A Marriage of Unequals: Georgette Heyer’s Barren Corn

Barren Corn was Georgette Heyer’s attempt to write a psychological and socially important novel realistically depicting the difficulties of a marriage between a woman of the lower classes (gasp!) and a man of the distinctly upper classes (more gasping!) The result is both compulsively readable and utterly dreadful, a book that will make more than one of you want to throw it, very hard, against a wall, or against the nearest snob, whichever is most convenient, and then want to pick it up again, until another wave of snobbery hits you. It is also one of her few books where she made no attempts to give readers a happy ending.

The book opens in France, where Hugh, nephew to a baron (class issues! class issues!) but with a Communist cousin, meets the beautiful Laura, who works at a shop. I will pause to let you gasp. Not about the Communists—Heyer, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers all mention Communist types enjoying the comforts of the British aristocracy during this period, suggesting that the type was either common or irritating enough that it needed to be vented about in fiction. But at the thought that a baron’s nephew might meet someone at a shop. I know. Anyway. Hugh falls for Laura, hard, and kisses her; she runs away because she’s the sort of nice girl that waits for marriage. Hugh, who apparently hasn’t been laid recently enough, decides that since Laura is gorgeous and the type of girl who waits for marriage, that he will marry her, only, you know, not exactly tell his family about it until after the fact because they’re not going to be thrilled.

Actually, nobody is thrilled, not even Laura, who has—completely unaccountably—fallen for Hugh. I say unaccountable, since his sole redeeming qualities are that he’s decent looking (but less good looking than many Heyer heroes, and Heyer would later violently react agains the concept of good looking heroes in any case) and wrote some rather unnoticed World War I poetry. That’s it. I only wish I were kidding.

Part of the attraction, admittedly, is Hugh’s social status. Heyer seems to believe that the lower classes are so thrilled to be noticed by the spoiled upper classes, even after World War I, that they just will just fall for any of that group who pays them the slightest bit of attention. But Heyer, and every other character in the book, does recognize that, oooh, you’re the nephew of a baron, is not enough to base a marriage on. Laura’s friends and coworkers issue warnings; Hugh’s friend Quillinan correctly recognizes that Laura is too good for Hugh, while recognizing how deeply in love Laura is.

Ignoring all of this excellent advice, Hugh and Laura marry. It goes badly.

Aside from physical attraction, the two have absolutely nothing in common. It’s not just class differences, either. Laura is not terribly clever. This is, alas, all too common for Heyer: her intelligent lower class characters are rare indeed until her later novels. A more intelligent woman might have found some way to ape the manners of the upper classes and read the various books that Hugh reads. Laura does not, which just highlights their many differences. It’s not just intellectualism, either. She’s religious; he isn’t. He likes obscure, experimental plays; she likes Charlie Chaplin. He is passionate about art; she only likes religious images. He’s a spendthrift; she believes in living within a budget. And so on.

As it turns out, he’s also emotionally abusive, able to tell her to cut off ties with her family completely while he flits off to hang out with his friends, leaving her terrified and alone in the apartment. Shortly before a dinner party, he fails to inform Laura that among his social circle and class, the done thing is for the women to rise and leave the table and let the men go have their cigarettes and port on their own before rejoining the women. (Sigh. But let us move on.) Laura, being from a nice friendly family that doesn’t believe in segregating the sexes after a nice friendly dinner, knows nothing of this. The female guest realizes it, takes a moment to kindly cover for Laura, and saves the situation for everyone except Hugh, who suddenly decides that the female guest in question is going to spend the rest of her life making fun of Hugh and Laura. (In some justice to Hugh, most of the upper class people in this book do seem to spend most of their time making fun of or criticizing others behind their backs.) And so Hugh sulks. Why he couldn’t have mentioned this custom to Laura beforehand—Laura has repeatedly asked him to prevent her from making social errors of this sort—is completely unknown. But he doesn’t hesitate to take out his supposed humilation on her anyway.

A few pages later, his cousin dies, leaving Hugh the heir to a nice barony, and he realizes, gasp, the horror, the horror, that he would never have married Laura if he’d known he would inherit a barony since she just doesn’t belong there. And that pretty much tells you all you need to know about Hugh.

To be fair, Hugh’s attitude is entirely consistent with those of the upper classes of England of Hugh’s time, those, that is, that were not running after American heiresses. They believed in marrying within their own class, and I can’t be surprised at Hugh’s attitude. But I can be surprised that a man who has just survived World War I and knows he is nephew to a barony, with only one cousin in the way, doesn’t think, hmm, there’s a chance I might succeed here, so, yeah, need to take marriage marginally seriously, especially since the girl has suddenly agreed to sleep with me anyway without marriage. That is, I would be surprised if it weren’t Hugh. Grr.

Hugh is hardly Heyer’s only completely self-centered, selfish hero—she was to specialize in this sort—but unlike the others, he is also deeply immature, and greatly unlike most of the others, love does not improve him, even slightly. And yet does Heyer blame Hugh?

