The Most Noble Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware, Duke of Sale and lots of other titles, or Gilly to his friends, leads a life most of us might envy: several grand houses, armies of servants that put Downton Abbey’s elaborate staff to shame (Gilly has a Chief Confectioner, although his agent is not Entirely Happy with this person), and a family and staff devoted to his best interests. Indeed, they are pathetically concerned about the 24 year old Gilly’s supposedly fragile health. Gilly, in turn, hating arguments, and aware of how much he owes his various guardians, slinks back from asserting himself, even as his inner anger at the constraints about him grows. It’s a testament to Georgette Heyer’s powers of writing in The Foundling that all of this wealthy oppression manages to seem sympathetic.
Not that everyone does sympathize. Gilly’s young cousin Matt, for one, beset by major issues of his own, feels that Gilly should try being a normal person just for once. And since Gilly is feeling particularly oppressed, he suddenly decides to follow his cousin’s advice—and possibly help Matt out along the way.
Heyer had made her name by creating romantic plots, and the opening scenes of The Foundling, where Gilly finds himself obligated in all honor and by all relatives to ask for the hand of Lady Harriet Presteigne, do seem to suggest that a romantic plot will be forthcoming. But in much the same way as The Reluctant Widow had mostly abandoned romance to make fun of gothic novels, in The Foundling, Heyer mostly abandoned romance for a coming of age story where the romantic heroine barely appears.
It’s a rather odd decision for an author associated with romance to make in her third straight Regency novel. A touch of rebellion, perhaps, against an audience that kept demanding her light period pieces, with their romantic endings? By this time, Heyer had realized that most of her writing would focus on Regencies, but as her correspondence reveals, she had still not given up all hope of the “serious” novel, Lighthearted and funny though The Foundling is, it is for the most part a book of rebelling against the well meant strictures of others, although, in an ironic touch, the only person who actually manages to escape his socially destined role (and relatives) is the villain, Mr. Liversedge.
This inner rebellion may also explain why The Foundling takes awhile to get going, as Heyer takes the time to explain, in minute detail, just how frustrating and confined Gilly’s life is, for all his money, to allow us to better understand his rebellion—and his later irritation. In the process, Heyer also drops tidbits that she would use to create her Regency world, and particularly her Regency servant world. Servants, in Heyer’s Regency, take great pride in service and their roles, and generally exhibit an almost unhealthy devotion to their employers. Heyer had created devoted maids and valets before this, of course, but in The Foundling she carefully created an entire household hierarchy, most of which she promptly abandons right along with Gilly.
Gilly, after all, is seeking adventure, which is not ordinarily found by people surrounded by well meaning, cossetting men. So off he goes—straight into discomfort (by early 19th century Ducal standards, you understand) and into the guardianship of two young teenagers: Tom, who like the Duke, is attempting to escape well meaning relatives and tutors; and the beautiful and brainless Belinda, the foundling of the title, all too willing to go off with any man who promises her a purple silk gown and jewels.
Belinda has, after all, no relatives, and very few prospects, and as another character later points out compassionately, she has also not had much of an upbringing. Which partly explains how she has tumbled into the clutches of her self-appointed guardian, the grandiloquent Mr. Liversedge, who, despite a past that has hovered on the edges of gentility and even wealth, is not above a bit of blackmail, kidnapping and murder. Liversedge intends to use some letters and verbal promises made by Matt to Belinda to blackmail Gilly. Heyer intends to use Liversedge and Belinda for a touch of humor. Naturally, mayhem, including a house fire, exploding ginger beer bottles, accusations of murder, several frustrating chases through southern England, and more, ensues.
It’s all great fun, thanks mostly to Liversedge. Like the old gentleman of The Masqueraders, Liversedge does not hesitate to dream big—of enough money to establish a high class gambling facility someplace in London or preferably Europe, which in Liversedge’s view means the equivalent of five times the annual income of a wealthy family in England at the time. Gilly, being unusually wealthy, can take this calmly, but the amount makes others gasp out loud. Liversedge handles his failures—and he has many of them—with great aplomb, never hesitating for a moment to admit his errors—while also never hesitating for a moment to blame others for his calamities, or explaining himself in terms of great dignity, or defending himself against what he terms calumnies:
“Before you succumb to this eloquence, Adolphus,” drawled Gideon, “I would remind you that this admirer of yours would have murdered you for a paltry sum.”
“There, sir,” instantly replied Liversedge, “I must join issue with you. For fifty thousand pounds I might have been able to overcome my natural repugnance to putting a period to his Grace’s life, but for a lesser sum I could not have brought myself to contemplate it. Those nobler instincts which even the basest of us have must have revolted.”
Nor does he hesitate to help his opponents when it will benefit him—even stooping to fill the role of a grand butler, a job he manages with brilliance. He even makes dessert. Only birth and circumstances have prevented him from climbing farther, and he has no intentions of allowing slight setbacks like the destruction of his only home to stop him now. Indeed, in Liversedge’s magnificent reckoning at the end of the novel, it is Gilly who owes him, not just for the loss of his home and the hopes of making money from Belinda, but for providing Gilly with a touch of excitement, tempering, and maturity. Gilly agrees, writing him a check.
But this is not merely repayment for services earned, but an act of self-interest on both parts. Gilly does not want society to know how easily he was duped, particularly since—as Liversedge does not hesitate to point out—Gilly presents a tempting target, especially after escaping his servants. And, as Gilly says only partly in jest, this is also an act of revenge against a town in Europe that bored him. And an act of gratitude at the same time.
