Bonapartist Spies: The Reluctant Widow

When a wealthy, good looking baron asks you to marry his dissolute and drunken cousin so that you, not he, can inherit the cousin’s crumbling estate, you have a couple of options: you can wish that you were dancing at Almack’s, or you can find yourself accepting the offer, and marrying a man you have never met before in your life, just hours before his death, turning you into The Reluctant Widow.

If you are thinking all this sounds just slightly improbable, I’m with you, but Lord Carlyon, the baron in question, is a very persuasive sort of person; Elinor Rochwood extremely impoverished after her father’s suicide, and desperate to leave her job as a governess; and Eustace Cheviot, the drunken cousin, the sort of really awful person that she really didn’t want to know well anyway. So after Carlyon’s young brother Nicky shows up announcing that he has more or less killed Eustace Cheviot, mostly accidentally, Elinor, without quite knowing how, finds herself a widowand the owner of the crumbling estate Highnoons. (No, really.) She also finds herself beset with aristocratic housebreakers, rusted suits of armor, relatives, her old governess Miss Beccles (summoned to provide a respectable companion). Also, an adorable dog named Bouncer, who takes his duties of guardianship, and his need to find ham bones, very seriously.

By the time she sat down to write The Reluctant Widow, Georgette Heyer was well aware that her financial and popular success rested in comedies of manners like Friday’s Child, with its careful recreation of a world that never was. Still, she resisted creating a second similar romp, instead choosing to write an affectionate parody of the Gothic novel, yielding to popular demand only to the extent of setting this novel, as well, in the Regency period. Like her predecessor Jane Austen, Heyer could not resist making fun of gloomy old homes with secret stairs, rusting suits of armor and lots of hanging vines, but unlike Austen, Heyer chose to insert an actual physical threat in her novel: Bonapartist agents.

The subject of Fifth Columnists had been much in British news during and after World War II, as the threat of Communism replaced the threat of Nazi Germany, and questions continued to arise about the role played by some British aristocrats, some of whom were known to have Nazi or Communist inclinations, in the years leading up to World War II. Heyer was not part of the Cliveden set or friends with Diana Mitford, but she had acquaintances who were, and was well aware of the varying set of reactions to finding out that social acquaintances and even relatives had suspected ties to enemy nations.

That awareness penetrates the novel, as shortly after Elinor’s marriage and Eustace Cheviot’s death, the Cheviots and Carlyons realize, to their mutual horror, that Eustace Cheviot was not merely a bad man, despised by all in the neighborhood, but was passing on information to French agents for financial gain. Almost immediately, they realize that Cheviot could not have acted alone—he lacked both the contacts and the skills—which means that someone they know is a Bonapartist agent. Someone who is fully accepted in the highest social circles.

Of their three suspects, one, Louis de Chartres, is the son of a French marquis, who can, as a horrified Nicky points out, be met anywhere, by which he means anywhere in society. (“Very true,” replies Carlyon. “Mrs. Cheviot seems even to have met him here.”) The second, Lord Bedlington, is an intimate of the Prince Regent (this allows Heyer to get off several good cracks at the Regent’s expense). The third is his son, Francis Cheviot, who is of good ton and dresses exquisitely well. Readers of Heyer’s mysteries, especially Behold, Here’s Murder and Why Shoot a Butler, will probably not be particularly surprised by the denouement (the clothing is a giveaway), but the mystery does at least serve to puzzle most of the characters for some time.

The Reluctant Widow touches on another new concern of Heyer’s, which had appeared for the first time in Penhallow: that of agricultural mismanagement and waste. What with all of the gambling, fighting, womanizing, and delivering secret papers to Bonapartist agents, Eustace Cheviot has understandably not had a lot of time to spend managing his estate or keeping his house in order. This in turn makes the estate considerably less valuable. It soon becomes clear that one reason Carlyon does not want to inherit it is the increased workload the estate will bring him. Not that this keeps him from having to do various things to get the estate in order, when, that is, he is not investigating Bonapartist agents. The mismanagement has also increased the local hatred for Eustace Cheviot, since this has meant decreased employment opportunities. It hasn’t done much for Eustace, either: his failure to manage his lands and rents properly means that his income from them has dropped precipitously, which in turn has made him more desperate for money, which in turn has led to his gambling and spying activities. It’s almost, but not quite, an explanation for just why some of the British aristocracy supported facism—failing mostly because many of these aristocrats were hardly facing the same dire financial issues.

It’s not entirely Eustace’s fault. The Reluctant Widow also deals with the serious issue of the problems that can inflict land (and houses) inherited by minors. Eustace is unable to take control of his lands until he is of age, and although his managers are not accused of mismanaging the property, it is not their land, and they do not have a personal interest in it. When Eustace does come of age, he is already wild and vicious, angry and resentful that he has been left in the care of a cousin not much older than he is, and convinced that his lack of money is thanks to his cousin’s failures. It isn’t, but to be fair, with an estate and siblings of his own, Carlyon’s attention has been scattered. He, on the other hand, inherited his estate shortly before coming of age, giving him immediate control and interest in his lands. They are well managed.

Grand English country houses had survived until World War II, but the issue of these inherited estates would become more contentious in a nation facing major military bills, especially since some of their owners—like Eustace Cheviot—were suspected of having certain sympathies for the other side. (These suspicions were not silenced by statements taken as still supportive of fascism by such people as Diana Mitford and the Duke of Windsor, even if neither continued to live in Britain.)

