It was a couple of months ago that I first read a book by Georgette Heyer, namely one of her crime novels, Footsteps in the Dark. I wasn’t terribly struck by it, so when I remembered that I’d received one of her Regency novels as a present I wondered whether she would benefit from a change of genre. Plus, up until this point, I hadn’t read much, if any, Regency Romance. The fact that it was quite a short book just decided the matter. So, was my second foray into Georgette Heyer’s work any more successful?
The Convenient Marriage starts with the Winwood sisters, members of a proud but impoverished family in a rather difficult position. The Earl of Rule, a wealthy and eligible bachelor, has made an offer for the hand of the eldest sister, the renowned beauty Elizabeth. Unfortunately, she is head over heels in love with her childhood sweetheart, the equally impoverished army lieutenant Edward Heron, so the proposal has only succeeded in making her incredibly unhappy. The youngest sister, Horatia, decides that this just can’t stand, and convinces the Earl that he would be just as satisfied marrying the youngest sister as he would the oldest. It’s not as if this is a love match right? So they are married, and find themselves becoming more fond of one another whilst a long-time enemy of Rule’s attempts to bring them to ruin.
I’m not sure how I really feel about this book. While I enjoyed this overall, there are a few things that prevent me from loving it wholeheartedly. The positive things first though. First, I absolutely adore the main heroine, Horatia. When I think Regency romance, the thing that comes into my head is the image of someone wholesome enough that they can win and change your stereotypical rake into upstanding husband material, most likely being the epitome of English Rose in looks. Horatia is a spirited and headstrong 17-year-old girl with enough naivety to propel her into making some decisions that are less than well thought-out. She states her mind quite openly and is a prolific (and generally unlucky) gambler. Her looks are described by others as essentially the sort of face that only family could love, with her primary physical feature being her “preposterous” thick eyebrows. And, to top it all off, she is the only main character that I have ever seen with a stammer. She is utterly glorious. Second, the plot becomes surprisingly humorous as it gets towards the end. It very much reminded me of The Marriage of Figaro at times, if not in terms of events then in regards to tone. It was a lot more farcical than I expected it to be, and very skillfully pulled off too. Third, the villain of the piece, Lethbridge, is a fascinating mix of cold, calculating and incredibly charming. His downfall is a fantastic scene that brings excitement just before it turns firmly onto the more romantic comedy parts.
So, now to the things that I wasn’t so fond of. First, a minor point. I think that having a working knowledge of aristocratic fashion would really help. While I was aware of the general tendency that fashions took at the time (skirts as wide as a bus and big powdered wigs), it meant absolutely nothing to me when I was told things like Horatia’s hair being styled a la capricieuse. I presume that the narrative is talking about different hairstyles, but I couldn’t tell you what it meant in terms of actual visual description. And since Horatia is very fond of indulging in her husband’s wealth, it means that there’s a bevy of descriptions of clothes and fashion styles and the uses of what must be several miles’ worth of ribbon. But they become less frequent as it goes along, so it’s not too egregious. Second, for as much as I love Horatia, I found myself largely bored by Marcus, the Earl of Rule. I can see what Heyer was trying to do with his character: self-indulgent and mischievous, but with a good heart and surprising seriousness lurking beneath the veneer. But instead of a romantic hero, he put me more in mind of a father figure, which is technically the point in some ways. The hero and heroine of our story are 35 and 17 respectively, so for much of the narrative Rule acts in a weird hands-off but benevolent paternal figure. I’m all for depicting romances with age gaps, I mean I’ve tried writing a couple myself, but it’s difficult to set up their relationship as quasi-paternal at the beginning to only then make the father figure to morph into a lover figure. Related to this, I wasn’t quite convinced by the change in the main romantic relationship from marriage of convenience to love match, simply because the two didn’t really interact enough. When they did interact, it was usually Rule gently admonishing his wife for associating with the wrong people or for gambling away the allowance that he’d given her. Admittedly, they were shown to get on from the day that they met and Horatia did find her husband attractive throughout, but there wasn’t really a noticeable change in their behaviour. We’re just supposed to agree that at some point Rule begins to love his wife, though I couldn’t for the life of me point out where his eureka moment is supposed to be.
Overall, a bit of a mixed bag but mostly enjoyable. A feisty main heroine, a sinister but charming villain and surprisingly good humour save it from being an entirely disappointing romance. If you’re looking for passionate romance, this isn’t for you. If you’re looking for something a bit more focused on married life in a convenience match, then you’ll have better luck. 3.5/5
Next review: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens