Archive for the ‘Heyer, Georgette’ Category

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer ~ 1946. This edition: Arrow Books, 2004. Softcover. 278 pages.

It’s probably not a good sign that as I stare at this blank screen, trying to communicate my thoughts on this Georgette Heyer novel, all I can think of is the “next novel” I’ve just left still-to-be-finished on the night table, David Beaty’s The Four Winds. Giving myself a mental shake, back to Heyer it is.

The Georgette Heyers on my bookshelves have been something of go-to, reliable, comfort reads during these past few years, when our escape literature has taken on new importance what with the generally stressful situation related to the current pandemic and its far-reaching effects on pretty well everything we thought we could take for granted.

My Heyer collection is far from complete. but a recent stint of re-readings of those on hand nudged me to seek out a few more, so off to Thriftbooks I went, and as the wonderful book-shaped parcels trickled in, I figuratively (and yes, perhaps literally) rubbed my hands with glee. New-to-me old-book reads! Such fun!

But I am sad to report that this one has fallen with a (figuratively) damp thump onto the B-list Heyer stack, joining a few others, rarities from an otherwise reliably entertaining writer.

Now, you either know Georgette Heyer or you don’t, and if you don’t I’m not going to try to woo you over to the Regency side, but if you do, I’m guessing you’ll get it when I say this one is pure GH formula, with a few initially intriguing twists.

Condensed as much as I appear to be able to condense things, which is pretty darn long-winded most of the time, here we go.

We’re in the Regency era in England, right in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. One Elinor Rochdale, a young woman of good family, sadly fallen in her personal circumstances due to her father’s highly unwise financial endeavors and subsequent demise, is now pursuing a career as a governess.

Hopping off her stagecoach at a rural stopping place, appointed rendezvous with a new employer, Miss Rochdale inadvertently hops into the wrong coach, and finds herself embroiled in a complicated and never very lucidly explained scheme which finds her married to a young ne’er-do-well on his deathbed that very night. She’s a widow by morning, sole inheritor of a deeply encumbered estate.

There is a trio of handsome and charming brothers, a large and bumptious dog (something of a Heyer staple), a collection of dedicated family retainers, a dreadfully rundown manor house with a secret staircase, hidden papers, a spy plot, several sudden deaths which we are not terribly perturbed by because obviously the victims “had it coming”, and lots of prattling on about Wellington and the Prince Regent and “Boney” and traitors and collaborators and such. The romantic fates of Miss Rochdale – oops, now Mrs Cheviot – and her masterful second-husband-to-be are telegraphed loud and clear early on and there are ZERO surprises, even when the traitorous “secret” spies are revealed.

This ultimately slight tale had a lot of initial promise, and there are numerous passages of deeply pleasurable Heyerian “piffling” (in the Lord Peter Wimsey sense of the term), but overall, this novel is a bit of a yawn-inducing mess.

One person’s opinion, of course, and I’d be absolutely pleased to hear what others think. “Your mileage may differ!”

My rating: 5.5/10

I almost abandoned The Reluctant Widow to her foretold fate, but I kept plugging along because I hoped so hard she might at some point surprise me.

No such luck.

I’m keeping the book, and it will be shelved with the rest of the Heyers, because no doubt it will get re-read at some future time-of-reading-desperation, and who knows! – maybe my response will be more favorable second time around.




Read Full Post »

Dust jacket of an original 1930 edition, not of my copy, which is a plain red cloth binding, sans dj.

Barren Corn by Georgette Heyer ~ 1930. This edition: Buccaneer Books, 1977. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-89966-123-8. 282 pages.

Not exactly a hidden gem in the way one would hope (meaning reading quality wise), but instead a long-suppressed early novel by our well-beloved Georgette Heyer, who dabbled in all sorts of genres throughout her long writing career, including a number of “serious” contemporary novels in the 1920s and 30s, of which Barren Corn is the fourth and last. (The others being Instead of the Thorn, 1923, Helen, 1928, and Pastel, 1929.)

Those who’ve read them all report that Barren Corn is the best of the lot, which is rather damning, because this uneven novel is not on Heyer’s A-list by a long shot.

Georgette Heyer herself was deeply embarrassed by a number of her earlier works (this one very much included), and refused to countenance their republication after she hit the big time with her Regency novels and murder mysteries in the 1930s and beyond. It wasn’t until after the author’s death in 1974 that reprint publisher Buccaneer Books managed to access Heyer’s B-list, and put a modest number of titles back into circulation, of which my copy of Barren Corn is one.

Nephew of a British Baron, professional dilettante and casual artist Hugh, meandering his way around France, meets lovely English shop-girl Laura who is taking a well-deserved short holiday. Infatuation at first sight and so on, and Hugh is so enamoured of Laura’s Madonna-like grace and stillness that he completely overlooks the fact that she is staidly bourgeois and almost morbidly religious.

Against all advice from friends of both of them, Hugh convinces Laura to marry him, and the two embark upon an extended passion-filled honeymoon among the Italian mimosa flowers. But at last the day comes when the newlyweds must return to England and the searching eyes of both families.

It doesn’t go well. Laura’s people disgust Hugh by their very respectability; Hugh’s family is rudely snobbish to the new bride; Laura’s friends stay away after the first few awkward visits; Hugh’s friends find Laura utterly boring. Which she absolutely is, apparently content to stay at home alone while Hugh dines out and resumes his riding with the local hunt etcetera, twiddling her thumbs and nursing her inferiority complex instead of getting on with creating some sort of inner life for herself.

Enter Hugh’s childhood friend Stella, who cherishes a quiet passion for her old pal deep within her heart – she is too well-bred to let it show – and Laura immediately realizes that this was the woman Hugh should have married, and because her (Laura’s) stern religious principles preclude divorce, she must just find another way to free her beloved to marry The Other Woman.

Yes. For real and for true.

Barren Corn has brief moments of Heyerian brilliance, but these are greatly outweighed by its ridiculous plot and a truly gormless heroine. Poor girl, she steps out on the wrong foot from page one, and spends much of the book sighing herself ever deeper into a tragically deep depression. This reader very much wanted to reach inside the book and shake silly Laura and tell her to stop selling herself so darned short and to either divorce the guy and marry the fellow lurking in the wings who does appreciate her, or at the very least get herself a hobby.

Mari Ness goes into some detail regarding this novel here, (there are spoilers), and I must say I agree with her assessment. The thing is both painful to read and strangely compelling; it ends up being weirdly memorable and even rather thought-provoking, which may indeed be what Heyer had in mind all along.


My rating: A regretful 5.5/10. If this were by anyone else but Georgette Heyer I suspect I would have given it a 3 or 4, but it is very interesting in the context of her other work, and contains some quite good dialogue on morals and the interpretation of good and evil, which motivated me to raise it a few notches. Oodles of discussion on British social class structure, which perhaps was still an issue in the 1930s in Great Britain, but it felt a over emphasized to me – it read rather “older” versus post-Great War.

Your own thoughts, fellow readers, are (as always) greatly appreciated!

Read Full Post »

the-private-world-of-georgette-heyer-jane-aiken-hodgeThe Private World of Georgette Heyer by Jane Aiken Hodge ~ 1984. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1985. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-370-30508-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 9/10

This slim biography-of-sorts was written by the one of the subject’s fellow writers who was a decided fan, and that pro-Heyer bias stands out on every page.

That’s not at all a bad thing in this case, because Georgette Heyer appears by all accounts to be one of those rare creatures, a person of genuinely high artistic integrity, who kept her personal self to herself, letting her work do most of the talking.

From the Foreword:

Georgette Heyer was an intensely private person. A best-seller all her life without the aid of publicity, she made no appearances, never gave an interview, and only answered fan letters herself if they made an interesting historical point.

(Georgette Heyer was) shy on the surface, but a formidable, positive person underneath, with strong views and a great sense of style.