Because by the end of the novel, Gilly is not merely no longer the diffident young man of its early pages, now able to shout down his uncle, but he has gained a small touch of cruelty and selfishness. Perhaps more than a small touch: his disappearance puts several people who care for him, and many who do not, in a genuine panic, not to mention leading to the destruction of a not exactly innocent house and inn that is yet the only source of revenue for its inhabitants. But when told that everyone from family to mere acquaintances has been terrified on his behalf, to the point of accusing his cousin Gideon (with reason) of murder, Gilly just laughs. The Gilly of the early pages of the book would have felt oppressive guilt and resentment; the Gilly of its end is apologetic, but not really sorry, even though he has put a number of people through some very real distress. He is later outright discourteous to his uncle both on major matters (a fight over land) and minor (not telling his uncle that Harriet has arrived, which necessitates more formal clothing).
And yet Heyer suggests that this new found selfishness is absolutely necessary for Gilly’s happiness—and the happiness of his tenants. As she quietly notes throughout the novel, in a zeal to prove that they have Gilly’s best interests at heart—at least his financial interests—Gilly’s uncle and land agents have been quietly squeezing money from his tenants, refusing to sell and lease land to people who could actually use it, and in at least some cases refusing to “invest in” cottages on Gilly’s estates—which means “repair.” Gilly has noticed this, but his efforts to correct the problem have been turned down because he is not assertive or selfish enough to fight people who keep assuring him that they have only his best interests in mind. A week spent in the company of decidedly less well off people, however, convinces him that for their good, at least, he needs to be more assertive—and less worried about hurting other people’s feelings.
Speaking of hurting other people’s feelings, The Foundling has one new note: several disparaging references to Methodists, and two Quakers who briefly enter the novel to harass the characters on religious grounds. Heyer had previously either avoided mentions of religion entirely (sometimes to the detriment of her novels, as in The Conqueror), or kept to safe jokes about kindly or stuffy English vicars or contemporaries seized by sudden religious trends (for example, the minor character in No Wind of Blame who speaks happily of being God-controlled). Her criticism remains light here, but present enough to make me wonder if she had been recently irritated by devout practitioners.
I do find one part of the book rather awkward. At its beginning, Gilly finds himself wishing—rather understandably—that he could choose his own bride, rather than the match his family is strongly encouraging. He also thinks that despite spending time with her, he does not know Lady Harriet well: as we learn, she is generally shy and often inarticulate.
And yet, after spending the next several chapters away from her, he suddenly trusts her enough to deliver the beautiful Belinda into her care, assuring her that he could not find anyone he liked better. Their mutual declarations of love work a bit better a few chapters later, after Harriet has shown her true character by helping Gilly—and by showing up to get him out of jail, quite shockingly, showing that they do have a hint of rebelliousness in common after all. And Heyer has softened this ending by having several minor characters point out that they’ve felt that Gilly and Harriet were in love with each other the entire time. (They phrase it as “not indifferent,” but what they mean is evident.)
Still, although I think Harriet knows her own feelings, Gilly does not, and I cannot think that his whole kidnapping, escape, and trotting through England with a young girl obsessed with purple gowns has done that much to lead him to that realization—although Harriet must have seemed an improvement in comparison. And I find myself rather wishing that, like Sir Richard Wyndham before him, he had not ended up with the bride chosen for him.
Having said all this, out of all of the Heyer couples, Gilly and Harriet are perhaps the best suited for each other: they come from similar backgrounds, share similar interests, have similar personalities, and are friends. Harriet, unlike many others, ends up approving of Gilly’s entire escapade. To an extent, too, Gilly’s proposal has a touch of Cinderella about it for Harriet: she’s certainly not poor (among the wealthier of Heyer’s post-war Regency heroines) and able to buy several hats without counting the cost, but she is not happy at home, and marriage and her own establishment represents freedom and escape. At the same time, Gilly’s casual dismissal of the very real pain and humiliation that Harriet has felt after an acquaintance has told her about Belinda, and a small note towards the end of the book suggesting that Harriet does not always understand Gilly’s sense of humor, strike warning notes, even if Harriet ends up acquiescing to both situations. Her last words of the novel are assurances that she will always obey Gilly. Gideon approves. I couldn’t help flashing back to an earlier scene, where Harriet’s governess, who knows Harriet’s feeling for Gilly, thinks that their marriage will work because Gilly is a model of compliance, something no longer true.
True, The Foundling is not a romance, so quibbling that its romance does not quite work is perhaps a touch unfair. At the same time, The Foundling is meant to be Gilly’s coming to age story, where he finally learns to take control of his own life, and it seems somewhat sad that he still lacks control of one of its most important factors—who exactly he’ll be sharing the rest of his life with. For all Heyer’s assurances that Harriet and Gilly are happy, with a lovely shared moment as they leave gaol, I remain somewhat unconvinced.
This quibble aside, The Foundling is a fun, if somewhat meandering read, containing some of Heyer’s great comedic scenes. I can’t exactly recommend it as a starting place for Heyer, but if you are enjoying Heyer, this is one book to check out.
Mari Ness does not own a single purple gown, although she does have a purple velvet jacket somewhere which should count. She lives in central Florida.