Creating a World of Irony and Froth: The Convenient Marriage

It took sixteen books, but in The Convenient Marriage Heyer finally created the voice and tone that she would later use to create her Regency world: arch, ironic, frothy, and sharp, combining high drama with moments of farce, sharp comments on interior decorating, and perhaps above all, a world created in part through precise and hilarious descriptions of elaborate clothes. (For years, Heyer would assure readers that clothes make the character, in more ways than one.) Here, too, are the characters she would use, with alterations, in so many Regency books: the seemingly lazy but always impeccably dressed aristocratic hero; the warm hearted, often heedless young heroine (later replaced by or matched with a somewhat older, practical heroine); and a secondary cast of amusing fops and fools, focused largely on clothes and entertainment, with at least one practical person around to provide just a touch of common sense. Above all, the novel sparkles with humor and misdirection: this is, hands down, Heyer’s frothiest and most amusing book yet, a solid sign for where she would go from here.

It may come, then, as a bit of a shock to realize that The Convenient Marriage, in many ways the first of Heyer’s Regency novels, is not set in the Regency period at all, but rather the Georgian, a world that Heyer recognized as considerably more free in many ways than later periods, particularly for women, a social truth that she strongly exploits in this book.

When the Winwoods, a respectable family facing near ruin thanks to the gambling and other exploits of a rather disreputable brother and son, find themselves approached by the Earl of Rule for the hand of their daughter, Elizabeth, they gratefully accept. Oh, certainly, Rule is a rake, with at least two known mistresses, and presumably several more unknown ones, and equally certainly, Rule is not exactly the responsible sort himself, continuing to avoid his Parliamentary duties and foisting other tasks upon his secretary. And Elizabeth just happens to be in love with another man. But Rule is wealthy, and the man Elizabeth loves is not. All seems doomed—that is, until Elizabeth’s younger sister, the 17 year old Horatia, heads to Rule’s home (scandal!) and offers herself in her sister’s place.

Horatia, as she carefully and honestly explains, is not as beautiful as her sister, will never grow tall, and, besides, stammers. But one of them must marry Rule to settle the family debts. Amused, Rule accepts Horatia’s offer, after some initial hesitation. He is 35; she is only 17.

Only a few people speak out against the marriage: Rule’s cousin Crosby, who has always believed that he will inherit Rule’s large estate; Mrs. Massey, one of Rule’s (seemingly) many mistresses; and on a more compassionate note, Horatia’s older brother Pel and her sister Elizabeth, both of whom are concerned that Rule will not tolerate some of Horatia’s exploits—most notably her tendency to act before she thinks.

The concerns have merit: only a few months after her wedding, Horatia, delighting in finally having money of her own, and enjoying the freedoms allowed to her as a married woman, is the talk of the town, what with expensive carriages, extremely expensive (if delightful) clothes, the introduction of monkeys (well, a monkey) to inappropriate social occasions, and, despite the example of her reprehensible brother, very deep gambling.

The threat is very real: heavy gambling brought numerous aristocratic families to ruin or near ruin—especially since many gamblers firmly believed that eventually their luck had to change, allowing them to make back everything they had lost. (This hopeful belief rarely seems to work in the real world, alas.) And it threatens to break up an already fragile marriage, especially after Horatia’s love of cards and gambling lands her into some real trouble and scandal. Adding to her problems: Rule’s cousin, mistress and rival are all determined to destroy the marriage – and Horatia’s few allies are considerably less clever and skilled. And Horatia’s age is not the only issue: as you might be gathering from the use of my word “mistress,” Rule has been cheating on her.

Incidentally, this is the first of three books where readers are left to guess if the married protagonists are sleeping together. With this book, I feel confident in saying “no,” thanks to several clues here and there: Honoria’s age (Rule initially says that she is too young to be married, and appears to be willing to wait until she’s ready for sex); their separate bedrooms (admittedly a standard of the aristocracy of the time); the fact that her older sister, married a few weeks after Honoria, becomes pregnant, while Honoria does not. This last little tidbit has no particular effect on the plot, and seems almost certainly inserted as a discreet note from the author that no, Horry and Rule have not yet slept together. Horry’s surprised response to Rule’s later passionate kisses supports this; let’s at least say that if they did sleep together, it was not good for her prior to that point.

But the biggest argument in favor of a non-consummated relationship is the fact, soon discovered by Horry, that Rule is still with his mistress. This does not prevent Rule from slowly falling in love with his wife, beginning Heyer’s separation of sex and passion from love. It also does not prevent Horatia from becoming deeply jealous.

Jealousy is a rare trait in a Heyer novel; protagonists, particularly in later novels, and particularly women, were more likely to readily accept, and even say, that their men in general and their husbands in specific will seek out other women from time to time. In only a few novels does Heyer even bother to provide a potential rival, and in most of these cases, the heroine quietly accepts that this is or will be part of her husband’s life.

