Monday, July 3, 2023

The Reluctant Widow

The Reluctant Widow
by Georgette Heyer
Recommended Ages: 14+

Every now and then, I spot a book by Georgette Heyer in a bookshop and if it's not one that I've already read, I have to grab it. You see, the pity about Jane Austen is that she only wrote about half a dozen Regency romances, while Heyer more or less channeled her, two centuries later, to the tune of some 50 novels. OK, some of them are historical novels and then there are some "Country House Mysteries," but the bulk of Heyer's output was the stuff Austen fans live for, only with perhaps even more vibrant heroines and the occasional scene in which no female characters are present (a thing that, famously, Austen never attempted). These are period novels written in a sparkling style, with wit, zest and convincing historical detail.

In this adventure, we meet Elinor Rochdale: an unmarried gentlewoman, on the cusp of old maiddom, whose fortunes were dashed when her father went bankrupt and suicided. For the past six years, she has avoided being a burden on her relatives (who, for their part, made sure she was aware what a burden she was indeed) by taking a series of jobs as a governess. She has just stepped off a stagecoach, expecting to be picked up for her next gig, when a misunderstanding puts her in the wrong carriage. Instead of being met by the mother of a spoiled brat, she is greeted by one Lord Carlyon, who is expecting a female arriving in response to an entirely different advertisement. Their first confused conversation, full of farcical misunderstanding, sets the pair on a bizarre course together, in which Elinor must marry Carlyon's vile cousin Eustace, who is at death's door.

Before she fully grasps what's happening, Elinor is the widowed Mrs. Cheviot and the mistress of a decaying mansion called Highnoons, which (for some reason) Carlyon is determined not to inherit. Suddenly she has to fend off ruthless relatives, restore order to a house and garden that have fallen nearly to ruin, and protect a top-secret government memo that has somehow strayed into her late, unlamented husband's possession and must be hidden somewhere in the house. Meanwhile, all unasked-for, she is visited by a threat of violent intruders, patience-trying house guests, and the possibility that a traitor, a spy and a murderer are among them. Through it all, she trades sarcastic barbs with the seemingly unflappale Lord Carlyon, with whom she shares such a bond of mutual exasperation that it must be love, right?

Well, the last bit, about it being love, is only vaguely hinted at until just before the rapid wrap-up to this story. The government intrigue plot, to say nothing of cold murder, are handled in an uexpected way – so unexpected that I make no promises whether it will feel satisfying. The romantic bit might also strike you as something of a formality. The fun of the novel is in the characters, the sparks that fly between them and the delicious words they say to each other. Each of the characters has a unique flavor, and by being themselves, they'll make you squirm with delight – and giggle and growl – from the mischievous youth who got suspended from Oxford for siccing a trained bear on one of his masters to the insufferable dandy who has been known to spend hours tying his neckcloth.

Other novels by Heyer (pronounced "HAY-er") that I have read include Frederica, Friday's Child and The Grand Sophy. I think all three of them are better than this book, but that's saying a lot because I really enjoyed reading it. I'm already in the process of reading a fifth Heyer novel, Venetia. Other titles to look for, and this is not nearly a complete list, include The Convenient Marriage, Regency Buck, The Spanish Bride, The Corinthian, The Quiet Gentleman, Bath Tangle, False Colours, Black Sheep and Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle. A couple of her detective novels are Behold, Here's Poison and Duplicate Death.

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