Archive for the ‘Georgette Heyer’ Category

Washing on the Line by Percy Harland Fisher

It’s a drizzly spring day here, making it perfect for getting all the indoors tasks that I’ve been avoiding while the weather has been fine off my checklist.  I’ve baked, done laundry, tidied up, and now with the house ready to tick along for another week I’ve turned to online things.  I managed to update my travel blog (with a piece about a Czech spa town I visited last autumn, if you’re interested) and, finally, I sat down and caught up with my reviews for A Century of Books.

Part of what I love about A Century of Books is the variety of things you get to read for it.  The actual writing of 100 reviews I love less, which is how we end up with short little notes instead.  Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Literary Lapses by Stephen Leacock (1910) – Leacock is so dependably funny and never more so than in this polished collection of sketches.  They were all so good it was impossible to pick a favourite, though I might lean towards the first two stories: “My Financial Career”, about feeling uncomfortable in banks, and “Lord Oxhead’s Secret”, a melodramatic spoof about a bankrupt earl.  Simon liked it so much it made his list of “50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.”

Mackerel Sky by Helen Ashton (1930) – Definitely one to skip.  This badly done portrait of a very bad marriage between two equally self-absorbed young people was a chore to get through and worth reading only for the insights it gives into women’s working lives (hours, pay, etc) during the 1920s.  Wife Elizabeth spends her days working hard in a dress shop so her husband Gilbert can focus on his writing and so she can feel martyr-like.  As her doctor points out:

“You’ve been bullying that young husband of yours till he can’t call his soul his own, and rubbing it into him all the time how much more efficient you are than he is.  You’ve been trying to do his job as well as your own, and encouraging him to be lazy, and spoiling your own health and nerves and temper in the process.”

The impact of this behaviour on their relationship is predictably awful.  And Gilbert is no better, going off and having an affair right under her nose and expecting to receive no criticism whatsoever about it.  The most hopeful moments are when it seems like their marriage will break up.  Which it doesn’t, frustratingly.

Four Gardens by Margery Sharp (1935) – After a wonderful encounter with Sharp earlier this year (when I read The Flowering Thorn), I was keen to read more by her and Barb, my favourite Sharp expert, recommended this (one of her own favourites).  And it was absolutely lovely, telling the story of Caroline Smith from young adulthood to widowhood traced through the gardens she has made.  It is much quieter and gentler than I’ve come to expect from Sharp but no less excellent for that.  If only it were in print and readily available!

Pistols for Two by Georgette Heyer (1960) – a mildly enjoyable but extraordinarily repetitive collection of short stories from Heyer, featuring far too many people wanting to run off to Gretna Green (it’s mentioned 25 times in less than 200 pages).  It is also sadly short on Heyer’s trademark humour – and Heyer without humour is frankly pointless.  The title story, about two life-long best friends preparing to duel each other over a pointless jealousy, was my favourite in the collection while the rest have quickly faded from memory.  There was a surplus of nineteen-year old heroines with big eyes and bouncing curls so the few exceptions – a debutante’s mother oblivious to her own suitor and a thirty-something spinster chasing after a runaway niece (bound for Gretna, naturally) in the company of her one-time fiancé – stand out.  I’ll keep my copy as part of my larger Heyer collection but it’s clear the short story was not her form.  (FYI, this collection was reissued recently as Snowdrift with three additional stories added to the original collection.)

Something Wholesale by Eric Newby (1962) – after returning from a German POW camp at the end of WWII, Eric Newby was at loose ends when his parents decided he should join the family wholesale clothing business:

“It’s only a temporary measure,” they said, “until you find your feet.”  They had a touching and totally unfounded belief that I was destined for better things.  It was a temporary measure that was to last ten years.

Newby would eventually go on to become a great travel writer – perhaps not quite the “better things” his parents had planned – but learned much during his decade dealing with buyers, models, and others up, down and around the British Isles.  With a great sense of humour and obvious affection he recounts those days in this wonderful and highly enjoyable memoir.

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (1969) – Such joy!  Such fun!  Such political incorrectness!  I knew from the very first lines that I was going to enjoy this:

Hughes got it wrong, in one important detail.  You will have read, in Tom Brown, how I was expelled from Rugby School for drunkenness, which is true enough, but when Hughes alleges that this was the result of my deliberately pouring beer on top of gin-punch, he is in error.  I knew better than to mix my drinks, even at seventeen.

Taking the villain of Tom Brown’s School Days for his (anti-)hero, Fraser sets about to show “how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process…” and does it with great style and an even greater sense of humour.  We follow Flashman from school to the army, which tosses him from Scotland to India to the dangerous Afghan frontier.  His unapologetic selfishness and cowardice bother him not at all and, more often than not, are taken for the reverse by his obtuse comrades.  With quick wits and flexible morals, he not only survives his early adventures in Afghanistan but comes away a hero.  And so the legend and fame of Flashman begins.  His further adventures are chronicled in great detail in 11 further books and I can’t wait to read them.

