Restraining Social Activism: Arabella

Georgette Heyer was not known for paying much attention in her historical fiction to the problems faced by the lower classes, especially in her Regency novels, by now almost entirely focused on comedy. The lower classes, when they appeared at all, showed up as loyal, devoted servants—sometimes too devoted—thieves, or comedy figures. But after three straight Regency novels, in Arabella, she suddenly decided to introduce a touch—a mere touch—of poverty, as if to acknowledge that even in the idealistic Regency world of her creation, genuine, real poverty could appear.  And as if to immediately soften this, she surrounded this poverty with witty dialogue, romantic banter, and what by all appearances is the expected romantic ending. Appearances only; a closer look shows that the ending has, shall we say, issues.

Arabella, the protagonist, is not precisely poor. She lives in a comfortable home, has plenty to eat, and can even, with some very judicious planning, manage to pay for the ball gowns, morning gowns, tea gowns, gown gowns, gloves and other necessities for a stay among aristocrats in London.  One would think that the wealthy aristocrats could provide some of this clothing, but alas, they are only purchasing a Court Presentation dress and some “trifles”—the occasional shawl or pair of gloves. Although the Court Presentation dress appears to be a rather expensive item indeed.  In any case, the very fact that I am mentioning a Court Presentation just goes to show that Arabella’s status is not exactly among the lower sorts. The Royal Family isn’t presented to Just Anybody, you know.

Nonetheless, despite having the sort of breeding that makes her an acceptable person to be presented at Court, Arabella, as a member of a large and hopeful family living on the not exactly generous salary of a vicar, understands financial stress—and that although some of her siblings are provided for, thanks to the generosity of other relatives and their own particular skills, her sisters and two of her brothers are most distinctly not, and are in fact facing the possibility of tumbling from gentility into poverty, unless Arabella helps.

Heyer had of course played with impoverished or somewhat impoverished heroines before this, but these heroines had all been orphaned or partly orphaned; their poverty thus came more from bad luck than from choices on anyone’s part. (This would change later, as Heyer’s gaze and language became more ironic, and she began to rethink the way choices could constrict or widen people’s lives.) Arabella is the first heroine asked to make up for the “mistakes” of her parents. I put this in quotes, because although Arabella’s more worldly mother is aware of the financial stresses, her father is not, and the two have had a very happy, fulfilling marriage. Indeed this is also one of Heyer’s first large happy, successful families—almost a shock to read about after the dysfunctional families of her mystery novels and Penhallow, and even after the comparative family happiness of her last few Regency novels. So it’s kinda difficult to consider this marriage a mistake, even if it means that her children are facing dire financial prospects.

Heyer quite possibly had the real life family of Jane Austen in mind: well connected, with acquaintances throughout the gentry, and with one brother adopted into a baronetcy and a second marrying a French countess, the two Austen sisters faced genuine poverty and deprivation unless they married well (they did not) or received help from their family (they sorta did.) Part of the problem was that although the Austen brothers did well enough, they did not do that well. Heyer’s happier, escapist creation, meant to downplay real world problems, needed a happier financial ending. At the same time, by this point in her career, Heyer was too realistic not to provide an ironic undertone. And although Austen certainly suffered financially as the genteel daughter of a vicar, she was never sent into the upper aristocracy to save her siblings from poverty. Then again, she did not have a godmother in the upper aristocracy.