It hardly sounds the description of a purveyor of romantic froth. But in fact, for those with eyes to see, the strong character is there in her books, even in the lightest and most frivolous of them, and an awareness of the kind of person she was adds a new dimension to one’s enjoyment of them, or, perhaps, explains why one does enjoy them. She may have been a compulsive writer, but she was also an immensely skilled and meticulous craftswoman. She did her best to conceal her high standards and stern moral code behind the mask of romantic comedy, and succeeded, so far as her great fan public was concerned. But she had a smaller audience, among dons and journalists, among her husband’s legal associates, among intelligent women everywhere, and even among feminists, who enjoyed the romantic syllabub all the more because they were aware of the hard core of realism underneath.

Doesn’t that make you feel all smug and superior? “Intelligent audience”, oh, yes, indeed! That would be us. Right, fellow Heyerites?

Georgette Heyer, photographed for the National Portrait Gallery in 1939 by Howard Coster. Looking sternly unamused, as was her wont when confronted by a camera.

Georgette Heyer, photographed for the National Portrait Gallery in 1939 by Howard Coster. Looking sternly unamused, as was her wont when confronted by a camera.

Jane Aiken Hodge has competently cobbled this appreciation/analysis together out of the slender material available to her, which was mostly concerned with the literary elements of Heyer’s life. She did receive the cooperation of family members, friends, and publishing connections, as well as some access to private letters and journals, but the biography is really mostly about the books. Not even all of the books, but primarily the best-known ones, the Regency-era dramatic romances, which stand head and shoulders above everything else Georgette Heyer produced, shading the historical dramas of various other eras, and the rather uneven mystery novels, which were published consistently in much smaller print runs, because they sold at a much more modest rate.

Hodge includes an intriguing discussion of Georgette Heyer’s first “serious” novels, four contemporary works highly influenced by Heyer’s own life in her early years. Once she found her groove with the more inventive historical genre she became famous for, those early books were ruthlessly suppressed by their writer. She avoided any mention of them, and refused again and again all requests to reprint them, with the result that they are now decidedly elusive, and expensive when found.

Contemporary reviews suggest that these four books – Instead of the Thorn (1923), Helen (1928), Pastel (1929), and Barren Corn (1930) – were fairly standard works of their type and time. Critics were, in general, mildly appreciative of the young writer’s fast-developing skill and style, gently nodding their slightly disinterested approval and casually placing the novels with the many others of their type being pumped out in the between-the-wars years by other young writers of talent. Everyone at that time seemed to have a bildungsroman or two needing to be shared with the world, and there was a generous public appetite for such accounts.

Jane Aiken Hodge:

(W)ritten in her late teens and early twenties…about the the experiences of young women growing up in the complex social scene of the years after the First World War. Inevitably they and the detective stories she wrote mainly in her thirties throw a certain amount of light on the early years of her own life about which she never would talk.

What was Georgette Heyer hiding?

The answer seems to be “nothing in particular”. There appear to have been no youthful scandals, no skeletons in the closet. From start to finish, Georgette Heyer lived a life of quiet and content propriety. She was the beloved daughter of a well-off and tightly knit family. Her personal romantic life contains nothing of particular note; she married her first love, mining engineer Ronald Rougier, and remained devoted to him  – as he was to her – for the rest of her life.

Financial necessity provided much of the impetus behind the books Georgette Heyer produced with such reliable predictability from the 1930s onward – she was famous for never missing a publisher’s deadline – and she took her work seriously, never apologized for withdrawing herself from social and family life while the writing process was underway.

One of the sedate Barbosa covers, not a heaving bosom in sight.

One of the sedate Barbosa covers, not a heaving bosom in sight.

She was also unapologetically controlling of the way her work was presented by her publishers, writing her own publicity blurbs whenever possible, and maintaining a strict control over her cover art, which explains the elegant accuracy of the early edition dust jacket illustrations, most created by Arthur Barbosa, under her meticulous instruction and proofing.

And one of Heyer's least favourite - and unapproved - Pan paperback covers. "Whatever is that scantily clad woman doing on a battlefield? Did the illustrator not even read the book?!"

And one of Heyer’s least favourite – and unapproved – Pan paperback covers. “Whatever is that scantily clad woman doing on a battlefield? Did the illustrator not even read the book?!”

Georgette Heyer initially resisted her publishers’ requests to allow paperback editions of her work, finally caving in when it became apparent that she was missing out on some serious revenue from those secondary releases. She was deeply appalled by some of the resultant overly gaudy and inappropriate cover art and fulsomely inaccurate back cover blurbs; her indignation is recorded in some gloriously sarcastic letters to friends and (probably slightly cringing) editors.

I find that my own appreciation of the Georgette Heyer novels I’ve read has been enhanced by this interesting collection of anecdotes and semi-scholarly examinations.

The biographer blithely assumes that her readers are all as well versed in Heyer’s entire range of work as she is, and spoilers inevitably crop up, though I don’t think that will put anyone already familiar with Georgette Heyer off, as there aren’t all that many surprises in her storylines, including (regrettably) most of those rather B-list mysteries.

By the end of the book my look-for list of still-to-be-found Heyer titles had grown to an alarming size. The four “suppressed” novels are starred as must-finds, as are the books Georgette Heyer identified as her own consistent favourites: An Infamous Army, The Unknown Ajax, Venetia, and A Civil Contract standing out as ones she seemed to be happiest with and proudest of.

I’m in no rush to acquire most of these, because, thanks to her steady popularity for decades, most of the Regency titles are in abundant supply, but it gives me quiet pleasure to consider the enjoyable reading still ahead of me as I hunt down the books and add them to the intelligent comfort reads section of my collection, shelved beside Margery Sharp, Mary Stewart, D.E. Stevenson, O. Douglas, Monica Dickens, Rumer Godden, Elizabeth Goudge, and their gloriously readable ilk.

She's smiling! A wonderful and rare photo of Georgette Heyer looking downright happy, her actual state much of the time when not being pinned down by publicity people.

She’s smiling! A rare and lovely photo of Georgette Heyer looking downright happy, her actual state much of the time when not being pinned down by publicity people, according to those who knew her best.




Read Full Post »

bath-tangle-001Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer ~1955. This edition: Heinemann, 1955. Hardcover. 327 pages.

My rating: 7/10

This post is absolutely singing to the choir of Heyerites of whom I know there are many in my circle of fellow like-minded readers. You others, feel free to click away.

I picked up this handsome Heinemann edition of this new-to-me novel a week or so ago, and I’ve just finished reading it.

(And while we’re still at the cover point, don’t you love these Heinemann dust jacket illustrations? Far and away the best of the lot. Impeccably period correct, and so crisp and detailed, with hardly a glimpse of the determined frou frou which the cover art of the many later editions is overloaded with.)

I find my immediate response to the text behind that cover is love-hate, shades of the key troubled romance which drives this completely predictable bit of diverting froth.

I mean, I guessed every single one of the eventual matchups as soon as the characters in question stormed, crept, flounced, swanned, artlessly frolicked etc. their way onto the stage. Too, too easy – the suspense was zero. (But we’re used to that with Georgette Heyer, aren’t we? No prizes for guessing the match-ups!)

Starting things off with the funeral and will-reading of a wealthy nobleman sets the scene quite nicely. Subsequently two of the main female characters are in mourning the whole way through, which drives some of the complications soon ensuing, as our characters mustn’t cross the etiquette line which rigidly defines just what a bereaved widow/daughter can or can’t do in the months following the death.

Fanny is the very young widow; Serena is the somewhat older stepdaughter by a previous wife of the dearly departed; the two confound expectations by being very best of friends, though their personalities couldn’t be more different. Serena is proud and willful, Fanny meek and mild. Each defers to the other, though, and their affections for each other are genuine, which is a lovely touch. United they stand, covering for each other as needed, with varying degrees of talent and success.

Serena’s father has left his widow very well provided for, but he has pulled a bit of a rotten trick on his daughter, leaving her portion of the massive family fortune tied up in a trust administered by – get this! – Serena’s previously jilted ex-fiance.

As can be expected, sparks immediately fly.

Throw in a generous handful of star-crossed lovers, a comically “vulgar” grandmother figure, an overbearing and ambitious mum, and a whole peanut gallery of gossiping upper class observers.

Stir well.

Stand back.

When the mixture stops moving, everyone is where they should be, and the one superfluous suitor has quit the scene, gone off to heal his wounded heart elsewhere.