Judgement Day by Penelope Lively (1980) – A difficult book to review.  On the one hand, this story of people in a small village is beautifully written and full of the clear-sighted observations I love about Lively’s work.  On the other hand, I felt remote from everyone and everything in it.  But I’m not convinced that was a bad thing.  Indeed, it echoed the way the main character views everything, including herself:

She observes herself with a certain cynicism: a woman of thirty-five, handsome in her way, charged with undirected energy, a fatalist and insufficiently charitable.  In another age, she thinks, there would have been a vocation for a woman like me; I could have been a saint, or a prostitute.

Even months after finishing it, I’m still working out my reaction to this one.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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faros-daughterI picked up Faro’s Daughter by Georgette Heyer last week, being in the mood for some Heyer but at the same time wanting a story I didn’t know inside and out (as I know so many of Heyer’s books).  I’d only read Faro’s Daughter once ten years ago and my memory of it was suitably vague so it seemed like a good enough choice.

I quickly realised there was in fact a very good reason I had never reread it: it isn’t very good.  In fact, it is probably the worst Heyer I’ve read.

Now, I love Heyer.  I love her historical details, I love her slang-filled dialogue, I love both her madcap and more sedate plots.  I love her but this book pushed the boundaries of my patience almost to the breaking point.

We begin with a typical enough Heyer hero: Max Ravenscar is a wealthy bachelor, fond of racing, gaming, and, to some extent, his extended family.  His young cousin Adrian has fallen in love with a most unsuitable young woman and Max is called upon by his aunt to protect her precious son from this Jezebel.  Deborah Grantham, the young woman in question, is several years older than Adrian, an experienced hostess at her aunt’s gaming house, and completely uninterested in the puppy-ish Adrian. But when Ravenscar insults and attempts to bribe her into rejecting Adrian, she becomes determined to…do inexplicable things for inexplicable reasons.  Basically, it becomes increasingly ridiculous and pointless from there.  Unfortunately, there is the very beginning of the book.

Events include: an attempted elopement and an actual one, several silly young people (male and female), a creepy man who has acquired Deborah’s aunt’s debts in an attempt to coerce Deborah into a romantic (this seems too polite a word, but let’s go with it) entanglement, a few physical fights, and, let us not forget the centrepiece of Deborah’s ridiculous and entirely off-the-wall plan, a kidnapping.

There aren’t a lot of saving graces here.  Usually Heyer could rescue a ridiculous plot with a few good characters and some sparkling dialogue.  That is all sadly lacking here.  There is carriage race between Ravenscar and one of the several odious men who lurk in the background throughout, but it happens off-stage and we only hear about it second-hand.  Still, that’s about as thrilling as the story gets.  She has some promising secondary characters but they never come up to scratch and as for our hero and heroine, well they are abysmal.  I can’t think of a less romantic Heyer pairing or a less interesting one.  Aside from their first meeting (in which they play cards for hours – Ravenscar wins, naturally), they do not exchange civil words until the final pages of the novel, when presumably Heyer realised this would be necessary in order for them to become engaged.

Faro’s Daughter was published in 1941, when one must suppose Heyer was exhausted by her efforts of the previous year (both The Spanish Bride and The Corinthian came out in 1940), busy working on a new mystery novel (Envious Casca – also published in 1941), and anxious about the war.  I hope Faro’s Daughter put food on the table and clothes on her family’s backs.  That’s about all the good I can say of it.

Understandably, this did not quench my need for some Heyer.  Back now to one of the old reliables, most likely Frederica or The Grand Sophy.  After the useless Deborah, I’m in need of a capable heroine.

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Bath TangleI read Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer last weekend.  If there is one author I know I can depend on to entertain and distract me when I’m feeling down or tired or just in need of entertainment and distraction, it is Heyer.  She is witty, stylish, romantic, and, above all, an immaculate historian.  What is not to love?

I believe I first discovered Heyer in 2004.  It was a week or so before I started university and I was visiting my grandmother in rural Ontario.  She had just picked up a box of books (a box!  The luxury of it!) from a library sale and there were five or six Heyer titles in it, all in lurid Pan Books paperback editions.  With little else to do each afternoon when the humid August days inevitably gave way to thunderstorms, I started reading.  Despite a lacklustre start (These Old Shades – a book I still hate), I kept reading (there were a lot of thunderstorms that week) and eventually moved on to Bath Tangle.  It didn’t make a huge impression at the time but it, along with Arabella, was enough to turn me into a devoted Heyer fan.  I nicked my grandmother’s copy of Bath Tangle and as soon as I arrived at university, the first thing I did was check out more of Heyer’s books from the library.

Lurid Pan Books edition

Lurid Pan Books edition

While I’ve read and reread Heyer with pleasure in the years since that first encounter, I think I only reread Bath Tangle once: in 2006, when I had a Heyer marathon the summer following my grandmother’s death.  It’s not that I thought it bad, it just didn’t stand out in my memory the way Heyer’s best books (such as A Civil Contract, The Grand Sophy, and Sylvester) do.  I remembered a combative hero and heroine and that was about all.  Returning to it now, I was delighted to discover what an entertaining, absorbing story it is.

