In Regency London, not quite nineteen-year-old Nell is desperate to obtain the sum needed to pay the bill for an expensive dress which she had forgotten when assuring her husband Cardross that she has no further outstanding debts. She is also consumed with guilt over lying to him over the use of her generous allowance to finance her brother’s losses at the gaming table, which her husband has forbidden her to do. Instead, she lets him think that she has foolishly taken up gambling herself and incurred losses of her own. All this is making Cardross regret having ignored the advice of friends who advised against his marrying the daughter of an inveterate gambler who has ruined his aristocratic family with his addiction. The situation is aggravated by Nell’s concealment of her genuine love for her husband, as she follows her mother’s advice to be compliant at all times but not to appear too needy, and certainly not show any resentment over his mistress. Cardross also has to deal with a spoilt, capricious young half-sister, who is determined to marry a respectable if dull but poor young man who is not her social equal. As matters reach a head, how will they be resolved?
Georgette Heyer was a prolific author, admired from the 1930s to her death in 1974 for her immensely detailed knowledge of Georgian culture, even down to the upper class slang in vogue (now quite hard to follow and frankly the most irritating aspect of the novel). Reading this out of curiosity and expecting to find vacuous froth, I was surprised how much it engaged me. Tightly plotted, it rattled along at a lively pace with well-developed characters.
I believe that Georgette Heyer was influenced strongly by Jane Austen, and sacrilegious as it may sound, she holds her own in comparison. There is a clear parallel in the wry wit, although Heyer is actually much funnier. She provides more detail of, for instance, customs which Jane Austen had no need to explain at the time, also tending to focus on upper class families, some even accustomed to socialising with the Prince Regent, whereas Austen’s theme was more often the lives of the country gentry.
Although I am not sure to what extent it is intentional, I like the way the author reveals the flaws in the aristocratic Regency world: despite an obsession with conforming to expected norms and not lowering “the ton”, the idle rich fritter away their time gambling and flirting, particularly at masked balls. Even a “good”, generous and loving husband thinks nothing of dominating and infantilising his young wife – also, he does not apply his high moral standards to himself. A young man wastes his time on silly pranks because he is not expected to work at some activity which would employ his energy and ability, and so on.
If all Heyer’s books are like this, reading them could pall quite quickly like too much cream meringue, but I would not regret reading her from time to time.