Anyway. Arabella is not surprised to learn that she is expected to marry well and provide for her siblings, and she is too obedient—and too delighted by the idea of a trip to London and a Season to object. After receiving some unexpected assistance from an uncle eager to remove her pretty face from the neighborhood of his just-starting-to-notice-pretty-girls son, and some careful clothes shopping, she is off to London and her wealthy, kindly godmother, Lady Bridlington, in an ancient carriage, accompanied by a governess as a chaperon.  Here, too, Heyer shows some unexpected insight into the issues of working women of the period:

Miss Blackburn, having undergone a lifetime of slights and snubs, was quick to catch the satirical inflection. She cast him a scared, deprecating look…

The not very comfortable carriage breaks down just outside the hunting lodge of the very wealthy, and very hunted, Mr. Robert Beaumaris. Mr. Beaumaris, accustomed to all sorts of wiles, as he puts it, from women eager to marry him for his money, assumes that Arabella is playing some trick on him. Arabella, overhearing this, is furious, and decides to go right ahead and play that trick—pretending to have a large, large fortune. Mr. Beaumaris is not fooled, but is annoyed enough to tell his friend that Arabella is very wealthy indeed.  And so, the very much in straitened circumstances Arabella finds herself warmly welcomed in London—for her money.

It’s an irony Heyer has a delightful time playing with. Her aristocrats have no problems fawning over Arabella, or doing dreadfully boring things, as long as they have a chance at money. Real money. Not that the aristocrats bother to investigate this supposed fortune too closely: Mr. Beaumaris’ word is good enough for them. Entertaining enough, since he is lying, and knows it, and just wanted revenge on Arabella—and to see if London would believe him. London does. But it does work as a revenge on Arabella: she soon enough learns that the fashionable world is convinced she is wealthy, and since she cannot quite bring herself to lie to a future husband directly, ends up turning down some very eligible suitors indeed—thus risking the wrath of her family, not to mention wasting all of the money spent on the trip. Her mother, I should note, directly called this an investment.

Meanwhile, Arabella is also shocking her suitors—and her godmother—by taking an interest in the poor. Part of this interest is forced on her, when she comes across Jemmy, an orphan ordered to clean the chimneys in Lady Bridlington’s house for very little pay. Unclean chimneys could present a very real threat of fire, and most chimneys in London were not all that wide, making children, in Regency eyes, ideal candidates for handling this type of threat. But as Heyer admits, in a rare admission of imperfections in the Regency period, the chimney sweeps could also be greatly abused. As Jemmy has been. An infuriated Arabella demands that Lady B. or her son Lord B. do something. They refuse, just as Mr. Beaumaris and Lord Fleetwood walk through the door. To his shock, Mr. Beaumaris finds himself agreeing to take care of the boy.

It’s the first of three cases where the notoriously selfish man finds himself caring for something less fortunate, starting with a dog (Ulysses, whom Mr. Beaumaris bitterly accuses of toad-eating) and continuing with Arabella’s brother. It’s also a sign to everyone—Lady B., Lord Fleetwood, readers and Mr. Beaumaris himself—that he is falling deeply in love with his verbal sparring partner. Arabella, meanwhile, decides that this must mean that Mr. Beaumaris is in fact kind. (Mr. Beaumaris, Heyer notes acerbically, has the grace to feel ashamed about this, but decides not to correct the impression.) She starts to fall in love with him, even though she cannot bring herself to tell him the truth when he asks why she can’t spend her fortune helping boys like Jemmy.

Her next encounter with London’s urban poor is more deliberate: her brother is out of money and hiding from creditors, and has ended up with some drunken prostitutes. It’s as close as Heyer gets to exploring the genuine poverty and underside of the wealthy Regency world she preferred to focus on. And yet, something very different happens here. Arabella successfully removes the small boy from his cruel master and grinding poverty; she removes the adorable dog from his cruel masters and near starvation. But she leaves the women where they are.

To be fair, these women are adults, and Arabella’s purse at this moment is not precisely full. And her previous encounter with Jemmy could not have encouraged her to believe that her godmother would be enthusiastic about the arrival of drunken prostitutes to her elegant home. Nonetheless.

A bit of a mix-up and and more antics from the dog (quite possibly the hands down best character in the novel), one hilariously set-up elopement later, where both of the romantic interests are attempting to trick each other into marriage, if for different reasons, and this should be among the most satisfying of Heyer’s books. When I was a teenager, it was.