The novel begins shortly after the death of the Earl of Spenborough.  He has left behind a young widow, Fanny, and an unmarried daughter, Serena, who has the peculiarly awkward position of being several years older than her step-mother.  Despite their unusual relationship, the two young women get along very well.  The bold, energetic Serena may not understand how her stepmother could be content with a quiet life spent organizing a household but then neither could sweet, docile Fanny understand how her stepdaughter could find such pleasure in political debates and daily gallops that would quite terrify most women.  Still mourning the man who united them, they decide to settle in Bath for a time.  But the arrival of two young, beautiful women cannot go without notice and it is not long before they are surrounded by friends and suitors, new and old.

One of the things I certainly didn’t appreciate the first time I read this book was Fanny’s passionate reaction to the news that a young neighbour – a girl of seventeen – is engaged to a man in his late thirties.  The girl herself knows exactly what she is getting from the match – a title, riches, an estate, an impressive position – and is smugly pleased about it – to a point – but to Fanny it is too much a reminder of how her own family pressured her into marriage.  Spenborough was a kind husband and a good man but not one Fanny would have chosen for herself, had she been in a position to do so.  She was pretty and biddable and her mama was looking for a brilliant match.  She did not consider what her daughter’s romantic fantasies might have been; when an Earl offered, Fanny was offered up, never mind that he was older than her own father.  In doing so, Fanny’s mother made her meek daughter into a champion romantic – someone who believes love should conquer all, no matter the obstacles.

Serena does not share her stepmother’s sensibilities.  Having fancied herself in love twice before – once at nineteen with a young soldier, Hector Kirkby, and then again in her early twenties, with a close family friend, Ivo Barrasford, the Marquis of Rotherham – she knows better than to put too much faith in romance.  Indeed, imagining herself in love she’d actually gone so far as to become engaged to Rotherham.  She’d broken off the engagement, scandalously, but never repented of it.  Rotherham had remained a close friend and frequent sparring partner, being one of the few people with a tongue and mind as sharp as Serena’s.  But her arrival in Bath and the surprising reintroduction of Hector Kirkby into her life makes Serena wonder if perhaps she should reconsider her views on love and marriage.

I loved the friendships in this book.  Serena and Fanny, though so different from one another, care immensely for the other’s happiness.  It is difficult to imagine a household that could please both of them completely –indeed, I doubt such a thing could ever be managed – but they compromise as best they can.  Serena tries not to scandalise Fanny too much with her fast ways, free opinions, and vulgar friends while Fanny values the confidence and protection she gains from having Serena as a companion.  Without Serena standing guard, Fanny knows she would fall victim to her scheming mother’s ways once more and that is something she is determined, in her own quiet way, to avoid.

But most of all I loved the friendship between Serena and Ivo.  Heyer excelled at writing combative couples as well as friendly couples.  Here, she combines the two and the effect is excellent.  Having known each other for ever, Ivo and Serena interact with a familiarly usually only seen within families.  They are as happy to chat as to fight and view both activities as good sport.  They use one another’s first names, they scandalise poor Fanny with their love of political gossip, and they look out for one another.  Intellectually and emotionally, they match.  The most painful moments of the book are when they hurt one another or – and this is what makes them such an appealing match – are hurting for the other.  Both become engaged to absurdly poor mates during the course of the novel and I think the most emotionally resonant part of the novel, for me, is Serena’s reaction when she learns of Ivo’s engagement.  She is not admitting she loves him and is not feeling sorry for herself; she is absolutely distraught for him and the bleak, unequal future she sees for him with the silly, shallow girl he has engaged himself to.  This level of love and friendships on both sides is what makes their final happiness so satisfying.

Bath Tangle isn’t quite up there with Heyer’s best but it certainly rests higher up on my favourites list now than it did before.

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Devil's CubLast week was Georgette Heyer week over at Vuples Libris.  The Book Foxes mused on The Talisman Ring, Faro’s Daughter, Black Sheep, Regency Buck, and An Infamous Army.  Now, I class Heyer alongside Austen and Trollope as one of those authors who I never tire of and who I am always delighted to see discussed on book blogs, so nothing could have been more delightful to me than these posts.  It wasn’t long (I made it until Tuesday night) before I was reaching into my own extensive Heyer collection.  After a bit of a struggle, I settled on one of the few Heyer books I still had left unread: Devil’s Cub.

The hero of Devil’s Cub is Dominic Alastair, the twenty-four year old Marquis of Vidal.  He is handsome, noble, rich, and entirely reckless.  In the opening scene, he shoots and kills a footpad who was attempting to rob him while enroute to a party.  Leaving the corpse by the side of the road, Vidal continues on as though nothing of note had happened.  This is, we soon learn, not his first murder.  But what can you expect of the son of the Duke of Avon, a man once known as Satanas?

I had held off reading this book for years because I knew it was the sequel to These Old Shades.  I hate These Old Shades.  It was one of the first Heyer novels I read, if not in fact the first, and it almost put me off her for life.  It had cross-dressing, one of the most irritating heroines of all time, and a plot that requires the reader to suspend all logic.  It was one of her earlier efforts and it shows, particularly in the less-than-polished dialogue and, for Heyer, rather sloppy structure.  So, logically enough, I was not particularly eager to read a book about the next generation of this family.

