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Friday, November 28

The Reluctant Widow, by Georgette Heyer: A Book Review

"The Reluctant Widow is one of [Georgette Heyer's] most light-hearted books, with some unusually broad comedy and a delicious merry war between its commonsense heroine and hero whom she describes as, 'The most odious, overbearing, inconsiderate, abominable man I ever met.'" - Aiken Hodge, p. 68*

An honest mistake – that of entering the wrong coach – brings Miss Elinor Rochdale to a musty dilapidated mansion in the dark of night instead of to the house where she is expected to begin her position as governess to two young children. A butler escorts her to the library, where a nattily dressed man stands in front of the fireplace. Elinor and the stranger embark on a lively verbal exchange based on a series of misunderstandings, for he believes she has responded to his advertisement for a wife, and Elinor believes he is the husband of the woman who hired her for her services.

It turns out that the man is Lord Carlyon, the responsible older brother of a tribe of siblings and the legal guardian of his alcoholic nephew. Lord Carlyon asks Elinor to marry the dissolute young man so that he may escape the suspicion of coveting his relative’s house and lands. He assures her that the marriage would be in name only, and that she stands to gain more than lose in this devil’s bargain, for his nephew is not long for this world. Elinor, horrified with such a scheme, wishes only to find the quickest way out of this scrape. But she is penniless and alone, and at the mercy of this stranger's kindness.

Then events beyond both Elinor and Carlyon‘s control take the decision out of their hands, and Elinor is speedily married to a baseless character who could scarcely be bothered to look at her, for his motivation in marrying her is revenge and hatred for Carlyon. By morning Elinor's husband lies dead, and so begins The Reluctant Widow. Sourcebooks is releasing seven of Georgette Heyer's regency and historical novels just in time for the holidays, including this delightful GH romance novel, which I heartily recommend.

The Reluctant Widow is among the GH novels that features a mature couple, though when I say mature I am speaking in Regency terms. At 26, Miss Elinor Rochdale considers herself to be firmly on the shelf. And although our hero cannot be much older than she, he has been head of his family for so long that his demeanor is (dare I say it?) a bit directive. We know from the moment that our feisty Elinor meets the immovable object named Ned Carlyon, which of these two strong personalities will have the upper hand. However, we are always sympathetic towards our poor heroine, who has found herself in the most trying of circumstances. After her father so disobligingly gambled the family fortune away and committed suicide, her fiancee ditched her! Instead of succumbing to the vapours, our plucky heroine has made the best of her situation with a "can do" attitude that Carlyon quietly recognizes and admires. Unaware of his feelings, she lets him know that she is incensed to be the widow of a man who was universally loathed, and when she discovers that her new house can be entered through a secret stairway, and that a foul spy plot has put her life in danger, she does not hesitate to speak her mind regarding our hero's seeming lack of concern for her safety; but her words roll over Carlyon like water over a labrador retriever's coat and they do not seem to penetrate his thick skull or ruffle his calm assurances, which infuriate her even more.

Georgette wrote this novel in 1946 when she was on a roll and writing one book after another. Few authors can rival her ability to introduce new characters in an unforgettable way. Read how she introduces Francis Cheviot, an Exquisite who has just descended from his carriage and is standing at the front door:

“Crawley, I do trust that you have rung that bell, for if I stand in this disagreeable wind you know I shall take cold, and my colds always descend upon my chest. How thoughtless it was in you to have handed me down from the chaise until the door had been opened! Ah, here is that deplorable henchman! Yes, Barrow, it is I indeed. Take my hat – no, Crawley had best take my hat, perhaps. And yet, if he does so, who is to assist me out of my greatcoat? How difficult all these arrangements are! Ah, a happy thought! You have laid my hat down, Crawley! I do not know where I should be without you. Now my coat, and pray be careful! Where is a mirror? Crawley, you cannot have been so foolish as to have packed all my hand-mirrors! No I thought not: hold it a little higher, I beg of you, and give me my comb! Yes, that will serve, Barrow, you may announce me to your mistress!”

Shades of Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion! In our first glimpse of Francis (with foreshadowing from the main characters) the reader knows that he will play a devious part in the as yet unsolved mystery. One reviewer complained about the number of exclamation marks that GH is wont to use; but this long-time fan has come to expect them and considers them a hallmark of her writing style. Besides, why quibble about a few exclamation points when they lead to such delicious fun?

Other memorable characters the reader can expect to encounter are Carlyon's younger brother Nicky, whose high-spirited antics were inspired by Georgette Heyer's son, Richard (or so some say), who was still in his teens when this novel was written. Nicky's older brother John plays an integral part in the spy mystery. He is as sober and meticulous as Nicky is reckless. And then there are Bouncer, Nicky's dog, who plays a comedic and accurately portrayed canine role; and Miss Beccles, Elinor's former governess, who has come to live with her as her companion. Miss Beccles' astute observations about his lordship's character, which clue the reader in on how kind-hearted and generous Carlyon really is, clash diametrically with Elinor's viewpoint, leaving the reader to wonder when Elinor's eyes will be opened.