This is basically the Beatrice and Benedick storyline, with a few tweaks here and there. The chief lovers spend every meeting moment sparring, more or less equally, until manly forcefulness drives the final scene, wherein the proud lady goes all over swoonish and apologizes all round for her wilful ways, though we note that she doesn’t vow to permanently change.

Pleasant enough reading for a rainy autumn evening, of which we’ve had our fair share lately.

I haven’t even come close to tracking down Heyer’s entire Regency oeuvre, but compared to those I’ve bumped up against, I’d have to place this one smack dab in the center of the pack. I liked it quite a lot, but ultimately didn’t love it.

Luckily there are lots more to choose from, and the re-reading value is high across the board. I find myself mulling over a return to one of the top-end Heyers. Perhaps The Quiet Gentleman, one of my favourites so far, to luxuriate in a bit of harmless daydreaming about the anti-Ivo therein portrayed!

Read Full Post »

Prefacing this sure-to-be-rambling post with this information, for those of you who wonder what I’m actually talking about way down below. As different as can be in time periods and settings, but all at heart clinging to a similar traditional structure, that of the Gothic Romance Novel. The three books under discussion will be:

  • Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
  • Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

All of these are velvety dark, thrillingly romantic (for the most part), highly predictable (ditto), and guiltily enjoyable tales.

Perhaps this won’t be the most sober-minded book discussion, which would indeed be fitting, for these books are not High Literature in any sense of the term, and are therefore free game for a little bit of mild mockery, all in good fun, because I did read them willingly and with general pleasure, though occasionally that pleasure was all about their fulfillment of stereotypical Gothic Romance Scenarios.

I have had recourse to our ever-handy Wikipedia to quickly define the main elements of a proper traditional gothic novel, and by applying the criteria to the books in question we can get a nice overview of how well the authors fulfilled the requirements of this assigned genre.

So, cribbing from the article and adding some of my own descriptive notes to those provided, we generally must have:

  • Virginal Maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past, and later discovered that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family.
  • Older, Foolish Woman – who often has charge of or advises the Virginal Maiden, or acts as an Awful Warning due to past errors of judgement, which Virginal Maiden may or may not take into consideration
  • Hero – who may or may not be misrepresented as The Villain for the earlier stages of the plot
  • Tyrant/villain – who may or may not be disguising his (her) True Evil Nature for the earlier stages of the plot. Usually male, occasionally female.
  • The Stupid Servant – acts as comic relief by asking seemingly stupid questions, transitions between scenes, brings news, messenger, moves plot forward. Sometimes takes on form of Humble Social Inferior or Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, well-meaning but ignorant of darker designs of Villain.
  • Ruffians – always under the secret (or not so secret, depending on if he is the Disguised or the Obvious species) control of the Villain
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (says Wikipedia, but in more modern gothics I have noticed that the Clergy figure is often absent, being replaced by a Doctor or Lawyer or other Figure of Social Authority, acting under the influence of the Villain)
  • The Setting – The setting of the Gothic Novel is a character in itself. The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this building has secrets of its own.
  • And, if I may add to this list, The Secret. There is generally some Great Big Secret which the heroine – er, Virginal Maiden – either sets out to investigate or unwittingly stumbles upon. Sometimes (frequently) The Secret is, of course, that of her own mysterious past.
  • Also added by me: The Forced Marriage. Another common element I’ve noticed in my own perusal of gothics. So many times the heroine faces matrimonial peril, either by being forced to marry the Disguised Hero (who she then realizes she loves in Chapter Ten), or by a Weak Male Character under the control of the Villain, or by the Villain himself.

So, let’s see how these measure up. I’m going to present these in order from my least to most favourite.

Warning: There may well be some significant spoilers here and there, but as the plot twists are all highly predictable by anyone with the least bit of experience with the genre, I doubt if having these confirmed ahead of time will lessen one’s reading pleasure. 😉

Cousin Kate georgette heyer 1968Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer ~ 1968. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1968. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

Front flyleaf blurb, Bodley Head edition:

Finding that her youthful appearance and the lack of accomplishments caused by a childhood spent following the drum prevent her from securing a position as governess, Kate Malvern, recently orphaned, gratefully accepts an invitation from her unknown aunt Minerva to make her home at Staplewood, the seat of Sir Timothy Broome, Minerva’s elderly and invalid husband.

On arrival at Staplewood, Kate finds herself in beautiful and luxurious surroundings, and is treated by her aunt with a kindness which is regarded by those best acquainted with Minerva with considerable surprise. At first grateful, Kate gradually becomes uneasy, and with the arrival on the scene of Sir Timothy’s nephew, Mr. Phillip Broome, the plot rapidly thickens. Minerva’s motive for bringing Kate to Staplewood is revealed, and her machinations are brought to a dramatic conclusion.

Okay, let’s see how Cousin Kate does on the Elements of Gothic Fiction scale.

  • Virginal Maiden – check! No secrets as to origin, as Kate is legitimately accepted as a family connection. She is an orphan, reasonably young (24), beautiful (“a flower-like countenance”), appears younger than her age, is sexually pure but well aware of the “facts of life” from her experience as a soldier’s daughter, and is definitely kind and sensitive, though she also fearless and well able to stand up for herself in socially awkward situations.  A most promising heroine.
  • Hero – check! Our Hero turns out to be one of the disguised ones, who operates under a cloud of misunderstanding engineered by the Villain, or, in this case, the Villainess.
  • Villainess – check! No mystery here, though it takes a while to reveal her true nature. It is, of course, suspiciously friendly Aunt Minerva.
  • Humble Social Inferior – Moving the plot along is Kate’s old nurse, Mrs Nidd, who bring’s Kate’s need of succour (she’s just been fired from her first job and has little prospect of finding another due to lack of training or experience) to Aunt Minerva, setting things in motion. Mrs Nidd reappears later in the story to aid Kate in unravelling The Secret.
  • Doctor – weak rather than deliberately evil, and under the complete influence of the Villainess, the Doctor plays here merely a supporting role
  • The Setting – It is 1817, mid-Regency. Most of the action occurs at a stately country home, Staplewood, with Aunt Minerva established at the centre of things controlling all of the domestic strings, and separate wings housing the frail Sir Timothy and the family son and heir, beautiful, erratically-mannered Torquil, who is under the fulltime care of the Doctor, for reasons no one is prepared to elaborate on. Mysteriously locked doors, male screams in the night, random shots being fired, a suicide-worthy lake, a lonely country setting leading to easy isolation of characters not wanted to be out in public circulation by the Villainess.
  • The Secret –  Insanity! Torquil’s. Kate has been tagged by the Villainess to be a suitable wife for her mentally unstable son. She (Kate) is to produce a son and heir to the Broome family fortune, after which Torquil will be put into ever-deeper seclusion as his insanity worsens (the Doctor is quite sure it will), and Kate will be allowed to discreetly seek consolation elsewhere.
  • The Forced Marriage – see The Secret.
  • Great Big Climax – Revelation of Secret! Murder! Suicide! Horror-stricken Virginal Maiden flees to arms of Hero! And once all of the details of The Secret are revealed, a blissful future is embarked upon via Glorious Holy Matrimony between the two who have suffered so many setbacks to the progress of their romance through initial misunderstanding and deliberate machinations of the Villainess, who has now had her ultimate comeuppance.

My verdict: While Cousin Kate had its appeal, and was quite nicely written and full of Heyer’s dependably engaging Regency slang. Kate is a likeable enough heroine, but the whole thing dragged on just too long for my interest to be sustained completely; the plot was desperately predictable, and the whole thing became rather depressing, what with its dependence on a mysterious insanity and the ditherings of all those concerned regarding the proper treatment of the sufferer.

The ending is rather brutal, as Heyer fatally disposes of two of her characters under horrific circumstances. The imagination of this reader was boggled regarding the possibility of a happy future for the heroine and hero with that sort of emotional baggage to deal with.

I rated Cousin Kate at 6 because of Heyer’s competent handling of her setting and the quality of her writing. Some serious themes (position of women/class distinctions/treatment of the mentally ill) were touched upon but never thoroughly examined – not really to be expected in this sort of light novel. But for a light novel it had some desperately dark strands.