Horatia also accepts that extramarital affairs will be part of her husband’s life, and that she, after all, had told him that she would not interfere. (What might today be called an open marriage, only apparently with a lot less discussion on Rule’s part—Horatia finds out about her husband’s mistress from her brother.) But that does not stop her from feeling a deep jealousy – and deciding to beat her rival for glamour and daring, f she cannot rival her in love.

My guess is that in the days of arranged marriages, this might well have been common, with couples refraining until they were old enough (although Horatia at seventeen clearly thinks she is old enough for marriage, several other characters disagree, not merely because of her age, but her maturity level.) So in that sense, it’s another surprisingly realistic touch in this otherwise frothy novel. But it also speaks to something else: Heyer’s growing conviction that sex was not a particularly important part of marriage, or an indication of anything other than either lust or the need or desire for children.

Still, tt’s a marked change from one of her early books, Instead of the Thorn, where the marriage collapses because of the lack of sex, and, perhaps still more critically, the protagonist’s (I can’t call her a heroine) fear of it. Heyer would still demonstrate passionate moments between her romantic couples, but as her books continued, she would separate the concepts of sex and love still further. (Adam and Jenny, in A Civil Contract, are definitely sleeping together—Jenny gets pregnant—but sleeping with Jenny does not make Adam fall in love.) Later Heyer character readily accept that their husbands will seek out other women from time to time, adding that this has very little to do with the reality of marriage or their love for their wives.

But this reality also includes a strong double standard. Rule can and does cheat on his wife with no fear of divorce; a single hint that Horatia was found in a gentleman’s chambers (I’ll just let you all gasp) is enough to possibly end her marriage and ruin her family forever. It’s a double standard Heyer apparently agreed with. Not only would all of her respectable and nearly all of her not so respectable female characters uphold it, but Heyer would also continually drop negative comments about Lady Caroline Lamb and other members of the Devonshire Set, a social circle where wives were notoriously and sometimes blatantly unfaithful to their husbands. And although Heyer clearly gathered much of her material and feel for the period from the dramatist Sheridan, he remains unnamed in her novels—perhaps because both he and his spouses were renowned for infidelity.

Sidenote: Parts of The Convenient Marriage do seem to be strongly inspired by the real life story of the leader of the Devonshire Set, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.Like Horatia, Georgiana was married at a very young age to a very wealthy man; like Horatia, Georgiana had to contend with disapproving relatives and her husband’s mistresses; like Horatia, Georgiana almost immediately turned to heavy gambling and even heavier spending, drawing up staggering debts. But Heyer introduces some distinct differences: notably that Horatia does not become best friends with her husband’s mistress, and that she and her husband do fall in love. It helps that Rule finds Horatia adorable; it also helps that Horatia does not lie to him.

Heyer’s snobbery is somewhat toned down here, but not entirely, as her treatment of Horatia’s rival, the widow Lady Massey, shows. Lady Massey, Heyer explains, will never fully be accepted, despite her wealth, her title and excellent choice in wines, because she is not bon ton—i.e., aristocratic. This is not, as it happens, because she is sleeping with two men; many members of the ton do not know about, or greatly care about, this sort of thing. It is because of the circumstances that led to this: Lady Massey’s first husband, although wealthy, was in trade, and however excellent her manners, however better her birth, that error means she can never fully be socially accepted, and will always be regarded as vulgar. It is also why she is sleeping with Rule; she hopes to marry him, and, with her marriage to an aristocrat, be fully accepted into London society. But it is Horatia, however straitened her initial circumstances, that gains that acceptance, and Heyer remains aware of this double standard. In this book, at least, she is not yet willing to accept that money can overcome all disadvantages of birth—a belief she would question only later.

For all of my talk of snobbery and double standards, however, this is above all a fun book, full of froth and merriment and a classic scene involving a highway robbery, and a later classic bit of a farce to wrap up everything in a happy ending. It’s definitely not a bad place to start reading Heyer, if you’ve never encountered her before, and an enjoyable bit of fluff for a reread

Time to skip another book:

The Unfinished Clue: Heyer’s first typical English country house murder mystery, notable mainly for an early hilarious scene where the exotic dancer Lola di Silva is introduced to her horrified prospective relatives at dinner, and a first appearance of a Jewish character, Mr. Samuel Lewis. The stereotypical Mr. Lewis becomes a figure of fun both for readers and other characters, but for all that, and for his clearly Not Being One of Us, Heyer also depicts him as thoroughly practical, sympathetic and helpful. For all his flaws, he is one of the more admirable characters in a novel otherwise short of admirable characters (it is a murder mystery, after all, and thus needs to Provide Motives.) Otherwise, this is an unremarkable book, marked mostly by perhaps the least plausible motive ever in the history of detective fiction and an ending that will be regarded by most mystery fans as deeply unfair.

Next up: Regency Buck, which I only wish I could skip. My comments will not be kind. You have been warned.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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