Georgette Heyer

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.

Elizabeth Gaskell

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Post previously published on August 29, 2015

Title: North and South
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published 1855

Summary from Goodreads: ‘How am I to dress up in my finery, and go off and away to smart parties, after the sorrow I have seen today?’

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the north of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of the local mill-workers and develops a passionate sense of social justice. This is intensified by her tempestuous relationship with the mill-owner and self-made man John Thornton, as their fierce opposition over his treatment of his employees masks a deeper attraction. In North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell skillfully fused individual feeling with social concern, and in Margaret Hale created one of the most original heroines of Victorian literature.

I read this all the way back in January, and I loved it so much and I had so much to say that I never managed to say any of it. So, settle in. Because this is my favorite Victorian novel of all time. I adore Middlemarch, which comes close, but nothing by Dickens or Collins or Hardy or Trollope can approach the love that I feel for North and South. I can’t believe that I’d never read it.

If I must make full confession, I have to admit that this:

May have something to do with my love for John Thornton. Yes, I’m shallow.

But Richard Armitage isn’t the only reason that I fell in love with North and South. The reasons are numerous:

First, I love the fact that it is set in the industrial north of England, which is a change from much Victorian literature that is set in London. Added to that, the fact that some of the characters are “working class” was a tremendous treat. Nicholas Higgins was a complex character who was treated respectfully by Gaskell, which delighted me. Uneducated though he was, and a bit of a political firebrand, he was willing to humble himself in an effort to get his job back when he took on the obligation of supporting the children of a fellow mill worker who had died.

Second, Mrs. Thornton was a bad ass Victorian lady. After John Thornton’s father speculated badly and lost his money, committing suicide in despair, she was left to raise two children basically by her wits alone. Her son, hardworking and ambitious, is ultimately able to buy the mill and become the owner. He says about his mother:

“My mother managed so that I put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the early training she gave me.”

When I take a moment to reflect on how difficult it would have been for a woman like Mrs. Thornton to not merely survive, but to thrive and remain unbowed and unbroken, I am even more impressed by Mrs. Gaskell. Mrs. Thornton has a backbone of steel – talk about strong female characters. In addition, though, she is complex and flawed, which makes her even more compelling.

Finally, the romance between John Thornton and Margaret Hale brings out the best in both of them – eventually. Margaret begins the book haughty, upset at being moved to Milton, missing the sophisticated society of southern England. She is out of her element in the industrial north, and looks down on the working class mill workers. Over time, however, she begins to see the value in their lack of sophistication, plain speech and work ethic.

This same transition occurs with her opinion of Mr. Thornton who proves himself to be more than worthy of Margaret. It is a reversal of the Lizzie Bennett/Mr. Darcy conflict. As Darcy must come to recognize that Lizzie is his equal in spite of her lack of fortune and crazy family, so must Margaret come to the conclusion that Mr. Thornton is her equal, even if he is in trade. He proves again and again that a gentleman is not born, but is made – including when he initially proposes to her, and she rejects summarily rejects him, rather than responding with anger, he takes a different approach:

“Miss Hale might love another — was indifferent and contemptuous to him — but he would yet do her faithful acts of service of which she should never know. He might despise her, but the woman whom he had once loved should be kept from shame; and shame it would be to pledge herself to a lie in a public court, or otherwise to stand and acknowledge her reason for desiring darkness rather than light.”

It takes many months for her to realize that she has fallen in love with him, as he has fallen in love with her.

“At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence.

At length she murmured in a broken voice: ‘Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’ ‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”

And she’s right, really – society will think she is marrying down, but it is Thornton who has proven himself to be the more noble person. In the end, they both stand up to their families and declare their love for one another

‘How shall I ever tell Aunt Shaw?’ she whispered, after some time of delicious silence. ‘Let me speak to her.’ ‘Oh, no! I owe to her, — but what will she say?’

‘I can guess. Her first exclamation will be, “That man!”‘

‘Hush!’ said Margaret, ‘or I shall try and show you your mother’s indignant tones as she says, “That woman!”‘

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of Austen or Eliot. It is a novel of manners, but tackles significant themes as well: the struggle between modernity and tradition, the plight of the working class, appearance of virtue versus appearance of vice, and other things. I predict that it will turn out to be one of those books that I reread frequently.

Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Title: Nightingale Wood
Author: Stella Gibbons
First published in 1938

Plot Summary: Unavailable for decades, Stella Gibbons’s Nightingale Wood is a delightfully modern romance ripe for rediscovery by the many fans of Cold Comfort Farm.