Hard to classify, really. I know I said “boring” in the header, and that seems to be my ultimate feeling. Rather flat. Heyer could do much better.

tregaron's daughter madeleine brent 1971 001Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent ~ 1971. This edition: Doubleday, 1971. Hardcover. 251 pages.

My rating: 7/10. I bumped it down just a bit because of the inclusion of Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity, a plot strand which I found exceedingly annoying for some reason. (Perhaps because a similar character plays a major role in Heyer’s Cousin Kate?)

Flyleaf says:

Excitement, drama and suspense were only part of Cadi Tregaron’s new life. It had been a sunny afternoon when she glanced from the cliff where she sat reading and saw below her in the sea a sight that would change her life.

Set in England and Italy in 1910, this is the story of a young English girl who by accident starts to unravel the unknown elements in her grandmother’s past and is brought by the mystery to the faraway city of Venice. There, among the gondolas and canals, she slowly comes to comprehend the meaning of two strange and puzzling dreams – dreams that seem to hold the an eerie and menacing prophecy of the future.

Elements of Gothic Fiction included:

  • Virginal Maiden – check! Our heroine, Caterina (Cadi), daughter of a half-Italian mother and sturdy Cornish fisherman father, is young (late teens), beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And (spoiler alert!) she does turn out to be the descendent of the Italian nobility. No doubt because of this innate blue blood, our heroine has just naturally developed far beyond the expectations of her humble place in the world. Her language is surprisingly upper class (due to the convenient society of a cultured retired governess in the neighbourhood, who has taken the bright young Cadi under her tutorial wing), and she is fluent in Italian (learned from her grandmother), which comes in handy later. And she starts the story off as a half orphan, mother dead some years (fell off a cliff with grandmother in a tragic accident – sob!) and loses her father as well soon after we enter the story, which precipitates the now-fully-orphaned Cadi into the next stage of her saga.
  • Hero – check! This one is the conflicted type, and is disguised (occasionally deliberately) as a villain. Classically gothic  introduction of hero and heroine involving heroine being pulled up onto horse and forced to cling closely to rock-hard-muscled hero as they gallop to rescue of hero’s uncle who is caught in a dangerous current in his borrowed sailboat. (This is the life-changing thing which Cadi saw from the cliff.) Bonus first-meeting episode: as Cadi, her father, and the hero row out to the rescue, the bodice of Cadi’s dress rips, leaving her lily-white skin exposed in a rather delicate area, and causing the hero to take a deep breath and force his gaze away, manfully resisting the surge of testosterone this incident inspires. Predictably, hero’s taciturn silence is misunderstood by heroine – “He thinks I am below his notice!” Oh, no, darling, that ain’t it.
  • Villain – check!  Disguised variety. Cadi’s Italian relation, Count Chiavelli, who is surprisingly warm and welcoming to the little English chit who is apparently going to bump him from both his title and his fortune – unless, of course, she can be enticed into a marriage with the Count’s weak-natured son – shows another side to his nature as this plan fails to advance.
  • Hero’s Sidekick – not at all stupid, though a slight social inferior, the Sidekick keeps things moving by his unexplained presence at key points of the saga. He is eventually assisted in his efforts by Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, as they join forces to assist Hero in rescue of Virginal Maiden from the Villain’s foul clutches.
  • Ruffians – check! The Villain has a full complement of brutish henchmen, but as bad guys in gothic novels are always slightly slower (and much more stupid) than good guys, these particular ruffians are continually foiled by the Hero, Sidekick and Maiden.
  • Lawyers – These People of Social Authority – we have an English and an Italian version – are in general full of good intentions and quite helpful to Heroine, though they are completely hoodwinked by the Villain. I would like to put forward that a too-trusting lawyer = weakness, so this element is included, albeit in a very minor role.
  • The Forced Marriage – The Virgin is pressured to marry the Villain’s weak-willed son, in order for the Villain to get his hands on the fortune the Virgin is coming in for, and also to keep the title in the family.
  • The Setting – Gorgeous settings, full points for those. We start out in a humble cottage in a little Cornish fishing village – towering sea cliffs above it, treacherous currents swirling offshore – progress to turn-of-the-century London as the heroine is adopted by the beneficent and wealthy family whose patriarch she helped save back in chapter one, and end up in Italy in a gloomy Venetian palazzo, with a final nighttime chase scene by boat through mist-shrouded canals.
  • The Secret – Hmmm, aside from the confusion around the true nature of the Hero-disguised-as-Villain, the only other secret of major import was that Granny was almost murdered by the Villain’s sister, and that honestly came as no surprise, being telegraphed strongly right from chapter one. Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity was also something of an obvious twist, and quite wonderfully similar to the same figure as depicted in Cousin Kate. (Do we need to add him to our list of shared elements?)

My verdict: A better-than-average modern gothic, and an excellent first-novel-in-the-genre by – drumroll! – a male author writing under a female pseudonym.

For “Madeleine Brent” was actually Peter O’Donnell, British mystery novel and comic strip writer, and creator of the pop culture character Modesty Blaise.

O’Donnell’s publisher, Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press, pleased by the success of O’Donnell’s thrillers, asked his author to try his hand at writing gothics under a female pseudonym. The Madeline Brent novels were a decided success, and Peter O’Donnell eventually wrote nine. All are set in the Victorian or immediately post-Victorian era, and feature young women in exotic locations seeking the truth about their identity. O’Donnell’s authorship was kept secret until after the publication of the last one, Golden Urchin (featuring a Caucasian girl raised in isolation from mainstream society among Australian Aborigines), in 1986.

An interesting side-note, this revelation of the gender of the author, and one which sheds some light on the structure of the Tregaron’s Daughter. Do I dedict a technically-minded male slant in – just one example – the inclusion of the details about construction of gondolas which allow them to be operated from one side by a single person?

Great details in the setting throughout, and the action was well maintained. The plot was (predictably) groaningly predictable, but my interest was held despite the lack of surprises. Good job, Mr. O’Donnell!

nine coaches waiting by mary stewart 1958 001Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart ~ 1958. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01439-3. 317 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Now this is how you write a gothic! Mary Stewart, after her previous year’s rather dire first attempt, 1957’s Thunder on the Right, pulls up her authorial socks and takes another run at the genre, this time succeeding brilliantly.

Chicago Review Press blurb:

A governess in a French château encounters an apparent plot against her young charge’s life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel. When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant—his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma—though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

Applying the Gothic Fiction checklist yields some promising results:

  • Virginal Maiden – Check! Our heroine Linda is indeed young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And orphaned, too, which should really be one of the traits listed alongside young, beautiful, etc. etc. etc. No mysterious past, unless one counts Linda’s own concealment of her French heritage in order to pass for a strictly-English governess as required by her new employer.
  • Older Woman – Check! Elegant Madame de Valmy, who acts as an extra set of eyes and legs for her wheelchair-bound spouse, brings Linda into the household and complicates the plot by her alternating moments of warm we’re-all-women-here-together friendliness and cold putting-the-help-in-her-place slap-downs to our heroine.
  • Hero – Check! We actually have a choice of two Heroes, either or both possibly of the disguised variety, and in the interests of not spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t read this, I will not say any more. Just that both are perfectly perfect for their chosen roles, and I was up in the air guessing as to which one was going to be the ultimate winner of the lovely Linda’s heart.
  • Villain – Check! The debauched old nobleman now confined to his wheelchair, of course. And he is masterful at disguising his True Evil Nature, though our heroine catches a disturbing gleam in his eye when he looks at his hapless nephew, the young Heir to the Family Fortune who has tied up the riches which the Villain would like to further his own ambitions.
  • The Servants – Linda finds herself associating with several useful servant-figures who fill her in on all the gossip and aid in her attempts to discover why her young charge, The Endangered Heir, is having so many close brushes with death. We have a chatty English housekeeper, who came to France some decades ago, and a sprightly local maid who has rather tragically (but usefully, as he drops some hints which can then be related to the heroine) fallen in love with the Wicked Henchman.
  • Wicked Henchman – One is indeed in residence, and he is secretly under the control of the Villain.
  • The Setting –  Time: The early 1950s. Place: A vast French château, isolated from all neighbours and tucked away in its own private forest among the craggy hills of the High Savoy in France. A steep, narrow, twisting road leads to the château, ideal for those sorts of engineered “accidents” where one’s automobile brakes unexpectedly fail, or where a pedestrian can be “inadvertently” run down on a one-lane bridge over a rushing torrent.
  • The Secret – How far will someone go out of personal and family pride, and for love for a piece of land?

This is one of the very best of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. Decidedly well written, with abundant clever humour, and an ongoing literary thread as revealed in the title, for the Nine Coaches Waiting reference comes from a rather obscure Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which a poor but pure and beautiful young woman is tempted with the luxuries of palace life to yield up her virtue.

The parallels between the Tourneur scenario and the Mary Stewart gothic are not particularly apt, but as a poet’s daughter herself (did I mention that bit? – I don’t think I did) our heroine in the novel is of course a highly imaginative (and literate) type, and the snippets of the play included by Mary Stewart are most intriguing and set the mood of rushed passion and moral unease very well indeed.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Secured ease and state! The stirring meats
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now
Quicken when they are eaten…
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Nine coaches waiting – hurry – hurry – hurry –
Ay, to the devil…

My verdict: Hands down, Nine Coaches Waiting was the best of these three novels, but they all had their moments, and are all nice diversions for those times when one doesn’t want to think too hard, and wishes to recapture those long-ago (for many of us – I know a number of my regular readers are my generational compatriots) days of teenage summer reading, wrapped up in these darkly sensuous – but really quite chaste, kisses being as far as our heroines go – gloriously suspenseful, absolutely predictable romances.

(Ha! Grammar police, sort out that last paragraph. I dare you! It boggles me, rather, but I will let it stand, as a challenge to those of you who would perhaps like to dissect it and see of it actually works.) 😉

Read Full Post »

It’s hard to believe a whole 12 months have raced by since the last Year-End Round-Up List, but the calendar doesn’t lie, and here we are only a few days from a brand new year. Time for a retrospective, then, to clear the decks for the year to come.

Last year I came up with three very broad categories of outstanding books I had read in the previous year: Most Unexpected, Most Disappointing, and Personal Favourites. I will be using the same categories for the books of 2013, though there was some overlap between Most Unexpected and Personal Favourites. I’ve arbitrarily decided which category best fits each book.

And though last year I included only books I had reviewed in full on the blog, this year some will sneak in which I’ve only briefly mentioned. It was a surprisingly hectic year, and I missed writing quite a number of reviews, though the books themselves are too interesting to leave off these retrospective lists. I will link these to other reviews, either by fellow bloggers, or on Goodreads or someplace similar.

Kicking off this week of lists – a most enjoyable aspect of looking back at the year just passed as we head into the longer days and bright promise of the new year – I am adding a fourth category: Books Which Pleased Me 2013. These are books which, as I peruse my list of things read the past twelve months, don’t really fit into the main categories, and which, for the most part, I didn’t write reviews of, but which I nevertheless feel a warm surge of liking for as I come across their titles. These are books which made me happy.



In alphabetical order by author.


a time to love margot benary isbert1. A Time to Love

by Margot Benary-Isbert ~ 1962

An excellent vintage teenage/young adult historical fiction set in the years just prior to and at the start of World War II. Fifteen-year-old Annegret of the earlier books The Blue Mystery and The Shooting Star goes away to boarding school and becomes very aware that the world beyond the sheltering walls of her family home is fast becoming a dark and dangerous place. A rare story told from the German point of view; very much anti-Hitler but also making clear the conflicted positions of many “common” German people in the years leading up to the war. A thoughtful and even-handed book; a lovely and relatable bildungsroman. The author draws heavily upon her own experiences as a German citizen during the war; worth reading for that element alone, though there is much more here to mull over and to enjoy. Goodreads: A Time to Love

but i wouldn't have missed it for the world peg bracken2. But I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For the World

by Peg Bracken ~ 1973

Long before Martha Stewart’s perfectionist homemaker guidebooks, there was Peg Bracken. Unlike Ms. Stewart, Peg was very much “one of us.” (Does anyone remember the slightly subversive 1970s bestsellers The I Hate to Cook Book, and A Window Over the Sink?) Here Peg sets her sights on the highs and lows of travelling, in a humorous collection of musings, meandering and anecdotes. Some real gems amidst the fluff. I read this while travelling myself, and occasionally laughed out loud at the universal experiences I shared with the author. Feather light and deeply charming, albeit in a dated sort of way. I was just a wee bit taken aback by Peg’s enthusiastic promotion of the lavish purchase of souvenirs – one of my own travelling goals is to come back as lightly laden as possible (books excepted, of course) – but to each her own! Goodreads: But I Wouldn’t Have Missed it for the World 

hotel du lac anita brookner3. Hotel du Lac

by Anita Brookner ~ 1984

Shades of Barbara Pym haunt the works of novelist Anita Brookner, whose literary acquaintance I made this year. This subfusc novel of a mysteriously disgraced woman coming to terms with her fate and her future was not exactly Booker Prize material (in my opinion), but it was most readable, and I find myself thinking of its wry heroine, romance novel writer Edith Hope, with real fondness. Blogger Mark Sampson – Free Range Reading: Hotel du Lac – says it well.

paper moon addie pray joe david brown4. Paper Moon

originally published as Addie Pray

by Joe David Brown ~ 1971

Loved it! Read this one way back in high school in the 1970s, and this re-reading stood up marvellously well. An 11-year-old orphan and her maybe-father develop their talents as small-time con artists as they travel around the south-eastern United States in the darkest years of the Great Depression. Funny and heart-warming but never, ever sloppy. Brilliant. Ignore all the “female Huck Finn” and “sassy young heroine” comments on Goodreads – this tallish tale is something quite unique. You may be familiar with the classic Tatum and Ryan O’Neal hit movie; this book it was based on is even betterGoodreads: Paper Moon 

the house that is our own o douglas 0015. The House that is Our Own 

by O. Douglas ~ 1940

Middle-aged, recently-widowed Kitty and independently single, almost-30 Isobel meet at a residential hotel and become firm friends. Their relationship deepens and grows even as they eventually go their separate ways, Kitty to a new flat, and Isobel to a rural Scottish cottage. O. Douglas is always a great pleasure to read, and there is quiet merit in all of her books. Honorable mentions as well to three more O. Douglas books first read in 2013: Pink Sugar (see review), Taken by the Hand, and Eliza for Common. The last two also deserve proper reviews of their own; I know I will be re-reading both in future and hope to expand upon them then.

the grand sophy georgette heyer 26. The Grand Sophy 

by Georgette Heyer ~ 1950

Amazonian Sophy is a surprise visitor to her relations in London, throwing an entire household – aunt, uncle and numerous cousins – into a turmoil it has never known before. Sophy is a born manager of other people for their own good, and here she finds much scope for her personal hobby. By the end of this improbable and frothy Regency tale, set in the early decades of the 19th century, romantic couples are paired off, financial difficulties are sorted out, and Sophy has found true love. What’s not to like? Well, that rather blatantly anti-Semitic moneylender episode, perchance… But dodging that critique with the handy “era correct” excuse, this buoyant tale succeeds at cover-to-cover amusement. Also a lot of fun is another Heyer romance, Devil’s Cub. Pure fluff, but the long dialogue sections are very nicely done with loads of cunning, period-correct language, and much humour. wheels within wheels dervla murphy