Vidal, while not quite as corrupt as his father was or quite as reckless as his mother, is still very recognizably their child.  But, with a few years more experience as a novelist, I think Heyer brings this book off much better than These Old Shades.

After a drunken duel, Vidal is confronted by his father, the Duke of Avon.  With the other duellist lying gravely injured at death’s door, Vidal could soon be responsible for a third death.   The first could be excused as inconvenient and the second as self-defense against a criminal, but a third murder becomes awkward.  While there is little question of Vidal facing any legal ramifications for his actions – there are advantages to being a Duke’s son – his father demands that he leave the country.  Vidal agrees but decides that he might as well bring along the young woman he has been attempting to seduce – an association his family decidedly disapproves of.  It is fine to dally with the lower classes and have affairs among the upper echelons of society, but a bourgeois who might expect marriage is quite another thing altogether.  And Vidal certainly has no intention of marriage where this woman is concerned.

Here is where our heroine intrudes: having discovered Vidal’s intention to abscond with her silly sister, and knowing he has no intentions of marrying her, Mary Challoner decides to play a trick on the Marquis.  Except it backfires entirely and soon she finds herself in France with Vidal.  Mary had intended to save her sister’s virtue; instead, she finds herself compromised.  But Mary, well-educated, well-mannered and quick witted, is a very different creature from her sister.  While Vidal would not have quibbled to seduce and abandon her sister, he sees how impossible that would be in Mary’s case.  And then, naturally, he decides he must marry her.  It appears there are some morals hidden within his character after all.  But Mary, despite having discovered to her own surprise that she has been half in love with Vidal for some time, does not want to be forced into a marriage with him.  What follows is a typical Heyer chase, with Vidal chasing Mary, Vidal’s mother (Leonie) and Uncle Rupert chasing him, and the Duke of Avon calmly wandering along behind them all, ready to patch up the mess that they will inevitably make of everything.

There are many familiar figures from These Old Shades.  Leonie, still outrageous though now in her forties, is an adoring and indulgent mother to her reckless son and, most irritatingly, still seems a bit in awe of her husband.  Rather than discuss Vidal’s predicament with Avon, she decides to sneak away (aided, unwillingly, by her brother-in-law Rupert) and track down her son herself.  Because that is exactly what Leonie would do.  We hear rather less of how Avon feels about his wife, but any sensible person would have been driven completely mad after a couple of decades of Leonie’s devotion and rollercoaster emotions.

Still, Leonie does provide some of the best dialogue.  She is absurd but absurd speeches are the most fun to read and, I suspect, the most fun for Heyer to write.  While Avon is disapproving of his son’s excesses and scandals, Leonie is rather proud of them.  When her nephew dares to criticise Vidal, Leonie is roused to her typical sort of rage and responds with some choice insults for the young man:

To shoot a man dead: it is terrible, you say.  For you could not do it.  You could not shoot an elephant dead.  To elope with a woman: it is scandalous!  Bien entendu, but you, you could not persuade even a blind woman to elope with you, which I find not scandalous, but tragic.

The supporting characters – largely members of the Alastair family – are excellent and, rather to my surprise, I enjoyed being reunited with some of them.  I even enjoyed seeing Avon again, which I certainly didn’t expect.  The tête-à-tête between him and Mary towards the end of the novel is one of the best scenes in the entire book.

I think I have learned an important lesson, which is that the Alastair family improves with age.  I’m not sure I’ll ever like These Old Shades but Devil’s Cub won me over by the end.  I’m now feeling the itch to reread An Infamous Army, which marks the third and final appearance of the Alastair family.

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False ColoursI finished rereading False Colours by Georgette Heyer early this morning and oh, it was good.  Heyer really could do things that no other writer can, creating that perfect blend of comedy, intricate plotting, and careless but exquisite period detail.

False Colours begins with Kit Fancot arriving in the dead of night at the London townhouse of his twin brother, Evelyn, Earl of Denville.  Kit, currently posted to Vienna as a minor but promising diplomatic aide, is back in England to settle the affairs surrounding an inheritance he’s received from his godfather and, while he’s there, to see his brother and his mama (who is an absolute darling).  Instead, Kit finds that his twin has disappeared.  No one seems particularly worried about this as it’s the sort of thing the dashing Evelyn is apt to do but it has come at a particularly inconvenient time, on the eve of a party to introduce Evelyn to the family of the girl, Cressy Stavely, he has recently proposed to.  With his mama’s encouragement, Kit finds himself masquerading as Evelyn, a situation he finds increasingly uncomfortable as time goes on and Evelyn is nowhere to be found.

Despite the comic setup, this is one of Heyer’s less madcap efforts, which is perfectly fine by me.  Though young (only twenty four), Kit is a sensible and responsible young man, though by no means a stick in the mud.  Though he and his brother had fun switching places as children, it is tad more complicated to impersonate Evelyn as an adult.  It is also all rather confusing for Cressy who, having made up her mind to refuse Evelyn’s offer, suddenly finds herself warming to him, or rather to Kit.