Poor, lovely Viola has been left penniless and alone after her late husband’s demise, and is forced to live with his family in their joy­less home. Its occupants are nearly insufferable: Mr. Withers is a tyrannical old miser; Mrs. Withers dismisses her as a common shop girl; and Viola’s sisters-in-law, Madge and Tina, are too preoccupied with their own troubles to give her much thought. Only the prospect of the upcoming charity ball can lift her spirits-especially as Victor Spring, the local prince charming, will be there. But Victor’s intentions towards the young widow are, in short, not quite honorable.

I have not read Gibbons’s most famous novel, Cold Comfort Farm. One of my goodreads groups focuses on dead authors, and we are doing a genre challenge, so this novel won the poll for our February romance genre group read. I fell in love with the cover, and being completely shallow, I was excited to read.

Nightingale Wood was published in 1938, prior to the beginning of WWII, and is set near the end of the interwar period. It is marketed as a Cinderella-style tale. There are three main female leads: Viola (the Cinderella of this tale), Tina, and Hetty. Viola is the widow of Teddy Wither, who is brother to Tina and the rather awful Madge, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Marge Dursley, from her over-sized, inelegant tweed-clad frame, to her obsession with dogs.

My favorite character is the bookish Hetty, cousin of the charming Victor, who lives at Grasmere. Viola, Tina and Madge all live at the neighboring manse, The Eagles. I really love books set during this time period – it was period of immense social and cultural change, and these changes make for great fiction. The roles of girls and women are in constant flux.

Of the three female leads, Tina has, for me, the most satisfying romance. Lady Chatterly style, she takes up with the chauffeur, Saxon. Saxon is an interesting character – he is ambitions, talented, and quite the up-and-comer. She is a full dozen years older than Saxon, and is both wily and unconventional. The resolution of their story is convincingly lovely, in spite of the obstacles they overcome to find happiness.

Viola is a bit of a wet hen – conventionally dissolving into tears at the drop of the hat. But, she rallies nicely to help out an old friend, and her happy ending is both deserved and pleasing, if not very romantic.

Hetty was my favorite character, but her romance was the least satisfying – volatile and capricious. I would have loved a full length book with Hetty as the main character, and I was not pleased with the way that her story ended.

I enjoyed this one enough to seek out more books by Gibbons.

D.E. Stevenson

Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson

katherine wentworth

Title: Katherine Wentworth
Author: D.E. Stevenson
First Published: 1964

Plot Summary from Goodreads: A pretty, courageous young widow, faced with the task of bringing up three children and making her way alone in the world is the appealing heroine of this touching love story executed with D.E. Stevenson’s characteristic freshness and charm.

The thirty-ninth novel from the beloved author of The Blue Sapphire, Bel Lamington, and Fletcher’s Eng — this new work centers around Katherine Wentworth, married at the age of nineteen to a man with whom she was very much in love. Widowed after only four years of happiness with Gerald, Katherine is left to bring up her stepson, Simon, as well as her own twins, Daisy and Denis.

Katherine’s struggle to raise her children wisely is one which will move every reader deeply. Told in first person, the story sensitively evokes the personality of Katherine’s husband, whose many outstanding qualities are now perpetuated in his children. When Simon, growing to manhood, suddenly becomes heir to the family fortunes, he faces the difficult decision of either moving to the estate of his domineering grandfather or giving up the inheritance to remain free, as his father did before him.

While Simon wrestles with his problem, Katherine finds romance entering her life in the person of Alec Maclaren, the brother of an old friend. Thrown together on a vacation in the Scottish Highlands, the two realize in each other’s company a new zest for living, and soon Katherine is faced with a future that promises she will no longer be alone.

As in her many other works, D.E. Stevenson has again created a realistic world of warm, believable people whose company brings delight to the reader.

I’ve had Dorothy Emily Stevenson on my list of authors to try for at least five years. I already own two of her books: Miss Buncles Book on kindle, and Mrs. Tim of the Regiment in paperback. I can’t really say what made me finally read this Kindle Unlimited offering – probably just because I will be cancelling the service in November, and I figured I might as well get as much out of it as it can before it goes. At this point, I have identified four D.E. Stevenson books that are available in the KU library: this one, the sequel called Katherine’s Marriage, Amberwell, and Anna and her Daughters. I have already downloaded Katherine’s Marriage, because I must know what happens next for Katherine, Simon, Den and Daisy, and Alec.

Katherine Wentworth, both the book and the character, are simply charming. This is a book where little happens, but it is still such a satisfying read. Katherine is a young widow, raising her stepson, Simon, who is 16 during most of the book, and her 7 year old twins, Denis and Marguerite (Den and Daisy). At the beginning of the book, she runs into an old school friend, Zilla, while having a day on her own, which really starts the book in it’s romantic trajectory.