One guarantee about a Georgette Heyer novel is that the reader will always be treated to an intricate plot in which no thread is left to dangle. This Heyer tale is more convoluted than most and though it contains those dark elements that characterize a Gothic novel, the combination of broad comedy, dark mystery, and spirited romance make this particular reading experience an unforgettable one. My only quibble with the novel is that we do not see enough of Elinor and Carlyon together. As with Sleepless in Seattle I kept hoping that our hero and heroine would finally realize their love for each other, but when this momentous event occurred, the scene was all too short and the novel ended much too swiftly to completely warm the romantic cockles of my heart. All my other cockles, however, were more than satisfied.

My rating? Four and a half out of five regency fans.

A comment about Mark 1 and Mark 2 heroes:

Georgette Heyer rated her heroes as Mark 1 or Mark 2. The best definition I could find about these two heroic types was this one by Alias Clio on The Other World:

"The Mark I hero is the conventionally unconventional hero of women's romance: he is older, attractively dishevelled, ruggedly handsome, funny in a dry sort of way, and occasionally rather rude in his defiance of social mores. He may have a hint of scandal in his past, but he is in full command of himself and his feelings. The Mark II hero is Mark I's opposite, sometimes his foil. He is not necessarily handsome but is always exquisitely groomed (as Freddy [Cotillion] is), young, a good dancer, and never fails to observe the conventions. Although he seldom says anything funny on purpose, he is often unintentionally hilarious.

I suppose some people might say that Mark I is a classic alpha male, while Mark II is clearly a Beta. Yet Heyer evidently finds both types of men equally attractive, in different ways. In some of her novels she allows Mark I to win all the prizes, making Mark II appear shallow, silly, and foppish. In others, Mark II shows up the selfishness and egotism of Mark I and his disregard for the social order, and steals the show away from him.

I wonder if the Mark II type of hero was perhaps a popular phenomenon, a "trope", even, in English light fiction of the first half of the twentieth century, and a harbinger of a cultural shift. He is not of a type likely to appeal to North American taste, but he appears repeatedly in one form or another in the novels of the Twenties and Thirties."

From the above description, I would say that Carlyon shows characteristics of both hero types, although Jane Aiken Hodge characterizes him as a Mark 2 hero. For those who have read the book, do you have any thoughts on the topic?

For those who have not read this thoroughly entertaining Regency romp, you can click on the following link to order the book.

Click on More Book Links Here:
Our Other Georgette Heyer Reviews Sit Below
These Georgette Heyer books, available this holiday season, will be reviewed on this blog and Jane Austen's World through mid-December: Cotillion, Simon the Coldheart, The Reluctant Widow, Faro's Daughter, and The Conqueror.

Cotillion, Simon the Coldheart, The Reluctant Widow, Faro's Daugher, and The Conqueror

*The Private World of Georgette Heyer, Jane Aiken Hodge, The Bodley Head, Ltd, London, 1984.


Anonymous said...

How timely - I just bought this book

Suze said...

I'm just finishing a book about true, but strange facts of London. I think I'll be delving into my shelf of Georgette Heyer next. I used to read her all the time, but haven't for a while.

You've peked my want again.

Anonymous said...

I picked up a copy of Black Sheep and am loving it! Will try this one next.

Melanie said...

I don't know....I think maybe Ned is a combination of the two types? I love this book and the (for the time?) unique blend of mystery and Regency.

JaneGS said...

I haven't read a lot of Heyer, but RW is definitely my favorite. Makes me laugh out loud every time. Thanks for the info on M1 vs M2--very interesting.

Anonymous said...

Yup I think Carlyle is a mix of Mark I and Mark II. But I think Heyer constantly made them a mix. most of her heroes are older to the women, always well groomed (sometimes dandies), sarcastic, with "smiling eyes" and good judges of the world.

Great review. I am re-reading all the Heyer romances as a personal project after a gap of almost 10 years. And this time Im relishing each little aspect. Awesome!

Peg said...

I don't know what it is about this book. I LOVE most of Heyer's novels, considering them my favorites, but I absolutely HATED this one. I found Elinor so annoying and offensive. I swear, I just wanted to bitch-slap her! She did nothing but complain, complain, COMPLAIN, often about decisions she herself had made, blaming others for them (i.e., the decision to marry Carlyon's nephew) as if she had no agency at all. When Carlyon asked her to marry him, my jaw dropped to the floor. Why, for heaven's sake would an intelligent man ever want to spend the next fifty years with such an likeable shrew sitting at the opposite end of the breakfast table?

I consider Elinor the most unlikeable heroine of any of Heyer's main characters. She probably is about the most unlikeable heroine of any romance I've ever read.

Denise said...

The Reluctant Widow was my very first Georgette Heyer book that I bought some time ago. I loved it and currently I'm re-reading it again. I also have Venetia; which I haven't read.