As much as I like Kit and Cressy and, once he shows up, Evelyn, the star of the book is really Lady Stavely, Kit and Evelyn’s mother.  Only forty three, Lady Stavely is still a beauty and still much in demand.  Suitors of all ages trail after her in London and she is charmingly vain about her appearance.  She is frivolous and featherheaded about finances (she has run up quite a hefty debt) but she is also warm-hearted and in possession of an excellent sense of humour.  She adores her sons, and in return they adore her, but she is not blind to their faults and not above scolding them when necessary:

“That sounds to me like a quotation,” said her ladyship mistrustfully.  “And it is only fair to warn you, Kit, that if you mean, after all I have endured, to recite bits of poetry to me, which I am not at all addicted to, even at the best of times, I shall go into strong convulsions – whatever they may be!”

Lady Stavely is also supported by her most loyal cicisbeo, Sir Bonamy Ripple.  He, having spent the last twenty seven years in love with Lady Stavely, is a devoted bachelor but one who has heartily enjoyed his bachelorhood, filling it with excesses of all sorts.  Better even than Kit and Cressy’s happy ending is Lady Stavely’s decision to finally marry Sir Bonamy, a decision he played very little part in.  Still, in one of the book’s best scenes she charmingly and very cleverly talks him round to the idea.  One is left in no doubt that they will both be very happy together.

Altogether delightful and a very pleasant way to start my day.

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What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:


10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.


4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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New Georgette Heyer Covers

Have you seen the striking new covers for the six Georgette Heyer titles Arrow is releasing in June? Regency BuckThe Convenient Marriage, The Grand Sophy, Faro’s Daughter, Frederica, and Friday’s Child are all wonderful books (The Grand Sophy and Frederica are particular favourites of mine) and, for those just discovering Heyer, this collection would be an excellent introduction.   I love how many of the details from the book are included in some of the designs: the theatre setting for Friday’s Child is perfect and it is wonderful to see all of Sophy’s animals on the cover of The Grand Sophy.  Personally, I’ll stick with the older Arrow editions, where the covers are illustrated with paintings (compare: The Grand Sophy, Regency Buck and Faro’s Daughter), but I do think these new covers are pretty.

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the-talisman-ringWhy did it take me so long to read The Talisman Ring by Georgette HeyerHayley and Lisa had promised me I would love it and they were right.  I adored it.  It is one of the funniest books I have read in years and easily one of Heyer’s best novels.  I spent years shying away from it, discouraged by the promise of adventurous elements that had turned me off of some of Heyer’s other novels, but those were wasted years.  I shall just have to make up for them with frequent rereading in years to come.

Eustacie has no wish to marry her sober, practical cousin Sir Tristram Shield but, nevertheless, promises her dying grandfather that she will do so.  After his death and facing the threat of removal to Tristram’s mother’s home in Bath, Eustacie decides to run away…and runs straight into her fugitive cousin Ludovic, who fled to France when accused years before of murder and the theft of the titular talisman ring but who is now a free-trader.  It’s just the sort of glamourous crime to appeal to Eustacie.  The two adventurous young people strike it off immediately and while Eustacie is in raptures over her first real adventure, her more practical companions – Tristram and her new friend Miss Sarah Thane – help to keep Ludovic safe as they work to prove who really committed the crimes that Ludovic is accused of.

I can’t decide who I like best in this book.  Ludovic is charmingly young and energetic and the level-headed Tristram is my very favourite sort of Heyer hero (complete with an excellent sense of humour, which is just what you need when hanging around Ludovic and Eustacie) but it is the women who are really delightful.

The French-born Eustacie is miraculous.  Adorably hyperbolic and unfailingly romantic, she indulges in the most hair-raising fantasies and her sense of the dramatic is second to none.  Her conversations with Tristram and the indulgent Miss Thane are masterpieces.  Her dialogue with Tristram after they grudgingly find themselves engaged displays Heyer at the height of her powers:

‘Well, I suppose you will have to reconcile yourself to a period of quiet.’

‘Quiet?’ gasped Eustacie.  ‘More quiet?  No, and no, and no!’

He could not help laughing, but said: ‘Is it so terrible?’

‘Yes, it is!’ said Eustacie.  ‘First I have to live in Sussex, and now I am to go to Bath – to play backgammon!  And after that you will take me to Berkshire, where I expect I shall die.’

‘I hope not!’ said Shield.

‘Yes, but I think I shall,’ said Eustacie, propping her chin in her hands and gazing mournfully into the fire.  ‘After all, I have had a very unhappy life without any adventures, and it would not be wonderful if I went into a decline.  Only nothing that is interesting ever happens to me,’ she added bitterly, ‘so I dare say I shall just die in child-bed, which is a thing anyone can do.’

Sir Tristram flushed uncomfortably.  ‘Really, Eustacie!’ he protested.

Eustacie was too much absorbed in the contemplation of her dark destiny to pay any heed to him. ‘I shall present to you an heir,’ she said, ‘and then I shall die.’  The picture suddenly appealed to her; she continued in a more cheerful tone: ‘Everyone will say that I was very young to die, and they will fetch you from the gaming-hell where you –‘

‘Fetch me from where?’ interrupted Sir Tristram, momentarily led away by this flight of imagination.