7. Wheels Within Wheels

by Dervla Murphy ~ 1979

Irishwoman Dervla Murphy, after leaving school at the age of fourteen to look after her bedridden mother, dreamed of travelling, and cherished her occasional opportunities for solo bicycle trips. In 1963, at the age of 32, the death of her mother freed her at last to embark upon a truly ambitious journey. Dervla cycled, alone and self-supported, from Ireland to India, where she spent five months volunteering in a refugee camp for Tibetans fleeing the Chinese occupation. Wheels Within Wheels details Dervla’s life before the Indian expedition, and describes the personally challenging years in Ireland which led to her future wanderlust.  An excellent memoir by a fascinating woman. Passionate, opinionated, and frequently very funny. Goodreads: Wheels Within Wheels. And for more on Dervla Murphy’s many subsequent travels and her activities up to the present: Dervla Murphy. com

secrets of the gnomes poortvliet huygen 28. Secrets of the Gnomes 

by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen ~ 1981

So much more than just a picture book. An intricately illustrated “travelogue”  about the fantastical world of gnomes. Clever and slyly humorous, with a serious message about caring for our shared world. The artwork is extremely well done. Intriguing and diverting in concept and execution, and decidedly of “adult” interest. Amazon:Secrets of the Gnomes  

amberwell d e stevenson 29. Amberwell

by D.E. Stevenson ~ 1955

Not quite as fluffy as some of D.E. Stevenson’s novels, this may well be my favourite of hers so far. Amberwell is a family saga of awful parents and quite lovely children, set at a Scottish country estate. One for the re-read and write-about pile, but in the meantime a nicely succinct review may be read here: Pining for the West: Amberwell. And neck and neck with Amberwell for D.E.S. favourite status is this recently-read “serious” novel, Charlotte Fairlie (1954).  A girls’ school headmistress attempts to help some of her students cope with difficult personal situations, and finds her own life much changed as a result. Aka Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle.  

laughing gas p g wodehouse10. Laughing Gas

by P.G. Wodehouse ~ 1936

Deeply silly, as only a Wodehouse epic can be. While visiting Hollywood in order to rescue an alcoholic relation from a suspected entanglement with a gold-digging starlet, the ugly but sincere Earl of Havershot and golden-boy cinema idol Joey Cooley exchange bodies in some weirdly out-of-body way while simultaneously under dentists’ anesthetics. Much hilarity ensues before it all gets sorted out. Though it’s not as grand as Jeeves and Wooster, or even Lord Emsworth, it did make me smile. A proper review here: Vintage Novels: Laughing Gas      

Read Full Post »

charity girl georgette heyerCharity Girl by Georgette Heyer ~ 1970. This edition: E.P. Dutton, 1970. Hardcover. 255 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This past Saturday morning which went rather sideways (three hours Good Samaritan detail waiting in a parking lot for BCAA to unlock a neighbour’s vehicle with the keys left inside) was salvaged by a very productive visit to the semi-annual Rotary Club book sale, where I picked up two small-but-packed-full boxes of pleasing finds for a mere $50. And best of all, I had my husband along to help in the search, and to lend strong arms to carry off the finds! (No mutters about “More books, why do we need more books?!” when he is involved in the process himself, and he was right in there with me searching for good things among the heaped tables and boxes of many other people’s cast-off reads.)

George Gissing’s The Odd Women, Antonia White’s Strangers, and Miles Franklin’s My Career Goes Bunk – all three nice unworn Viragos. A pristine Persephone edition of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Several new-to-me Willa Cathers – Death Comes for the Archbishop, The Professor’s House, and The Song of the Lark. A first edition of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Shield Ring, not ex-lib, with perfect dust jacket, in Brodart, yet! And others too numerous to name off. (Well, here are just a few more: Doris Lessing, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Bell Houston, Jeanette Winterson, W.P. Kinsella, Rex Stout…what good reading awaits us.)

And then there was this book, a lovely early edition hardcover in only-slightly-worn dust jacket, Georgette Heyer’s Charity Girl. How could I resist? Bumped off the bedside table was Margaret Laurence’s most excellent book of Ghanian-set short stories, The Tomorrow-Tamer, with but two stories left to read, to be temporarily eclipsed by something much more playful – I think “frothy” would describe it well. In the very best way, of course.

Handsome, athletic, witty, kind-hearted, and fantastically wealthy Viscount Desford (Ashley Carrington, to his family and friends) has displeased his gruffly doting father by refusing to settle down and marry the most eligible Henrietta (Hetty) Silverdale. The Silverdales and Carringtons are long-time neighbours and friends, and Desford and Hetty have been happily paired up since childhood, though both confound their respective parents by insisting that things are strictly platonic, and bound to remain so. In the meantime, neither has met anyone they like well enough to marry, though suitors and prospective brides are swarming round both attractive honeypots, to be kindly brushed away in the politest way possible. But the thirties are approaching, and gossips whisper that both are surely bound to settle soon, though with whom is up for abundant debate.

Desford attends a party hosted by the scheming Lady Bugle, who, with five daughters to get off, has hopes that her eldest, the admittedly lovely Lucasta, will snag the prize. But Desford preserves a wisely noncommittal silence, unbending only when he meets the household’s least prominent member, a semi-orphaned neice, one Charity Steane, who goes by the name Cherry, and is as sweet and delectable as that implies. Cherry is properly grateful to her Aunt Bugle, but her position in the household is a lowly one, being something between nursery maid and unpaid companion to the younger girls, and no one hesitates to remind Cherry of her obligations, and the digressions of her parents. (Her late mother, Aunt Bugle’s sister, had eloped with the dodgy Wilfred Steane, a man who has notoriously lived by his clever wits and card-sharping skills, and who has vanished from the scene, permanently, it seems, as all devoutly hope.)

Cherry is overheard spilling her personal story to the interested Desford, and the resulting brouhaha sees her fleeing Lady Bugle’s house in tears and trudging along the road towards London in a forlorn and lonesome state. Desford, on his way home all happily innocent of knowledge of Cherry’s disgrace, stops his curricle and rescues the maiden, and conveys her to London, hoping to settle her with her grandfather, the notoriously crusty skinflint, Lord Nettlecombe. But Lord Nettlecombe appears to be out of town, and no one knows his whereabouts. What to do, then, with the hapless runaway?

In a mood of increasing desperation – the gossips will no doubt already have started the whispers about Desford being seen with an unaccompanied and very lovely young female person of unknown provenance – Desford conveys Cherry to Hetty’s house, setting off a string of events which entangles not only Desford, Hetty and Cherry, but their respective families – including a very-much-not-dead Wilfred Steane – as well as Hetty’s chief suitor, the reliably calm and cool Mr. Nethercott, and Desford’s bumptious younger brother, Simon.

Despite the title, the book is centered around the two Carrington brothers rather than the girl, for once Simon appears he rivals his elder brother in both personal attractiveness and slightly muddled goodwill to the delicious but one-dimensional Cherry, who is of a type to be carried along pell-mell by her tempestuous fate, a very good girl at heart, seeking only to please those who undertake her care, and desperately longing in her simple way for a place to at last call home.

A collection of pleasing characters, all in all, with even the villains having their likeable moments, as the tale tumbles to its easily foreseen conclusion. A light and pleasant read; perfect a few hours escape from gloomy, dark November.

Read Full Post »

frederica georgette heyer 1Frederica by Georgette Heyer ~ 1965. This edition: Pan, 1968. Paperback. ISBN: 330-20272-3. 330 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10.

This is my fifth ever Georgette Heyer “Regency Romance” title. After bowing to so many recommendations to give the author a try, I must say that I am thoroughly enjoying my explorations of her work. Frederica was, I believe, Heyer’s twenty-ninth Regency novel, in a writing career spanning fifty years, in which she produced a very respectable sixty-plus novels and mystery thrillers.

Here, in Heyer’s own words, is the rather tongue-in-cheek blurb she wrote for the pre-publication promotion of Frederica, at the insistence of her publisher. By this time, in the mid 1960s, the author was a reliable producer of “a book a year”, with a strong contingent of devoted fans clamouring for more.

This book, written in Miss Heyer’s lightest vein, is the story of the adventures in Regency London of the Merriville family: Frederica, riding the whirlwind and directing the storm; Harry, rusticated from Oxford and embarking with enthusiasm on the more perilous amusements pursued by young gentlemen of ton; the divine Charis, too tenderhearted to discourage the advances of her numerous suitors; Jessamy, destined for the Church, and wavering, in adolescent style, between excessive virtue and a natural exuberance of spirits; and Felix, a schoolboy with a passion for scientific experiments. In Frederica, Miss Heyer has created one of her most engaging heroines; and in the Marquis of Alverstoke, a bored cynic who becomes involved in all the imbroglios of a lively family, a hero whose sense of humour makes him an excellent foil for Frederica.

