I haven’t read a new Georgette Heyer novel since before I started writing this blog, which means it’s long overdue. Her books may be fluffy and predictable; her characters may be much the same from story to story; but I adore her: she never fails to delight and distract from whatever life throws at me. At the moment that’s an irritating cold, so I was much in need of witty Regency escapades to divert myself from snuffling. There are times when a girl simply needs a bit of frivolity. And The Convenient Marriage delivers on all fronts. With balls, card-parties, duels and highwaymen, it’s a gloriously frothy story dressed up with fabulous gowns, extravagant wigs and two very appealing protagonists.
The Earl of Rule has decided, at the advanced age of thirty-five, to take a wife. His choice falls on the lovely Miss Elizabeth Winwood who, with her old name, good breeding and striking beauty will make the perfect match. The only problem is that Lizzie’s affections are already directed elsewhere, to the gentle but impecunious Lieutenant Edward Heron. What can be done? Lizzie has quite made up her mind to sacrifice her happiness for the good of her family – for her father is dead and her brother Pelham is busy losing money at card-tables all over Europe. Her younger sibling Charlotte, ever conscious of the demands of propriety and duty, accepts her decision.
But creative, impetuous Horatia, the youngest of the three Winwood sisters, doesn’t see any reason why Lizzie should make herself miserable. Determined to straighten out the situation, Horatia simply takes herself off to Rule’s house and tells him the truth. Lizzie is in love with someone else, but the Winwoods are in such dire straits that his offer of marriage is very valuable to them. Since he aims to ally himself with their family name, does it matter so very much which of the sisters he marries? Charlotte would rather die than be his wife, but Horatia gamely volunteers herself as a substitute for Lizzie. To her delight, and everyone else’s profound astonishment, Rule accepts the suit of this brazen seventeen-year-old with her quick mind, ‘preposterous eyebrows‘ and marked stammer.
It’s unusual in romantic novels to begin with a wedding, but the point that Rule’s and Horatia’s marriage is to be one of convenience. No romance is expected; no intimacy is obliged; and the spouses agree not to interfere with one another’s lives. This gives Rule the freedom to continue, if he wishes, visiting his mistress Lady Massey, and it allows Horatia to enjoy all the trappings of being a Countess without the obligation to render marital duties to a man twice her age. But, as time goes on, the Earl begins to find his young scapegrace of a wife rather interesting. It’s true that she gambles too much, spends extortionate amounts of money on shoes, and gets herself talked about; but she offers something fresh and new to his jaded palette. And, for her part, Horatia is intrigued by her worldly, nonchalant husband.
But there are many, many people in the ton who are keen to keep the newlyweds apart and to see this bizarre match founder on the rocks. Crosby Drelincourt, the Earl of Rule’s heir, smarts at the prospect of being ousted from his promising position by any offspring of this unsuitable marriage. Lady Massey itches to show Rule how foolish he has been by not offering to marry her, as she had hoped. And Lord Lethbridge, Rule’s mortal enemy, finally sees an opening to pursue a most exquisite and pointed revenge against his old adversary. And so the pieces are set in motion on the board and, before long, Horatia – along with her brother Pelham and his nice-but-dim friend Sir Roland Pommeroy – will find herself dragged into an intrigue that could spell the end of her marriage before it has really begun.
Heyer always writes with wit and charm. She gives knowing nods to her influences – the nice but dull Lizzie Winwood has shades of Jane Bennet; prim Charlotte is very much like Mary Bennet; and their fretful mother is surely a cousin of Mrs Bennet. But she also has a spirit very much of her own. The Earl of Rule is in the mould of her typical hero: superficially devil-may-care, but with hidden depths; ironic and cynical, but capable of great gentleness; and the kind of dangerous man who can deal equally well with a hand of cards or a sword. One disapproving review I’ve read of this book objects that Rule is ‘practically perfect’. Well, yes. That’s the point. Almost all of Heyer’s heroes seem to follow in the footsteps of the incomparable Duke of Avon, who had all of these qualities to excess, but that’s part of the joy of these books. The characters’ cleverness, repartee and double-bluffs all add to the charm, and since I have something of a tendresse for the Duke of Avon, I have no objection to meeting similar characters elsewhere. One might also point out that the mischievous Horatia has elements of the irrepressible Léonie.
But all this is all right because I (and surely most other people?) don’t read Heyer for original thinking. I read her because I know what I’m going to get. Her books are relics of a more innocent age and reading them feels like curling up in a fleece blanket by a log fire with a glass of hot milk: reliably heartwarming. This is a sparkling little adventure, written with its tongue firmly in its cheek, brimming with period detail and dashed off with the flair of a well-executed bow. It won’t change any lives but is, nevertheless, simply delightful: one of the better Heyers that I’ve read, although naturally no match for my beloved These Old Shades. I have two more unread novels by Heyer novels waiting on my bookshelf and I’ll look forward to savouring those in due course.