In the middle of World War II, Georgette Heyer found herself obsessed with writing a novel about a family of quarrelsome Cornish aristocrats, led by an often crude, often vicious elderly tyrant, and how people can slowly, but surely, slip into financial ruin—and murder. The novel so obsessed her, she confessed herself sometimes unable to think of anything else. The more she wrote, the more she was convinced that she was at last writing something truly great, the novel that would at last gain her the literary recognition she craved, that even her most serious, painstakingly researched novels or her most popular ones had failed to gain. Penhallow, she was convinced, would be her literary masterpiece.
We’ve all been wrong sometimes.
Penhallow opens on a note intending to signal readers that this time, Heyer means to shock and deal with the realities of life, with a character named Jimmy the Bastard, who, I have to say, kinda deserves the name, because he’s both illegitimate and a complete jerk. Heyer uses his introduction to begin to introduce the rest of the generally unpleasant family through a description of their shoes, and by the time you finish seeing the family through Jimmy’s eyes, your skin may be crawling.
It’s a large family: the hellish patriarch, Adam, who enjoys controlling and abusing his family; his second wife, the deeply emotionally abused Faith; the multiple children from his first marriage: broody Raymond, hearty Ingram, clever Eugene, even more clever Audrey, Charmian the Lesbian (she could put it on a name tag), fierce twins Bart and Conrad; Clay, his son with his second wife, Faith; his sister-in-law Clara, who has pretty much stopped worrying what anyone else thinks; Eugene’s wife Vivian; Ingram’s wife Myra; and assorted other characters, including relatives Delia, Phineas, Cliff and Rosamund, and servants Loveday and others. Also the Vicar, since, well, this is a story set in the English countryside, so, the Vicar.
With this many characters, even with some making belated if graceful appearances (Audrey, Charmian, the Vicar), it’s not surprising that many get short-shifted (Delia) or stay two-dimensional cardboard cutouts (Ingram, Conrad). Worse, Heyer ends up doubling up on her character types, so we have not one, but two clever men delivering insults and quips and pretty much all of the humor (Eugene and the much sharper Audrey); three or even four rude, burly physical men types (Raymond, Bart and Conrad); two bluff country squire types, and on, and on. Still worse, nearly every character is one we have seen before in Heyer’s previous novels: Faith is Fay from The Unfinished Clue; Clay is Guy of Behold Here’s Poison; Adam Penhallow is Sylvester from The Talisman Ring (and would appear in many many many Regency books later); Aubrey and Eugene any of Heyer’s previous “rudest men in London,” and so on.
But with one change: here, almost every single character, with the very arguable exceptions of Vivian, Clara, Myra, Charmian and the Vicar, is just awful. And all of those exceptions I just mentioned, with the again arguable exceptions of Vivian and Charmian, are very minor characters. Charmian doesn’t arrive until midway through the book; Vivian, for all her spirit, is also more than a bit of a drama queen who many readers will not like.
We’ve talked about Heyer’s odd adoration for her rude characters before. In Penhallow, however, the characters go far beyond rude to outright emotionally and physically abusive. Bart—described, believe it or not, as one of the nicer characters—kicks Jimmy down the stairs, breaking Jimmy’s rib and spraining his wrist. The other characters hit and slap each other on a regular basis. When, that is, they aren’t throwing things. Eugene and Aubrey content themselves with cleverly phrased insults, but Eugene’s insults have a cruelness to them found in few of Heyer’s other rude characters. Even the cat is described as “disreputable.” Adam is hands down the most brutal of Heyer’s domestic tyrants, forcing his wife to live with one of his mistresses (and, although she doesn’t know it, down the road from another one) and working to control and destroy the lives of almost all of his children.
Indeed, it’s that destructive need that leads to the climax of the novel—Adam’s murder. As Adam continues to head towards death, whatever limited common sense he has (not much) disintegrates still further: he fights with his sons about the farm and horse breeding; announces plans to bring back Aubrey, a poet and writer, to work in agriculture, and to pull Clay back from Oxford, before obtaining a degree, to become a solicitor. The plans cause distress to the entire family, not helped by the revelation that Bart has been conducting an affair with Loveday, Faith’s maid. (This apparently happened in part because Faith has given Loveday ideas “above her station.”)
For Heyer, this last bit was daring—as was her inclusion of the lesbian Charmian, multiple (mild) swear words, and, she thought, serious discussion of the destruction and emotional abuse someone clinging to aristocratic rights, like Adam, could do. It’s good to see Heyer acknowledge at long last that yes, serious relationships could spring up between classes. Loveday may be lower class, but she is clever, self-educated, and seems to care for Bart, and if Bart is not exactly clever, he certainly feels passionately about Loveday, and plans to move to a farm, not an estate. Family and class distinctions apart, it’s not a bad match (even if I was mostly cheering it on to get Loveday out of that environment). But with the exception of Charmian, the family holds to those distinctions, reacts in horror, and even breaks out into physical violence when the engagement is announced.