The storyline is as simple as can be. It involves that tried and true pursuit, the husband hunt, and of course its equally vital counterpart, the quest for an acceptable wife.

Frederica, eldest in a family of five recently-orphaned siblings, has, at the advanced age of twenty-four, cheerfully accepted that she is destined for a life of happy spinsterhood. With her oldest brother, Harry, several years her junior, off at Oxford, Frederica is concentrating her energies on her nineteen-year-old sister Charis, who is an adorable young lady, being sweet-natured (though not overly bright), and stunningly beautiful. The little snag is that though the Merrivilles were left with a reasonably adequate income after their late father’s demise, the otherwise desirable Charis will not have much of a marriage portion to accompany her lovely self into a marriage; Frederica is determined to introduce her sister into the highest society and provide her with a chance to attract a high-born (and wealthy) suitor who may overlook her (relative) poverty.

Frederica petitions a remote cousin, Vernon, Marquis of Alverstoke, to sponsor Charis for her London season. Lord Alverstoke, a confirmed cynic and a slightly notorious rake – though forgiven all by fashionable London society out of respect for his massive fortune – is initially dismissive of Frederica’s suggestion, but she so charms him with her candour and sense of humour that he unexpectedly relents and decides to don the mantle of guardian of the Merriville menage for a while, mostly, he tells himself, because his interest in the lovely Charis – a direct competitor in the marriage market to their own daughters – will annoy his snobbish and critical sisters.

Charis does indeed cause a sensation with her loveliness and good nature; suitors reliably materialize, and the story meanders on its way. And we all know who Lord Alverstoke ultimately falls for, don’t we? Though the object of his reluctant devotion remains oblivious, which gives opportunity for the reader to sigh romantically over the reformed rake’s newly awakened and, for the first time in his life, truly heartfelt passion, which – of course! – he cannot share with the woman of his desires, as she shows no signs of reciprocation and would doubtless laugh off any advance…

This novel does rather go on; Georgette Heyer was going through a bout of serious ill health while it was being written and readied for publication, and she stated that though she would have liked to have edited it more strongly and decreased its length, her publisher’s and public’s demands overwhelmed her and she let Frederica go into print as it stood.

It works, though. The characters are interesting, and the dialogue is – overused but apt description – sparkling. The situations Frederica and her two youngest brothers, earnest Jessamy and rambunctious Felix, get themselves into are enjoyably humorous. The period detail is absolutely delicious, and I loved the passing descriptions of dress which Heyer provides, speaking to her readers as though they too were intimately familiar with the fashions of the time period. She informs, but never preaches; this is the type of historical fiction I like the very best. The readers must stretch to take it all in, but the writer assumes her audience is perfectly capable of doing so, and the story moves right along.

Of particular interest were the references to the technological inventions of the day. I was most intrigued by the mention of

… Maillardet’s Automaton … this marvel was a musical lady, who was advertised, rather alarmingly, to perform most of the functions of animal life, and to play sixteen airs upon an organised pianoforte, by the actual pressure of the fingers…

frederica georgette heyer pedestrian curricleAlso the Pedestrian Curricle, a kind of pedal-less precursor to the bicycle, upon which one of the Merriville boys, in company with a steep hill and a canine companion – the boisterous pseudo-“Baluchistan Hound” Lufra –  comes to grief. And then of course there is the ballooning episode which concludes the story with such drama.

A most enjoyable diversion, was cheerful and overwhelmingly good-natured Frederica – book and heroine both – and I savoured every page.

It lost a few points on my personal ratings scale by the rather overdone drama of the ending, which I thought was just a bit over-the-top, is such a criticism can be levelled at a book of this genre.

Looking forward to my next foray in Georgette Heyer’s meticulously depicted Regency world, and to meeting yet more of her dashing heroes and clever heroines.

In the meantime, here are some of the covers for Frederica which struck my fancy as I poked about the internet investigating other reviews, of which there are many, most exceedingly enthusiastic.

I liked this cover; it has a decided "period" appeal.

I liked this cover; it has a decided “period” appeal.

And this one, focussed on the dramatic balloon episode which brings the tale to a fitting conclusion.

And this one, focussed on the dramatic balloon episode which brings the tale to a fitting conclusion.

And here we have Frederica and Charis, accompanied by their beloved Lufra. I'm not quite sure about that fan, though; would it have been employed in such a way on a daytime stroll in a London park?

And here we have Frederica and Charis, accompanied by their beloved Lufra. I’m not quite sure about that fan, though; would it have been employed in such a way on a daytime stroll in a London park?

Here's a German cover which caught my eye. (Georgette Heyer was apparently very popular in Germany.)  I really like the strong colours and simplicity of the pen-and-ink treatment of this poster-like illustration.

Here’s a German cover which caught my eye. (Georgette Heyer was apparently very popular in Germany.) I really like the strong colours and the striking simplicity of the pen-and-ink treatment of this poster-like illustration. (“Heiratsmarkt” translates to “Marriage Market”.)

This one is absolutely bizarre, a triumph of misguided misrepresentation.  Who are these people, and why have they strayed from a 1960s costume party onto the cover of a well-mannered Regency-period romance?!

This one is absolutely bizarre, a triumph of misguided misrepresentation. Who are these people, and why have they strayed from a 1960s costume party onto the cover of a well-mannered Regency-period romance?! And who is the “scandalous young beauty” so prominently mentioned? Egads! Did the illustrator read the book? Methinks…NOT.

A more current cover from a recent re-release. This one captures the happy tone of the novel wonderfully well, though the featured female does not really fit my mental picture of Frederica herself.

A more current cover from a recent re-release in 2009. This one captures the happy tone of the novel wonderfully well, though the featured female does not really fit my mental picture of Frederica herself.

And here is the most recent cover, from 2011. Again, not my mental image of Frederica, but a lovely cover nonetheless.

And here is the most recent cover, from 2011. Again, not my mental image of Frederica, but a lovely cover nonetheless.

Read Full Post »

the grand sophy georgette heyerWell, I’ve finally done it. Georgette Heyer has been praised so often and so enthusiastically by so many of the book bloggers whose recommendations I have come to look forward to as decidedly reliable that I have taken the plunge.

I don’t really “do” romance novels as such, though of course most of the books I read incorporate some sort of romance, whether it be traditional male and female or some other sort of love affair (and by this I mean any sort of relationship – platonic friendships are love affairs, as are parent-child relationships, and all of the individuals emotionally invested in some way, whether it be with an idea, an occupation, a house, a garden, a country, a way of life… it’s all about passion and feelings and, yes, “romance” of some sort, isn’t it?)

(And did I just digress? Yes, I think I did!)

Anyway, bodice rippers in the good old Harlequin tradition aren’t really my thing, and the undoubted fact that Georgette Heyer has been republished by Harlequin – I have here on my desk a just-purchased (but as yet unread) copy of The Quiet Gentleman, Harlequin, 2006, with a publisher’s list of other Heyers in the back – was not a point in favor. I’d also read several of Heyer’s mystery stories – she famously wrote one romance novel and one mystery novel each year during a period of financial necessity – and found them no more than mildly diverting. But then there were all those Jane Austen comparisons, and the chatter about her being a seriously underrated writer, and all those comments about her undoubted mastery of her chosen literary period – England’s Regency era, the first few decades of the 19th Century – and all of the lavish praise in the blogosphere…

So I made the decision to give Heyer one more try. Pulling up her name on the library catalogue, I was impressed to see that there was a reasonably large selection of titles, arguing a current popularity (my present public library is very quick to cull and has very few older books in the stacks), some of which I remembered as having received glowing reviews from my blogging peers. Home came Sylvester and The Grand Sophy, as well as a third which appealed because of the plot description on the back, but which I haven’t yet read, Black Sheep. I’m a bit Heyer-saturated at the moment, after reading the first two almost back-to-back, but will definitely be reading the third book well within my alloted three weeks before it needs to be turned back in.

In other words, I liked these. A lot.