But reading the last pages now makes me cringe. It’s not the way that Arabella and Mr. Beaumaris attempt to trick each other into marriage—Arabella changes her mind at the last minute when she realizes how morally wrong it is; Mr. Beaumaris has never been tricked for a second. Nor is it exactly the way Arabella spends weeks in misery while Mr. Beaumaris survives the novel with very little agony—oh, yes, he has to deal with Jemmy, and the slight irritation that Jemmy is upsetting his very expensive cook, and he finds himself inflicted with a dog that he doesn’t want—but as I mentioned, Ulysses is a very cute and very devoted dog, so I tend to think that Mr. Beaumaris came out ahead in this.  It’s fairly unusual for Heyer to have one protagonist suffer more than the other; I suspect in this case it’s less for gender reasons and more because Arabella lied, and knows it, and socially benefits from it; Mr. Beaumaris just repeated the lie, and is amused by it, and gets a dog from it.

Nor is it the moment when Mr. Beaumaris orders Arabella to never speak to him that way again: he is understandably uncomfortable with her sudden hero worshipping of him (he is as aware as the reader is that this is largely unearned). In this bit, at least, he is hoping to have Arabella speak to him as she did at their first meeting: as an equal.

Which brings me to exactly what’s wrong with the rest of this scene: she isn’t an equal. After a novel where she has more than held her own against Mr. Beaumaris, aristocrats, prostitutes called Leaky Peg, her brother’s gambling debts, and dog-abusers, in the last few pages she is reduced to a guilty, weepy teenager awed and overwhelmed by the man she’s about to marry. Heyer also drops yet another hint that Mr. Beaumaris is very well read—he is able to converse with Arabella’s father on a work of classical scholarship. Arabella has absolutely no idea what the book is about; and the conversation shows a considerable gulf between them.

I’ve questioned the romantic relationships between the leads in other Heyer books, of course, but in this case the gulf seems particularly strong: Arabella is unselfish, passionate about issues of poverty and inequality, has a scanty education, and comes from a modest background. Mr. Beaumaris, by his own admission and the general consensus of relatives and friends, is selfish, not in the least interested in issues of poverty and inequality, well educated, and from an extremely wealthy, privileged background. True, Heyer drops some early hints that Mr. Beaumaris is considerably kinder than he appears—or admits to himself, as his behavior to the governess shows, and Arabella brings out the best in him—which can only be a good thing. So perhaps this could work. Most of the novel, indeed, suggests it will work. But I’m still left uneasy. Worse, when Arabella once again attempts to speak up for someone less fortunate (the aforementioned Leaky Peg), Mr. Beaumaris silences that—and she accepts it. This is not to say that I think Arabella will lose all of her charitable instincts, but they will be controlled by Mr. Beaumaris.

Which leads to another uncomfortable realization. Mr. Beaumaris is one of society’s leaders—even minor characters note that his approval can make or break someone’s reputation in London. For Arabella to gain her goals—a successful marriage to save her family and compensate her siblings for her mother’s decision—she must gain his approval. Which she does—but to keep it, she must obey his dictates and repress some of her instincts. He initially applauds the moment when Arabella fiercely denounces the London aristocracy for their hypocrisy, and has a momentary feeling of shame when Arabella tells him that she’s relieved to find out he’s not like other aristocrats. But in the last pages, he curbs her instincts. It’s a sharp comment on individualism versus society—with Heyer firmly on the side of Society, not the Individual, providing happiness. Only a few years before writing this, she had argued the opposite, and it is perhaps another sign of how much the combination of World War II and her submission to the public desire for escapist, not serious reading from her, had changed her.

I can’t decide if I should recommend Arabella or not. It’s a fan favorite, with passages that are among her very best, and some of her most ironic writing. And up until those last pages, it is one of Heyer’s most delightful, comforting novels, filled with laugh out loud moments and sharp comments on human behavior. Which includes, I suppose, the willingness to silence certain parts of it.  

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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