This also leads to an example of one of the novel’s many problems: its ongoing contradictions. Heyer tells us, again and again, that Faith is easily shocked (after living with this family, how?) and very much against any marriage between classes. Fair enough, and her initial reaction of complete disbelief to Loveday and Bart’s romance rings true enough. But only a few pages later, Faith—the same Faith desperate not to lose Loveday, who hates the idea of marrying outside class boundaries—suddenly and inexplicably switches to supporting Loveday. I suppose this is in part meant to show that Faith’s mental stability is not particularly strong, but it adds one of many false and unbelievable notes to the book. But onwards.
Speaking of this romance, however, I do need to give credit to Heyer for showing, finally, the effects of sexual harassment on women in the servant class, and the pressures these women felt. Loveday, for instance, spends much of the novel avoiding unwanted touches from men other than Bart, and wondering just how long she can put off sleeping with Bart before he insists. From what we see of Bart, rape is a very real concern, and Heyer handles that with surprising concern for the lower class character. (For Heyer.) A second servant has been sleeping with Adam for years, but still has to take orders from Adam’s wife, something she deeply resents.
I also need to give Heyer full credit for making her lesbian character one of the very few somewhat likeable people in the novel, as well as one of the few showing any common sense or compassion, as well as making the ambiguously sexual character, Aubrey (I’m going with bisexual, but this is arguable), the most amusing and clever. This is somewhat mitigated by the sense I get that Heyer wants to suggest that their hellish family lives caused their sexualities, but at least it’s there.
And, for once, Heyer, who typically treated murder as entertainment, something she could get away with by having her victims either barely appear on the page or be thoroughly unlikeable characters that anyone would be happy to murder, shows that even murdering a thoroughly unlikeable character that anyone would be happy to murder has its ill effects. Removing Adam does not bring the expected peace or happiness for anyone (except arguably Aubrey); indeed, many characters are worse, or only slightly better off, after his death, and many are deeply suspicious of the accepted solution to his murder, meaning that the family will be under continued strain for some time. One character even commits suicide.
Speaking of that, the suicide is hands down the least convincing part of a not-very-convincing novel: it’s not that I can’t believe someone would commit suicide after finding out that almost everything he believes about his parentage is a lie, or that he would not want to live after this was discovered. I just can’t believe that this particular character would do this. It feels all wrong, especially since this character has spent most of the novel not seeming particularly interested in family or family history, but in the estate, and he only suspects, but does not know, that he might be disinherited. But also, Heyer expects me to find this suicide tragic, and, well, no; the character in question has been physically violent and brutal throughout the novel and I’m not in the least sorry to see him go.
Penhallow also introduces a theme that would begin to obsess Heyer in later novels: land management. The subject of what would become of the great English country estates was just then a major topic of conversation, as many of the houses were appropriated by the military for various uses during World War II, many aristocrats were suspected of harboring pro-Nazi views (some of these suspicions had merit), and, of course, the government was faced with the question of just how to pay for this extremely expensive war. Hi, rich people! The subject of taxation in particular was to vex Heyer greatly over the years (her biography could have been subtitled A Writer’s Problems With Britain’s Internal Revenue), but she was also concerned with a subject less close to her personal experience: the survival of these country estates.
Penhallow features a land owner who is blatantly mismanging his estates and farms on multiple levels. His sons may be wrong about whether or not a college education for his youngest son is justified, but they are right that the estate is grossly mismanaged and thus bleeding money—with negative consequences for the family, its tenants, and the horses. (Poor horses). Part of the reason for Penhallow’s murder is to save the estate, but the murder may have happened too late. It is a concern that Heyer would take up in later novels.
The land mismanagement, the suicide, and the unusual ending for a book with a murder (the murderer is not arrested because, if you are not finding this book depressing enough, the police are incompetent), the sexually ambivalent characters, the shocking language, the study of a family disintegration, somewhat alleviated by the waspish comments of Eugene and Aubrey: all this was meant to show that yes, Heyer was a serious contemporary writer. But for all this, Penhallow remains a brutal read, of pages after pages of people being mean and nasty to each other and screaming and throwing things, with little of the psychological depth Heyer was trying to achieve; the characters she spends the most time with are among the least convincing or irritating, and the few clever moments here and there are not enough to make this an enjoyable read. It was later shelved and sold with her contemporary mystery novels, and shocked more than one reader who picked it up expecting the lighthearted tone of most of the earlier mysteries.
Although Penhallow garnered generally decent reviews and sales, and the questionable honor of getting banned in Ireland for indecency, it did not receive the literary attention Heyer had craved, or the sales of previous books. She blamed in part her publisher’s poor publicity, and ongoing wartime shortages. It is also possible that World War II readers did not want brutal books about nasty people set in contemporary times: they wanted escapism and amusement, or, if something more serious, something set further back in time. Or, readers reacted poorly because it was a poor book. Heyer reacted to that, and the war, by slowing down her writing and going into depression, something that she could treat in only one way: retreating to another book of absolute fluffiness and escapism: Friday’s Child, the work that would change her career.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.