Sylvester: or the Wicked Uncle by Georgette Heyer ~ 1957. This edition: Sourcebooks, 2011. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-4022-3880-2. 386 pages.sylvester or the wicked uncle georgette heyer

My rating: 9/10.

This story is an absolute hoot. It has everything. Misunderstood heroine – check. Highly intelligent and of an unconventional attractiveness, of course – check. Wicked stepmother – check. Fabulously handsome, wealthy and aristocratic love interest – check. Initial misunderstanding by chief couple and instant dislike of each other – check. Endless complications before true love finds its way – check.

It’s basically Pride and Prejudice with the added bonus of a botched kidnapping (literally), a surreal trip to France, and horses.

You know what? I’m going to stop right here and refer you over to this absolutely excellent blog post by Claire at Captive Reader. It’s the one that convinced me to give this author a go, and the post says absolutely everything I would like to. Anything I could come up with this morning would be a pale shadow of what Claire has said so well. (I am horribly pressed for writing time these days, but cannot let this book pass without a mention. It was so much fun!)

The Captive Reader – Sylvester or the Wicked Uncle

Sylvester more than met my own expectations. The point it lost was right at the very end; I thought the final romantic scene wasn’t quite up to the standard of the rest of the story. But endings are notoriously difficult, and it wasn’t terribly bad or anything. Just not quite… something

But all in all, a very enjoyable read. Great introduction to this author; I’m won over.


the grand sophy yestermorrow georgette heyerThe Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer ~ 1950. This edition: Yestermorrow, 1998. No ISBN found. 347 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

Gosh, where to start? Let’s see how good my condensation skills are this morning!

Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy, world-roaming diplomat, drops in on his aristocratic sister Lady Ombersley for a brief visit while en route from Lisbon to Brazil. After racing through the polite preliminaries (Sir Horace is excessively focussed on getting right to the point with the least amount of fuss and trouble to his self-indulged self) the object of his detour becomes apparent.

Could he possibly leave his (motherless) twenty-year-old daughter Sophy with her dear aunt? Brazil, in the early 1800s, is rather rough in places, and even careless Sir Horace has qualms about its suitability for an upper-class English girl’s place of residence, even under the auspices of her important Papa. Sophy – “Dear little soul: not an ounce of vice in her!” exclaims said Papa – is as good as “out”, though the formalities of a Court presentation have been unavoidably omitted, what with living on the Continent and all – and will be a lovely companion for her cousin Cecilia. And while she’s here, dear sister, Sir Horace goes on to say, how about fixing her up with a suitable husband? I’m sure you can manage to arrange that for me…

Lady Ombersley is shocked into agreement, and Sir Horace disappears as quickly as he came, leaving with a promise that Sophy shall be welcomed into the bosom of her extended family. The family, as far as I can remember – there’s a lot of characters in this hectic novel – consists of Lord and Lady Ombersley, their eldest son Charles Rivenhall – who is by way of being head of the family, financially speaking, as he is his recently deceased wealthy grandfather’s heir as Lord Ombersley is an incorrigible gambler who has virtually impoverished his own estate – sober Charles is busy doing damage control while his father continues his dissipated lifestyle on a much more modest scale – the beautiful aforementioned Cecilia, a younger brother, Hubert, at Oxford, another, Theodore, at Eton, and young sisters Amabel and Gertrude.

Sophy shows up quite soon, and far from being the meek and gentle niece and cousin the family was expecting, turns out to be positively Amazonian, a self-assured and shockingly outspoken young lady, looking on her English sojourn as something of an amusing lark, though she’s agreeable to being introduced to some interesting and suitable young men on matrimonial approval, as it were. She throws the household into a turmoil it has never known before, and soon it becomes apparent that Sophy is a born manager of other people for their own good, and that in her staid cousins she has found much scope for her personal hobby.

Charles is engaged to the most prim and proper Eugenia Wraxton, who is looking forward to her upcoming marriage and increase in social status with smug self-satisfaction; it soon becomes apparent that cousin Sophy does not meet with her approval, and Eugenia’s true nature as a sly, prying, manipulative scold is thereby revealed, though Charles appears blind to this, at least initially.

Cecilia has been presented with a suitable young nobleman, Lord Charlbury, as a potential spouse, but has instead become infatuated with Adonis-like Augustus Fawnhope, an aspiring poet. (He instantly reminded me of none other than P.G. Wodehouse’s Madeleine Basset, of “the stars are God’s daisy-chain” fame; subsequent events merely strengthened that comparison.) Hubert has gotten himself embroiled in gambling debts – shades of the paternal situation – and is too terrified to confess to his older brother, and has instead gotten into the clutches of an evil moneylender.

The younger children, luckily, are not much in need of sorting out, so Sophy busies herself with rearranging Charles’, Cecilia’s and Hubert’s lives for them.

Charles is immediately resistant to his lively cousin’s attempts to “manage” his family; he cleaves to the unpleasant Eugenia with commendable loyalty, but cracks soon appear in his iron-hard facade. Eugenia is quickly driven to open criticism of Sophy’s lack of propriety; Sophy seems to delight in shocking and annoying Eugenia; Sophy is marvelously clever at pushing all of Charles’ buttons, and seems to come out ahead in each of their encounters; her and Charles’ continued verbal sparring (and shared love of horses) gives the alert reader the key to the eventual outcome of that particular triangle of personalities!

Cecilia and her poet are all over each other, while Lord Charlbury mopes in the his lonely corner (he’s recovering from the indignity of having had the mumps at a crucial time in the progression of his courtship of Cecilia.) Sophy takes those three in hand as well, giving Lord Charlbury instruction on how best to woo his reluctant prospective spouse, and eventually exposing Augustus Fawnhope’s deep ineffectualness to the no-longer-quite-so-besotted Cecilia.

Hubert’s moneylender is confronted with aplomb, in a scene which received some negative press in the blog world for its deeply stereotypical depiction of a Shylock-like Jewish character. (See here for a fascinating and extended discussion of racial stereotyping in literature, centered on The Grand Sophy, and widening to Heyer in general, then bringing in Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers as well; the many comments following this post are thought-provoking; the whole exchange is well worth reading.)

This workaday plot summary leaves out the sparkling dialogue and the deep humour which infuses every page of this lively historical romance; it’s a grand read for a dull day; perfect escape literature, and not to be taken too, too seriously, I think. An amusing romp, with the bonus of being meticulously researched and full of era-correct dialogue, descriptions of food, dress, and the social world of upper classes of post-Waterloo England. If you appreciate Jane Austen and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, you’ll find much to admire in Georgette Heyer’s detailed and very funny take-offs of the time.

As with Sylvester, The Grand Sophy was a whole lot of fun. More so, really – it is almost antic in its multitude of plot twists, turns and tangles, where Sylvester maintained a certain dignity even in its most absurd moments. But Sophy lost its point in the same place, right at the end. It was a good ending, a proper ending, with loads of predictability and a few (small) surprises, but there was something just a tiny bit rushed over how everything tied itself up so quickly, as if the author, with finish line in view, had pushed herself into one last full-speed-ahead dash of writing. But, as with Sylvester, not a big issue, and easy to forgive.

And I did forgive the author her moneylender; I mulled this over quite a bit, and have held back this review to consider how deeply I wanted to address this issue. I have come down on the side of letting it go in the interests of era-correctness. Yes, the book was published post-World War II, when the horrors of the Holocaust were well-known and fresh in memory, but the treatment of the character in question was completely in line with the 19th Century world it depicted. And The Grand Sophy is something of a parody in its treatment of all of its characters; I don’t believe we are meant to take any of them all that seriously. If one wants to be offended, there’s a lot of scope for that in more than the Jewish moneylender episode. I choose not to be offended, though I see where the offense lies, and will leave it at that. (At least for now. This is a topic which is never really dormant, whether reading vintage or contemporary fiction.)

At the end of the day, I must say that I enjoyed these books, and I’m looking forward to encountering more of Heyer’s delicious romances, but I suspect that they are best taken one at a time, as a sort of self-indulgent literary “rich dessert”; nice as an occasional treat but not really suitable for daily fare!

Read Full Post »