Monday, August 7, 2017

Friday's Child

Friday's Child
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 13+

If you like your novel-length romantic comedies to have a Regency-period setting, but you've already pretty thoroughly surveyed everything by Jane Austen - which doesn't take long, actually - Georgette Heyer is the right shop to come to. She was the reigning queen of Regency restoration throughout the middle 50 years of the 20th century; she was a credible authority on all things authentic to that period; and more than half of her 50-odd books fit the bill - the remainder being mostly mysteries and historical novels set in other periods. My first exposure to Heyer's work was The Grand Sophy, which cleaves pretty closely to the pattern set by Austen, with an unconventional female arriving at her cousins' London residence and giving the place a full shake-down, including arranging the love-affairs of everyone in sight, before finally finding the love of her life practically under her nose.

Surprisingly, but not disappointingly, this 1944 book, one of Heyer's earlier works of Regency romance, departs from that relatively predictable story-shape right from the beginning. The lucky couple have already found each other and gotten married, practically at the starting gun. The trouble is, they don't realize they truly love each other until almost the end. Meantime, they endure misunderstandings, social blunders, jealousies, affairs of honor, moral and financial misgivings, and close scrapes with a cast of wacky friends, including a ridiculously romantic young buck, an adventurer who ruins decent people for a living, and an heiress who takes a bit too much enjoyment out of having a few too many ardent suitors.

Young Anthony "Sherry" Verelst, a.k.a. Viscount Sheringham, is set on course for romantic hijinks when the Incomparable Isabella refuses point-blank to marry him. Further exasperated by an interview with his passive-aggressive dowager mother, Sherry swears to marry the first young lady he sees. It so happens that turns out to be Hero Wantage, a girl of scarcely 17, who has adored Sherry all her life. Hero, soon nicknamed Kitten, has been living a Cinderella-like life on the grudging charity of her cousin and that lady's three ugly daughters. Terrified of being sent to Bath to serve as a governess, she willingly joins Sherry's crazy enterprise, and the two of them are swiftly hitched. But at once it becomes clear they should have given this more thought, since Hero really isn't ready to mix in the most fashionable circles of London society, and Sherry isn't grown-up enough to be the husband she needs. With each new adventure, they skate closer to disaster, with always entertaining but not always helpful contributions from their friends, frenemies, and one certifiably Bad Man.

Readers who don't like to see a husband give his wife a slap across the face may not find this novel to their taste. It isn't a feminist novel; it is, rather, a novel set in a scrupulously faithful reconstruction of a historical period. I think it succeeds pretty well in making that period come credibly to life. Where it needs strong female characters to capture the sympathy of today's readers, it gets them by giving Hero a good excuse for not understanding what is and isn't proper for a woman of her class, period, and marital status, and by letting the shark tank of 19th-century London's "Marriage Mart" shove Isabella to her wits' end. It has imperfect but endearing characters, scintillating wit, richly transporting language, and at bottom, a heart-touching drama of a marriage on the razor-edge of failing, all worked into a dramatic shape that achieves a spectacular climax. It's the kind of book that one can imagine being a terrific movie, even though one knows better than to trust the movie industry to make it. So, I guess that's a long way of saying it's a terrific book.

The titles of some of Heyer's other Regency romances are An Infamous Army, The Spanish Bride, The Reluctant Widow, The Quiet Gentleman, Bath Tangle, The Unknown Ajax, False Colours, Black Sheep, and Lady of Quality. In other genres, her interesting-sounding titles include The Convenient Marriage, Simon the Coldheart, Royal Escape, Instead of the Thorn, Why Shoot a Butler?, Duplicate Death, and the short story collection Pistols for Two.

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