Georgette Heyer

For this throwback Thursday, I’m going to repost some old reviews of Georgette Heyer books that I wrote six years ago. They’ve been sitting in draft since I started moving things over to this blog and this seemed like a good time to get them published.

Originally published June 24, 2014

Title: Arabella
Author: Georgette Heyer
Published 1949

Summary from Goodreads: Georgette Heyer had a handful of unforgettable heroines, of which Arabella is one of the most engaging. Daughter of a modest country clergyman, Arabella Tallant is on her way to London when her carriage breaks down outside the hunting lodge of the wealthy Mr. Robert Beaumaris. Her pride stung when she overhears a remark of her host’s, Arabella pretends to be an heiress, a pretense that deeply amuses the jaded Beau. To counter her white lie, Beaumaris launches her into high society and thereby subjects her to all kinds of fortune hunters and other embarrassments.

When compassionate Arabella rescues such unfortunate creatures as a mistreated chimney sweep and a mixed-breed mongrel, she foists them upon Beaumaris, who finds he rather enjoys the role of rescuer and is soon given the opportunity to prove his worth in the person of Arabella’s impetuous young brother…

Arabella was written in 1949, immediately after The Foundling, and right before The Grand Sophy. It is set in the spring of 1817 (per the Georgette Heyer chronology, which you can find here. The chronology was compiled by a number of individuals who used textual clues to determine the precise time period in which the book was set).

I thoroughly enjoyed Arabella, although I think that it does take a backseat to Sprig Muslin by just a little bit. I was frequently reminded in Arabella, more than any other Heyer that I’ve read, of the novels (and life) of Jane Austen. Jane was the daughter of a vicar and lived in genteel want for much of her life. Arabella, too, is the daughter of a vicar. There are too many siblings and not enough money, and it is made clear to Arabella that, as the eldest and prettiest, she must marry well in order to secure comfortable livings for her siblings, which, of course, is reminiscent of Jane Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice.

Arabella, though, resembles Lizzie Bennett much more than she resembles the quiescent Jane. She is a bit reckless, with a hot-temper, but has a deep well of integrity. She gets herself into trouble with that recklessness by claiming to have a fortune when she has no such thing, because she is angry at the hero, Robert Beaumaris, when she overhears him accusing her of being a fortune hunter. Once she has made the claim, she finds herself unable to extricate herself from her dilemma, and it becomes known throughout London that she is an heiress. This makes her wildly popular among the men, fortune-hunter and wealthy alike.

When her brother, Bertram, shows up and manages to get himself indebted to Beaumaris to the tune of hundreds of pounds by some inexperienced gambling, things go from bad to worse, and she finds herself turning down eligible proposals because she believes that they have been made under false pretenses, and giving all of her money to her brother to try to bail him out of his scrape.

Heyer’s solution to this dilemma is also remiscent of Pride and Prejudice – Arabella’s entire family is bailed out by Beaumaris, as the Bennett family, and most particularly Lydia, is bailed out by Darcy.

I am really ambivalent about Beaumaris as a hero, however. On the one hand, obviously, he must be a fine physical specimen, since the discussions of the fit of his coat and his lack of a need for buckram wadding to broaden his shoulders are ubiquitous. He is wealthy and well-educated. On the other hand, he is just too old for Arabella. The actual age difference between them is never articulated, but he must be in his late thirties, based on the way he is presented, and Arabella is in her first season. I really struggle with getting behind a romance with this enormous age difference – even if it was common during that time period.

The other issue I have with Beaumaris, though, is bigger even than the age difference. I’m just not that convinced that he’s a very nice guy. He is shallow and privileged and bored. I am clear on the fact that Arabella brings out the best in him. Arabella has a surprising sensitivity to social injustice, and this the only Heyer that I’ve read so far where Heyer even acknowledges the gulf between rich and poor in British society during this time period. Arabella repeatedly – three times total – tries to rescue some unfortunate who has crossed her path.

The first unfortunate, Jemmy, is also the most appealing. He is a climbing boy, apprenticed to a chimney sweep (although enslaved is a better verb, honestly), responsible for the really terrible job of cleaning chimneys, by climbing up them, in order to prevent chimney fires. This was horrifying and dangerous work, that was done by boys as young as four. When Jemmy mistakenly climbs down her chimney and into her room, Arabella takes custody of him, routs the sweep with threats of prosecution for abuse, and then hands Jemmy off to Beaumaris to be cared for, all in one fell swoop. This is a truly remarkable moment in the book, and shows Arabella as compassionate and headstrong. She is maybe 19, and is able to identify – and do something about – an injustice that Beaumaris has ignored for his entire life. And I didn’t get the impression that he took custody of Jemmy because he recognized a human obligation to a hungry, skinny, abused and orphaned child. He did it because he is diverted by how adorable he finds Arabella. It’s patronizing.

There are two other incidents of the same sort. Arabella rescues a mangy dog that is being beaten a bunch of thuggish young men, and asks for permission to help a prostitute named Leaky Peg who has been helping Bertram out when he runs out of money and is tossed out of his hotel. Beaumaris is willing to help with the dog, but draws the line at Leaky Peg.

He also manipulates Arabella rather badly. He knows from the beginning that Arabella doesn’t really have a fortune, but he plays her like a fish on a line – because her childlike innocence amuses him – for far too long. Arabella feels terrible about deceiving Beaumaris. Beaumaris doesn’t ever really seem to feel terrible about deceiving Arabella, even though she spends a number of really miserable, fraught days. And then, there is the matter of Bertram, who is also left dangling for far too long. The risk that Bertram might have committed suicide as a result of the dire financial situation he was in is certainly not insignificant. Beaumaris had no qualms about playing with emotional fire so long as he thought it might get him what he wants in the end. I can only hope that marriage to Arabella will improve him – make him less selfish, less prone to playing with other people’s lives and emotions for his own amusement, and less blind to his own privilege.

To continue with the Pride and Prejudice analogy, I hope that Beaumaris is a Mr. Darcy, but I am afraid he might be a Mr. Wickham.

Arabella has some of the most wonderful characteristics of Heyer’s writing – sparkling dialogue, humor, and an appealing heroine. If I had been more confident in Beaumaris, it might have been a five star read. As it is, Arabella gets 5 stars, the writing gets 4 stars, and Beaumaris gets 3 stars. That puts me at an overall rating of 4 stars.