‘From the gaming-hell,’ repeated Eustacie impatiently.  ‘Or perhaps the Cock-Pit.  It does not signify; it is quite unimportant.  But I think you will feel great remorse when it is told to you that I am dying, and you will spring up and fling yourself on your horse, and ride ventre à terre to come to my death-bed.  And then I shall forgive you, and –‘

‘What in heaven’s name are you talking about?’ demanded Sir Tristram.  ‘Why should you forgive me?  Why should – What is this nonsense?’

Eustacie, thus rudely awakened from her pleasant dream, sighed and abandoned it.  ‘It is just what I thought might happen,’ she explained.

Miss Sarah Thane, though older and significantly wiser than Eustacie, is equally game for adventure.  Travelling to London with her brother, she meets her new friends when an injured Ludovic takes shelter at the inn where the Thanes are staying and immediately decides to assist in any way she can.  The situation is a serious one but Sarah embraces what comedy comes her way.  The young lady has a decidedly satirical bent that only Tristram is intelligent enough to appreciate.  It is one of Heyer’s best matches.

I must also put in a word for Thane, Sarah’s elder brother, whose obtuse steadiness is just what the group needs.  As long as the cognac is safe in the inn’s cellar, he remains unruffled.

All ends well, of course.  The real murder is caught, two excellent couples are paired off, and one very happy reader is shown how wrong her preconceptions were.

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Sylvester Georgette HeyerRereading Sylvester by Georgette Heyer this week has made me so happy.  There are a number of reasons why I pick the books I do: to learn something, to be challenged, to be distracted, etc.  But reading Sylvester reminded me of my favourite reason of all: to feel a delicious sense of joy bubbling up inside me, from the very first page to the very last.

Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle (first published in 1957) is, I think, one of the best novels Heyer wrote.  I rank it only slightly behind A Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy in my affections and there is every possibility that it will surpass both of those in coming years as I seem to love it more each time I read it.  And I reread it as often as I can.

Sylvester, Duke of Salford, is an arrogant young man, very conscious of doing his duty but completely unconscious of how he speaks down to those who annoy him.  He can be charming in company and has excellent, extremely polite manners but there is no warmth in his dealings with anyone outside his family.  His invalid mother, seeing how emotionally inaccessible her eldest son has become since the death of his twin, is perturbed but hardly knows how to raise the topic with Sylvester.  Sylvester, for his part, refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem.  He knows his behaviour to be perfectly correct for a man of his station:

Sylvester, who did not arrive at parties very late, refuse to stand up for country-dances, take his bored leave within half an hour of his arrival, leave invitations unanswered, stare unrecognizingly at one of his tenants, or fail to exchange a few words with every one of his guests on Public Days at Chance, was not very likely to believe a charge of arrogance…

When Sylvester comes to his mother to tell her he is planning to marry, she is momentarily thrilled, thinking that he has finally fallen in love.  Alas! Sylvester has merely realised that it is his duty to marry and would like her opinion on which young lady of their acquaintance he should pick.  He is a man who, having never been in love, believes like Charlotte Lucas that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” and it is far better to find someone suitable than loveable:

‘Seriously, Mama, although I have seen some love-matches that have prospered, I have seen a great many that most certainly have not!  Oh! no doubt some husbands and wives of my acquaintance would stare to hear me say I thought them anything but happy!  Perhaps they enjoy jealousies, tantrums, quarrels, and stupid misunderstandings: I should not!  The well-bred woman who marries me because she has a fancy to be a duchess will suit me very well, and will probably fill her position admirably.’

Refusing the shortlist he had prepared, the dowager duchess recalls that during his childhood she had hoped for a moment that he might marry the daughter of her dearest friend once they were both grown.  Amused by this, Sylvester determines to go and meet this Phoebe Marlow and discover if they will suit.

When Phoebe, who had met and promptly been forgotten by Sylvester during her season in London, hears that he is coming to visit with the intention of making her an offer (a scheme her thoughtless stepmother reveals to her), she is appalled.  Not only does she not credit the idea that he could want her for a wife – at nineteen, she is clever and excellent with horses but has no beauty or accomplishments – but she also knows that her opinion on the matter will be of no importance.  Easily intimidated by her stepmother, Phoebe knows that if Sylvester makes her an offer she will be forced to accept.  So, after his arrival, she does the only thing she can think of: with the help of her lifelong friend Tom Orde she runs away from home, heading to her grandmother in London.  Of course, all does not go to plan.

For starters, Sylvester had realised soon after arriving that the silent, sulking young woman would be no wife for him.  As soon as the family learns of Phoebe’s disappearance – believing at first that she and Tom have eloped – he makes his excuses and is thankful to get away.  But the weather is awful and he finds himself forced to stop at an inn, which already has two other occupants: Phoebe and Tom Orde, who were forced to stop after their vehicle upset, breaking Tom’s leg and, to Phoebe’s greater concern, injuring one of the horses.

