#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: 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.

Powder and Patch by Georgette Heyer

Post first published on August 22, 2013

Title: Powder and Patch
Author: Georgette Heyer
First published in 1923

Summary from Goodreads: For her, he would do anything…

Plainspoken country gentleman Philip Jettan won’t bother with a powdered wig, high heels, and fashionable lace cuffs, until he discovers that his lovely neighbor is enamored with a sophisticated man-about-town…

But what is it that she really wants?

Cleome Charteris sends her suitor Philip away to get some town polish, and he comes back with powder, patches, and all the manners of a seasoned rake. Does Cleome now have exactly the kind of man she’s always wanted, or was her insistence on Philip’s remarkable transformation a terrible mistake?

Originally published by Mills and Boon in 1923 under the title “The Transformation of Philip Jettan,” and then republished by William Heinemann (minus the original last chapter) in 1930. This is one of Heyer’s Georgian novels. It is essentially her second novel – published in 1923 after the Black Moth, and then published between The Masqueraders (1928) and Devil’s Cub (1932). I could find no explanation for the reason that the book was republished under a new name only seven years after the original publication.

I have not read The Black Moth, and feel that I must, as it was written when Heyer was only 18 years old, and was published when she was 19 (she was born August 16, 1902) – this year represents the eleventy-first anniversary after her birth.

I did not love Powder and Patch. It has a Pygmalion-ish theme, where the young, rough, country bumpkin (Philip) is transformed into a worldy, fashionable gentleman in order to win the heart of his one true love, the insipid, if pretty, Cleome. In a turn-about-is-fair-play sort of a way, Cleome sends away a decent, honest, straightforward young man who loves her and gets back a well-dressed, popular, flirtatious, dandy . . . who still loves her. She realizes pretty quickly that she got the short end of that stick, and she wants the old Philip back. The one who isn’t prettier than she is. The book, honestly, would have been more interesting if Philip had fallen in love with someone who didn’t inexplicably want to turn him into this:

There were a few moments of entertaining farce – the section where Cleome manages to engage herself to two young men – neither of whom are Philip, and neither of whom does she love – is mildly funny. Philip is required to return to his old self and extricate her from her own silliness in managing to muck things up. Thank goodness for a good man to solve Cleome’s problems. Otherwise she would’ve undoubtedly ended up a bigamist.

There are many things to like about Heyer’s novels. This one, really, possesses almost none of them. It is short, and underdeveloped. Some of her heroines can be quite interesting and empowered. Cleome was about as interesting as a hamster (she seemed to possess about as much sense, as well). The dialogue is usually quite witty and fun. This one really didn’t display that characteristic. Plus, I much prefer the Regency period because, frankly, men in tights make me want to retch.

So, overall, unless you are a huge fan of Heyer’s and intent upon reading all of her work, skip this one.