Katherine is neither perfect nor smug – she is a simply wonderful character. She’s sensible, loving, kind, and cheerfully makes do with what must be quite a small income. Her husband, Gerald, died very unexpectedly, leaving her both grief-stricken and impoverished in a genteel fashion. During the course of the book, they discover that Simon has become the heir to the large estate, that Gerald fled from as a youth. Simon is enticed there, where the family attempts to buy his acquiescence with offers of affluence.

One of the things I liked about this book is that the main characters are just genuinely nice. Simon is a nice kid – flawed, of course, as boys of 16 are, taken with the trappings of wealth, but his step-mother, Katherine, who is probably only 10 years his elder, is just such a generous and sensible person, and she has done such a fine job caring for him after his father died, that his ethics and integrity are well-grounded enough to withstand the pressure. The love interest, Alec (spoiler alert) is also a lovely man, a wealthy Scottish lawyer, not bothering to be jealous over Katherine’s past and the fact that she loved her husband. His proposal to her is simply touching.

‘Oh dear, I’d forgotten you were so rich! Everyone will say I’m marrying you for your money. All your friends will be sorry for you—have you thought of that, Alec?—they’ll say you’ve been caught by a designing widow with three——’

‘Let them say! I don’t care a tinker’s curse what anybody says—besides we’ll be married before “they” know anything at all about it. You don’t mind what people say, do you?’

‘I think I do—a little.’

‘Silly,’ said Alec, giving me a gentle squeeze.

‘Not silly,’ I told him. ‘I wish I had a little more money of my own. You’re marrying a beggar-woman, Alec.’

‘When we’re married I shall endow you “with all my worldly goods,” so you’ll be reasonably well off.’

‘I wish I had money of my own—now. For one thing I should like to be able to give you a really nice wedding present.’

‘You can,’ said Alec. ‘I want a half share in the children.’

There were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I couldn’t speak.

‘I hope they’ll be pleased,’ continued Alec in doubtful tones. ‘It’s bound to be a bit of a shock to them—we must be prepared for that. You’ll have to watch them carefully; don’t let them brood about it and get all sorts of wrong ideas into their heads. Daisy and Denis will get used to it, if we give them plenty of time, but I’m worried about Simon.’

I’m pretty sure that this isn’t one of Stevenson’s better known offerings. It’s a small book, full of small moments, but it was a lovely thing to read on a quiet Saturday in October.

Patricia Wentworth

The Eternity Ring by Patricia Wentworth

Title: The Eternity Ring
Author: Patricia Wentworth
Series: Miss Silver #14
First Published: 1948

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Mary Stokes was walking through Dead Man’s Copse one evening when she saw, in the beam of a torch, the corpse of a young woman dressed in a black coat, black gloves, no hat and an eternity ring set with diamonds in her ear. But when she and Detective Sergeant Frank Abbott went back to the wood, the body had vanished. This would have been mystery enough for Miss Silver…but then a woman reported that her lodger had gone out on Friday dressed in a black coat, black beret, black shoes and large hoop earrings set all around with little diamonds like those eternity rings. She never came back…

I have really started to develop a soft spot for Patricia Wentworth, which is awesome because she wrote so many books that I’ll be busy with her backlist for years. Decades, maybe.

Eternity Ring is nominally a Miss Silver mystery, although she barely appears in the book at all. The main investigator is Frank Abbot, who is a likeable Scotland Yard Inspector. As has been in the case in the two prior Miss Silver mysteries that I’ve read, this one also had a strong romantic subplot, with a young married couple, Cicely and Frank Hathaway who have separated before the murders begin. When the shadow of suspicion begins to fall on Frank, their future is seriously in jeopardy.

I figured out the murderer pretty early in the book by process primarily of elimination. It’s a good mystery, though, and has some tense moments of real danger near the end of the book. I enjoy Wentworth’s romantic subplots more than Georgette Heyer’s romantic subplots (in her mysteries), and wondered that she never wrote straight up romance until I went digging around on the internet and found that, actually, she came to crime writing by way of a few historical novels and mysteries.

Her first novel, A Marriage Under the Terror, was a piece of historical fiction set during the French revolution. It’s available as a kindle book from Open Road. Her second novel, A Little More Than Kin, seems to be entirely out of print at this point, and doesn’t even show up on Goodreads. I don’t know if it was published under another title, which could explain it’s absence, or if its just wholly lost. Her third and fourth novels were romances: The Devil’s Wind and The Fire Within. The Devil’s Wind looks particularly gripping, set in India, which is also where Wentworth was born, during the Cawnpore Massacre. These are both available from Open Road. Her first mystery, The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, is a bit more difficult to locate, but is still available used.

I still think that I liked Latter End a bit better than this one, and the first one I read, Grey Mask, remains my least favorite of her books. I have a few more on my kindle, and my library has about 25 available, so it’ll be a while before I exhaust my ready supply.