Society, as Heyer recognized, was rapidly changing, as were the estate homes. Well managed estates could survive as tourist attractions and even as private homes, or private homes and tourist attractions (as, for instance, at Chatsworth, where the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire worked to make the estate and home profitable). Such survival, however, was usually possible only for families and landowners who took an active interest in these estates. Heyer, who had seen estates struggle before this, and who believed strongly in the English aristocratic system, even while noting its flaws, noted the pressure on estates with distress, and continued to explore these issues in her fiction.

A related note of austerity and savings appears in a short scene where Miss Beccles and Elinor find several useful items that only need to be mended to be used; Miss Beccles later rescues several items from the fire, pointing out that they are still useful. Both ladies express their horror that things were simply tossed into the attic rather than repaired, and that now, things that could be useful in a house not exactly flush with cash are getting burned. Heyer had complained about the prices of luxury items and regular food in Faro’s Daughter and fantasized about abundance in Friday’s Child, but here, she reflects wartime austerities where nothing that could conceivably be used would be thrown away.

She also took a fairly critical look at the Gothic romance novel, again undergoing one of its many revivals in part thanks to the recent success of Rebecca and its movie adaptations. Heyer, here and elsewhere, was essentially far too realistic to believe in most of the Gothic trappings, but she could and did have fun with the idea of the creepy, haunted looking house (complete with rusting suits of armor), secret staircases, and dissipated men, even if she could not quite bring herself to turn the cook/housekeeper into a Mrs. Danvers, although many of Heyer’s housekeepers owed more than a touch of their inspiration to Mrs. Fairfax.

Two more quick notes: we’ve talked before in the comments and previous posts about Heyer’s admiration for rude people, and her tendency to present rude people as somehow more effective than those who cling to manners. The Reluctant Widow is an outlier here: the single rude character is an unquestioned villain of the piece (indeed, a flaw of the book is that really he has too many flaws to be believable). Almost all of the other characters are polite indeed, and quite, quite considerate. Indeed, the more considerate and polite the character, the more dangerous.

Second, this is yet another novel where Heyer explores the role of a penniless woman, who needs rescue from the drudgery of employment. Elinor does not need rescue in the same way that Hero does, and she appears to be competent at her job. But the very fact that she agrees to her extraordinary marriage speaks volumes to how much she hates it. Exploring the restrictions placed on women of low income would be a continued subplot of Heyer’s Regency novels, a decided change from her earlier habits of endowing her heroines with wealth, or at least independence, and perhaps a reflection of the economic scarcities of the post World War II period.

The Reluctant Widow has its flaws, and many of them. The first few chapters stretch credibility, even in terms of some of Heyer’s not particularly credible novels. No matter how many times I read it, I cannot bring myself to believe that any woman with the character and morals Elinor is later described as having would marry a man she has never met before even if he is dying, simply to save a complete stranger from potential scandal. Especially since the rest of the book suggests that the scandal would be limited, not completely credited, and in any case not the biggest of the scandals. I can believe even less that Eustace, said to distrust everything Carlyon does, would agree to marry any woman brought to him by Carlyon. Or that Eustace’s relatives, determined to remove Carlyon from the scene (ostensibly out of concerns that Carlyon just wanted the estate, mostly to find the missing memorandum) would not severely question the unquestionably unconsummated marriage. And the less said about the romance between Elinor and Carlyon, hands down one of the least convincing of any of the Heyer novels, the better. (In retrospect I apologize for saying that I had problems believing the romance in Faro’s Daughter—at least those two had a love of quarreling in common.)

Against all this is the bright and amusing dialogue, the hilarious bit with the suit of armor which serves as a caution for any of us planning on defending our homes from invading aristocrats, Nicky’s ongoing cheerfulness, the urbane insults of Francis Cheviot, and Bouncer, that cheerful dog, making this a thoroughly enjoyable, if not thoroughly convincing, read.

Always in need of money, Georgette Heyer sold the film rights to The Reluctant Widow. The film appeared in 1950 and pretty much sank immediately into obscurity, until some YouTube user somewhat rescued it, putting most of a terrible copy with Greek subtitles up on the web. Having now seen most of it, I can completely understand why no one has rushed to get this out to the American public on DVD, and although the last ten minutes are missing from YouTube, or, rather, the last ten minutes appear to be hosted on a malware site, I don’t feel that I was missing much.

Heyer objected to virtually everything in the film, including the many unnecessary changes to the plot (she is correct), elimination of most of her dialogue (ditto, although I have to admit I laughed at the “I write all my best sonnets in bed”) and the addition of a sex scene where—gasp! a bosom is stroked. I didn’t object so much to the sex scene as that it makes absolutely no sense: first the sulky Elinor is pushing Francis Cheviot away (I know!) and then, as Carlyon enters the room, she suddenly kisses Francis (I know!) even though by this point she’s married to Carlyon (don’t ask; I thought it was a dream sequence) and then Carlyon starts to seduce her and says first he married her to his cousin, and then to himself (so it wasn’t a dream sequence) but he hasn’t told her that he loves loves loves her and they kiss and then he says he has to go tie up Francis in his bedroom (!) so they won’t be disturbed (!) at which point Elinor who until now was making out with him panics and hides in the secret passage so Carlyon sleeps on her bed (clothed). He finds her in the morning (I’m lost too), takes tea from the maid and then starts seducing Elinor again who this time seems happier (tea is very seductive) and goes for it even though hours earlier she was HIDING IN A SECRET PASSAGE to escape his MAD CARESSES and fade to black, all while THEY ARE THREATENED BY NAPOLEONIC SPIES. It’s actually worse than this, because I am leaving out all of the stuff in the beginning that makes no sense, if quite raunchy for a 1950s film, but you can hardly blame Heyer for objecting, and making no attempt to have her books filmed again.

Mari Ness usually gets very angsty when people refuse to transfer old movies to DVD or streaming format. Not this time. She lives in central Florida.


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