Forced to get to know one another under these unconventional circumstances, Sylvester and Phoebe discover that though they might have no interest in marrying one another, friendship is a definite possibility.  Impatient with Sylvester’s imperious moods, both Phoebe and the delightful Tom give their highborn friend the set downs he so desperately needs whenever he attempts to look down his nose at anyone or acts without considering the impact his actions may have on others, disarming Sylvester who had, until then, thought he knew himself very well.  But he is not too proud to accept their criticism, though he cheerily returns the favour.  A firm and surprisingly intimate friendship develops between them all on this equal footing and when Phoebe at last departs after the roads are cleared, she is running away from her stepmother only and not Sylvester, whom she looks forward to seeing again in London.

In London, their friendship surprises Sylvester’s friends and family, who have never seen him take this level of interest in a young woman.  The two, though they dare not admit it, are falling in love and all seems to be going well until the secret Phoebe has been keeping from him is finally revealed: having passed an uneventful first season the year before, Phoebe made the most of the hours she spent observing the Ton and has since written a lurid gothic romance featuring thinly disguised society folk as characters.  And Sylvester, cast as the wicked Count Ugolino, is her villain.  The casting had more to do with the extravagant slant of his eyebrows than any character flaws but due to an unfortunate coincidence the key plot elements of The Lost Heir are mirrored in Sylvester’s role as guardian to his young nephew.  The book is immediately popular and it is not long before Sylvester’s sister-in-law, Lady Ianthe Rayne, is convinced that the book was written as a warning to her to remove her son from Sylvester’s reach.  In refuting this, Phoebe unwittingly reveals herself as the author and, of course, Sylvester finds out, putting an end to the progress of their relationship.

From there, the book becomes a delicious satire of the gothic novel, with Tom and Phoebe reluctantly dragged along – almost kidnapped, really – when Lady Ianthe attempts, with her very foolish new husband, to spirit her son away to France without Sylvester’s permission.  Horrified that her book could have inspired such madness, Phoebe finds herself taking care of Edward, Sylvester’s rambunctious six-year old nephew, since Lady Ianthe is first too ill to do so herself and then simply too ill-at-ease with her son, who had always been cared for by nurses.  Lady Ianthe and Sir Nugent are comic rather than heroic and when a livid Sylvester arrives on the scene he is greeted by anyone of sense as the saviour rather than the villain of the piece.   All are returned safely to England but it takes a while longer for Sylvester and Phoebe to reconcile, though when they do it is perfectly written.  This may not be my absolutely favourite Heyer (yet) but the final scene between Sylvester and Phoebe (aided by his mother) is my favourite romantic climax in any of her novels.  I feel so nervous every time I read it, even knowing what is about to happen.  That is how invested I am in their relationship, that is how well Heyer evokes the tension and anxiety both characters are feeling before their confrontation, knowing that they love one another but uncertain of how to move forward together.

There are so many things to love about this novel.  It is wonderfully plotted, moving along at the perfect speed with no odd diversions or unnecessary meanderings.  It makes excellent use of Heyer’s extensive knowledge of the Regency era and Regency slang without those historical details becoming cumbersome.  It has a wonderful relationship between the hero and heroine that allows both to grow over the course of the novel and to confront how little they know of themselves.  It is funny and smart and never, never dull.  But mostly, it has truly magnificent supporting characters: the silly, stylish and well-matched Lady Ianthe and Sir Nugent; Phoebe’s demanding grandmother (who is also Sylvester’s godmother); Sylvester’s suffering but stoic mother; Sylvester’s rebellious nephew; and, most of all, Tom Orde, Phoebe’s lifelong friend and surrogate brother, who is full of good sense and is frustrated to no end by the unnecessary agonies Phoebe and Sylvester put themselves through.  Tom is perfection.  He is far to solid himself to ever be the hero of a Heyer novel but he is a perfect sidekick and I like to imagine he got the perfect ending he deserved, with a dependable, good-natured wife to give him many dependable, good-natured children and to support him when he became squire after his father’s death (at, one hopes, an advanced age since Mr Orde was also an excellent man).  Since Phoebe and Sylvester’s happiness is assured, Tom is the only one left to worry about.

It is a wonderful novel and it was a very happy way to end A Century of Books.  Yes, this is book #100 and I am so pleased that I saved it for last.  It was a fantastic reading project and it deserved to end on a high note.  I’ll talk more about the project as a whole on the weekend but for now I am just going to savour the fact that I am done.

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It is Christmas Eve and, though no stocking are hung by the chimney with care, all the presents are waiting under the tree to be unwrapped tonight, the potato salad is ready for our traditional Czech Christmas dinner, and I will be spending this peaceful day with nothing to do but read Sylvester by Georgette Heyer, my last book for A Century of Books and one of my favourite novels.  But this is not the only Georgette Heyer I’ve read this year and it is high time I mentioned the few I’ve reread over the past couple of months.  I am loving reading Heyer now at Christmas but there is really no season she is not suited for.

FredericaAlmost ten years ago, when I first just discovering Heyer, Frederica (published in 1965) was probably the third or fourth of her books that I picked up.  I have never forgotten how much I loved it on that first reading.  I had enjoyed the first few books but they were nowhere near as energetic or amusing as this.