No, she blames the class differences for breaking up the marriage, even as she created two characters who could not possibly have formed a long lasting happy, ideal marriage even if they had been from the same class.

Not that the class differences are helping. I can’t tell whether this was conscious or unconscious, but even in her snobbery, Heyer created a work where the vast majority of the upper class characters are irredeemably awful. (I suspect somewhat conscious: Heyer is trying here to show a good woman of the lower classes completely destroyed by trying for a bit of upper mobility—a bit her husband, not she, insisted on.) As Laura notes immediately, most of his family, for all of Hugh’s love of their free and easy manners, are flat out rude. Her family at least tries to welcome her husband; it’s not their fault that he’s a complete jerk. His family does not. His cousin Hilda has the nerve to suggest that she understands poverty and money scrimping better than the working class Laura—one of the few characters shown to concerned about living within her budget. Most of the upper class characters are deeply in debt, but have no intention of paying their bills, or doing anything particularly useful in life. (Except for helping the Communists, something Heyer doesn’t approve of, so I’m not sure that counts, even if it at least comes across as doing something.) Admittedly, Heyer wants us to understand that Hugh’s friends are, for the most part, a bad set, and part of Laura’s failure is that she’s unable to convince him to hang out with the better set of friends. (In justice to Hugh, these “better friends” sound frightfully dull.)

But for a book based partly on the idea that the upper classes are inherently better than the lower classes, and that the lower classes can never aspire to having the ways and the manners of the upper classes, Barren Corn has remarkably few even mildly decent upper class characters. (One of the few is the baron’s sister, a gruff, forthright plain speaking but ultimately kindly type that Heyer would make use of in future books.) Heyer is arguing simultaneously for the superiority of the upper classes while noting their flaws, flaws she thinks are worsened when class boundaries are breached, either through marriage or helping Communists. The marriage doesn’t just hurt Laura; it also harms Hugh.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help thinking, throughout the book, that it really wasn’t the marriage between an aristocrat and a shop girl that was the problem, but rather a marriage between the abusive Hugh and, well, anyone. Heyer does provide another secondary character who, we are assured, loves Hugh, is from his class, and will make him a better spouse, but this still doesn’t make Hugh any less of an impulsive jerk.

But if I can’t stand Hugh, as I said, I found the book oddly compelling. The portrait Heyer draws of the idle rich between the wars, almost certainly drawn from life, holds a certain fascination. Also fascinating: Heyer’s concept, repeated in later novels, particularly her Regencies, that one way to distinguish true aristocrats from, er, their lessers is their free and easy manners—by which Heyer partly means a lack of pretension, but also often means plain rudeness. They can, of course, be rude, since they have no financial need to be polite. Since Hugh actually does not have this sort of money (he is largely living off his uncle) he tends to be—somewhat—more polite, but Laura is correct to note with horror the utter lack of consideration that his family, for the most part, holds for anyone, including their closest kin. This was an observation that Heyer would later play with in both her mysteries and Regency novels. With a few exceptions, the wealthier her protagonists and minor characters, the less interested in manners and kindness they become.

And if the book fails as a warning against marriages between the upper and lower classes (and I should note that Laura is not really all that lower class, despite the constant descriptions of her as common: her family is highly respectable, lives in a decent sized house, and even has a servant), it does work as an absorbing look at an abusive marriage, even if Heyer herself hardly seems to realize that’s what she’s describing. Her portrait of Laura, pathetically eager to defend and stay with her husband, and her portrait of Hugh, he of “what excuse can I come up with to justify my terrible decision-making next,” and their mutual attempts to blame their emotional differences and inability to create a mature relationship on something they can’t control—birth and class—rather than something they could attempt to control—trying to find common interests, or at least take an interest in each other’s passions, ring very true. As does Hugh’s slow realization that he had never really been in love with Laura in the first place, and his dawning horror at the evaporation of his infatuation.

I kept mentally urging Laura to grow a spine and walk out of the marriage, realizing she probably wouldn’t, and her tragic decision at the end of the book to commit suicide, which sounds melodramatic as I write it, rang very true—as did her decision to load down the other woman who inexplicably loves Hugh with a lifelong guilt trip. I could absolutely believe that this marriage and this man would drive Laura to suicide. I just wish Heyer had tried to make her point about class with more intelligent and less abusive characters. And if I found the book ultimately infuriating, I have to admit that it is one of the most readable and enthralling of her early books.

Heyer was never to lose the snobbery, but she was to later admit that marriages between social unequals could work, as we’ll see in later books.

 

Follow the Georgette Heyer reread here.


Mari Ness has now decided that she needs to inherit a nice barony so she, too, can be nice and rude to everyone she meets. In the meantime she has had to satisfy herself with moving a cat off her keyboard, which the cat, at least, considered terribly rude and offensive.

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