Pistols for Two: Georgette Heyer

★★★

When I was sent a review copy of the newly-issued Snowdrift, a collection of Regency short stories by Georgette Heyer, I realised that this volume was a reissue of Pistols for Two, which I already owned (albeit with three newly-added stories). I’ve therefore decided to deal with Snowdrift in two parts: first, by discussing the main batch of stories under their original title Pistols for Two and then, in a separate post, discussing the three new stories included in Snowdrift. Hopefully that won’t be too confusing and it’s also given me a chance to retrieve this rather simpering 1976 edition from my bookshelf. Of course, you know what to expect from these stories: it’s Heyer at her cosiest, by turns predictable and implausible, but always full of wit and humour.

Some of the stories work better than others, of course. Some feel more like vignettes than stories, in which gentlemen conceive improbably swift tendresses for adventurous young ladies over a mere handful of pages. I do like a bit of romance, of course, but I prefer it to be founded on something slightly more robust than the chance rescue of a pragmatic governess from a traffic accident (Snowdrift); an amour conceived when a naive girl sneaks into a nobleman’s house in search of mercy for her headstrong brother (The Duel); or the obligation of driving a flibbertigibbet schoolgirl home for Christmas (Bath Miss). Even if gentlemen aren’t driven to premature declarations of undying love, they have a tendency to be sentimental beyond what I’d expect of hardened Nonpareils and Corinthians: a drunken wager concentrates the mind in Hazard, while a chance encounter (based on another traffic accident) plagues the brooding hero of Pink Domino.

My favourite stories of the bunch were those that offered slightly richer characterisation or unexpected angles. Night at the Inn wasn’t the most glittering example of Heyer’s prose, but it took its readers in an unexpected direction, with a dash of Gothic melodrama, as a young man freshly returned from the Peninsula and a young governess seek shelter in the Pelican Inn overnight. In the titular Pistols for Two, two childhood friends are compelled, by love of the same women, to fight a duel – in which they’re offered unexpected assistance by a visiting London gentleman who has his own interests to protect. The best of the lot, for me, was A clandestine affair, which you could probably have predicted given my deep emotional attachment to witty, sensible characters who tend to bicker (I blame Beatrice and Benedick for this predilection, of course). Here, a pair of young lovers find their passion thwarted by the hard heart of the young man’s guardian, Lord Iver. When the impetuous pair elope, it’s down to Iver and the young lady’s cousin Miss Tresilien to bring them back. Of course, Iver and Miss Tresilien have history, and their unexpected chase prompts them both to revisit their past and reevaluate their future.

The stories are charming, of course, because Heyer never fails to be charming, but I couldn’t help feeling that her delightful tales work better in longer format. Condensed into the short story form, they lose much of the shrewd observation and social commentary that makes her writing so fresh. Instead, they become mere romances and, crammed into a few pages, their innate implausibility becomes even more obvious. Without the space for a comfortable pace, a cast of often eccentric supporting characters, and time to get to know our protagonists, they turn into pieces of romantic fluff, like candy floss sparkling on the tongue. One also becomes uncomfortably aware of Heyer’s tendency to match girls fresh from the schoolroom with overbearing men in their mid-thirties, who treat them as delightfully mindless bits of stuff. Hmm. No wonder I prefer the novels in which older women have the spirit to meet the men on their own terms.

Don’t get me wrong. As an established fan of Heyer, I enjoyed these stories, because they reminded me of themes and characters in her longer books. I do, however, feel that if I’d come to these without having read any of her novels, I’d have written her off as a purveyor of sweet but absurd and insubstantial fables. Something for those who’ve already been charmed by her full-length works, I think.

And here I feel obliged to include a Cover Feature, because Pistols for Two has been reissued many times over the years and the selection is rather amusing. There are quite a lot of gratuitous Victorian fancy-paintings, along with generic Regency episodes that suggest the cover-artist hasn’t actually read the book (look: there’s even a woman present at a duel in the first one. None of Heyer’s heroes would even countenance such a thing!).

Buy the book

I also received these stories from the publisher as part of Snowdrift from Netgalley.

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