The premise of the story is quite the romance novel cliché: after the death of her parents, Frederica has been managing her siblings and doing an excellent job of it.  Determined to see her beautiful sister Charis make a dazzling match, she takes her to London to track down the Marquis of Alverstoke, a distant cousin, hoping that he and his wife will sponsor Charis for the season.  There is no wife but, impressed by Charis’ beauty and Frederica’s single-mindedness, Alverstoke arranges for both girls to be brought out alongside one of his nieces.  At twenty-four, Frederica believes herself well-past the marrying age but no one else seems to agree.  As he spends more and more time with Frederica and her inquisitive younger brothers, Alverstoke begins to lose the blasé attitude that had so irritated his elder sisters and is infected by the Merrivile’s energy and optimism.  He and Frederica form a wonderful friendship and it does not take long for that friendship to ripen into love.

The first time I read this, I fell in love Frederica and the rest of the Merriville family and could easily understand how Alverstoke, finding himself entangled with them, could feel both overwhelmed by and attracted to their energy and intelligence – especially Frederica’s.  I particularly love the family focus here: Alverstoke’s elder sisters and their families are a daily (though not always welcome) part of his life and the Merrivilles – primarily Frederica, her beautiful sister Charis, and their two youngest brothers, Jessamy and Felix – are almost never apart.  Far too often in romance novels (though rarely in Heyer’s), the hero and heroine’s families are absent or only there to hinder them.  Here, we see how both Frederica and Alverstoke interact with their families on a daily basis, both supporting and, at times, annoying them.  Alverstoke’s sisters despair of what they see as his selfish disinterest in his nieces and nephews and Frederica’s siblings can find their confident sister a bit overbearing at times.  Our hero and heroine are wonderful characters but not, we are reminded by their relatives, perfect.

My favourite Heyer books are ones like this, where the characters are firm friends before there is any talk of love.  You see how they joke together, how they handle difficult situations (here, a disastrous balloon ride that injures one of Frederica’s brothers), and how happy they are in one another’s company.  When characters like this end the book in one another’s arms, there is never any doubt that their marriage will be a happy one.

Charity girlCharity Girl (published in 1970), which I read almost immediately after Frederica, is nowhere near as good but, like all of Heyer’s romances, is still great fun.  It is another friends-to-lovers story but the friendship here is longstanding.  Viscount Desford and Henrietta Silverdale have been friends since childhood and now, both in their late twenties, have spent years resisting their parents’ urgings that they marry.  Both insist – far too loudly – that they are not in love.  Desford may take delight in maligning Hetta’s other suitors but obviously that is only because he is such a good friend.

When Desford meets Cherry Steane, a ‘charity girl’ living at the mercy her demanding aunt and unpleasant cousins, he is upset by her circumstances but essentially disinterested.  However, when he meets her on the road the next day, running away from her relatives, he helps her.  With a pretty young girl on his hands, Desford hardly knows what to do so while he attempts to track down Cherry’s miserly grandfather he leaves the girl with the always dependable Hetta.  Hetta, willing as always to come to Desford’s aid, doesn’t quite know what to make of the relationship between her oldest friend and her new guest.  Could he have finally fallen in love?

Charity Girl has a bit too much in common with Sprig Muslin, published fourteen years earlier, which also features a romantic pairing of two old friends  prompted along after the hero assumes responsibility for a young runaway.  Sprig Muslin is much the better book but Charity Girl is fun too; though the supporting cast isn’t as delightful as in Heyer’s best books, Desford and Hetta are both excellent.  The quality of Heyer’s books did lag towards the end but the essentials were still there.

Lady of QualitySpeaking of lagging quality, Lady of Quality was Heyer’s last book (published in 1972) and is alarmingly similar to Black Sheep, which was published only six years before.  The story of Annis Wychwood and her involvement with a runaway heiress and her gruff guardian, Lady of Quality takes place in Bath and, for me, that was the best thing about the book.  Heyer’s books are always wonderfully full of detail, doing full justice to her extensive research about the Regency era,  and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Annis’ and Lucilla’s excursions into society, knowing how accurately Heyer was describing the activities available to young women in Bath.  As for the characters themselves, they are fine but the plot is ridiculously weak.  The ending is very slow in coming, prolonged by a pointlessly detailed spread of ‘flu through all the members of Annis’ household.  Heyer included many sickbed scenes in her novels – including excellent, pivotal ones in The Grand Sophy and Frederica –  but this is far from her best.  Rather than feeling exciting and fresh, the entire book felt lazy.  It has its moments but, on the whole, Lady of Quality is easily forgotten; I like to reread it every now and then but certainly not with the same frequency as I reread my favourites.

Now, back to reading Sylvester!  As fun as Frederica is (and it is clearly my favourite of these three), it does not come close to matching the joyful hilarity of Sylvester.  I rank A Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy as my top two favourite Heyer novels but Sylvester comes a close third.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May you find many books under the tree and, more importantly, may you enjoy the time spent over the next few days in the company of your loved ones.

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