I was in a mood for some escapism.
I re–read some Sherlock Holmes stories – those are among the few works of fiction that I will re-read any number of times. More on that another time.
Then I remembered how funny I found ‘The Convenient Marriage’ by Georgette Heyer when I was twelve, and my sister read it to me when I was ill in bed.
I read a number of her other works between the ages of 13 and 15, and quite enjoyed them. However, I found ‘The Talisman Ring’ silly without being funny (interestingly, that was a criticism in a fairly sour review aimed of one my own novels, ‘The Villainous Viscount’ ; could that be the workings of karma?). That, combined with increasing impatience with the class assumptions that underpin Heyer’s works — so stereotypically English that they are probably mostly invisible to readers outside the UK, but an intrinsic part of her make-believe Regency world – generally put me off.
Anyway, by 15, I found Georgette Heyer and all historical romances, Totally Uncool, and I stopped reading them.
My teens were sadly, rather a long time ago…
After a gap of several decades, during which the author had drifted out and then into fashion again, I read some more of her other works some years back.
This was partly, I have to admit, to demonstrate that the contention of many of her ardent admirers that those who aren‘t drawn into her stories, and enchanted by that comedic Regency world, have either read none, or only a couple, or needed to try again, is mistaken. I don’t know why they insist that. I love Shakespeare, but I don’t insist that anyone who doesn’t like Shakespeare hasn’t read any, etc…
Interestingly, as an aside, I think that you do only need read a couple of most author’s works to find out if you are drawn into, or totally proof against their particular form of ‘enchantment’. I have only ever read two novels by Mary Stewart, and they were enough to convince me that I am immune to her appeal.
Anyway, to my surprise, I found my reaction to Heyer’s work was much the same as when I was 15. That is odd, as my ideas about most things are a little more sophisticated, but there we are.
For me, unlike with PG Wodehouse, who also invented a comedic fantasy world ostensibly set in a particular historical epoch, the humour wasn’t outstanding enough to compensate for those class assumptions. There were three exceptions: ‘The Grand Sophy’, ‘Cotillion’ and ‘Faro’s Daughter’, which I found as hilarious as anything by Wodehouse.
Oddly enough, though I read seven more Heyer novels, getting the number up to eighteen, I never got round to re-visiting ‘The Convenient Marriage’. Sentimentality may have played a part; I wanted it to have that aura for me it had, when everything was new and exciting.
On reading it, I admired the tight plotting, as ever. It flows smoothly. The author’s famous light touch is there, and there are many amusing scenes. The ridiculous characters of the heroine’s brother Pelham and his friend Pom, and their madcap adventures, are often as good as anything in my three favourites.
But sadly, on re-reading it, I found it didn’t live up to the impression I had at twelve. Then, I had thought, ‘My goodness: how does the author know all these obscure facts about eighteenth century aristocratic customs? How does she make her characters come so vividly to life when this story is set so long ago?’
Now, I thought, ‘Humph: the recondite information about hair and dress styles is a bit overdone. .Ah, here’s the stock character types: the Languid, Suave, World Weary Hero, the Spirited Ingénue, the Golden Haired, Blue Eyed, Reckless, Duelling, Betting, Not Very Bright Young Lord, who’s sometimes a brother, and occasionally, and less successfully, a hero…’
In other words, this is a sour review.
I think the main problem was the characters. I didn’t find them sympathetic, and I thought Horatia, like Eustacie in ‘The Talisman Ring’ ,downright annoying rather than touching and funny. I hadn’t noticed her silliness when I was twelve, so perhaps I was equally silly. I could never envisage her, either; the only details we have of her appearance, are that she is short, dark, has thunderous lookinhg dark eyebrows, and has inherited the family straight nose.
More than anything, though, I found the idea of a marriage between a seventeen-year-old girl and a man who ‘doesn’t look a day over thirty-five’ distasteful because he comes across as a father figure, in fact, a sugar-daddy. And after all, the heroine has lost her father at an early age (as Heyer lost hers: perhaps she would sometimes have liked to be indulged by an older husband with a bottomless bank account, instead of having at one time to support two brothers, her mother and an aunt by her writing).
Of course, works of fiction should be judged as products of the era in which they were written. The Victorian ideal of a man being a good few years older than his wife persisted into the early twentieth century, and probably influenced Heyer.
Add to these characters a cardboard, bodice ripping villain, a scheming mistress who joins forces with him to ruin the heroine in a way worthy of Charles Garvice (that largely forgottern best selling writer of late Victorian and Edwardian romances, for those who haven’t enjoyed the lurid pleasures of his writings), and wildly improbable plot twists, such as the heroine not recognising her husband during a card game, and I just couldn’t be drawn in.
Well, I’m sure that Pelham Winwood was delighted to be reincarnated as an incongruous type of younger hero in ‘The Talisman Ring’ and ‘Friday’s Child’. Charles Garvice, who accumulated a fortune writing about spendthrift young lords addicted to gambling, might have written a sequel about how he was saved from himself through falling in love with another ingénue – just like Lord Fayne in ‘The Outcast of the Family’ (1894).