Georgette Heyer had often added a Cinderella touch to many of her novels, allowing her heroines to marry men of considerably greater rank and wealth. But in the 1950s, facing questions about changing class structures and the roles of women in Britain, she abruptly backtracked on this in Bath Tangle, where, for arguably the first time, Heyer took a serious look at the artificial world she had created for her readers to see its effects on women. The results were not pretty.
The book starts off on a somber note, at the funeral and reading of the will of the Earl of Spenborough, unexpectedly dead at the age of 50, leaving a young widow aged only 20, Fanny, and a daughter, the 26 year old Serena. Because Serena is a daughter, not a son, she can only inherit the earl’s considerable personal estate and her grandmother’s fortune, and must leave the homes she has lived in since her birth, and run since she was a teenager. (Yes, homes; the Earl owned a country estate, a Dower House, a London home, a hunting lodge, and probably a few others I missed.) It doesn’t help her to realize that she would do a better job of running her father’s estate than the inferior cousin who inherits it. (This realization is later proved to be completely correct.)
Worse, as she discovers when the will is read, what inheritance she does have remains completely in trust and under the control of the Marquis of Rotherham. Still worse, Serena can only regain control of her fortune when and if she marries and if her marriage is approved by Rotherham. (At which point her money will actually pass into the control of her husband.) Did I mention that Serena and Rotherham were once engaged, and she called it off, partly because of his terrible temper? This would be cruel enough under normal circumstances; that Rotherham and Serena can barely speak without fighting takes it beyond cruelty to near torture. Finding out that she will have only “pin money,”—about 750 pounds a year—instead of the full inheritance she had expected to control, leaves her breathless with anger and fury. Others are equally appalled. Except for Rotherham who yells at her for not being ladylike about it.
Total sidenote: Serena demands to know how she will be able to support herself on “just” 750 pounds a year—this at a time when Jane Austen noted that 1000 pounds a year made Mr. Bingley a very rich and desirable person indeed, worthy of going all the way to Netherfield in the rain and catching a very bad cold—something Austen could speak of with authority since she, her sister, her mother and a family friend were making ends meet on less than 100 pounds a year combined, while remaining genteel, and when governesses considered themselves lucky to earn 20 pounds a year. In a later Heyer book, a decidedly superior governess boasts that she is paid the almost unheard of sum of 100 pounds a year—enough to raise her into near social equality with her neighbors, and of course some of Heyer’s earlier heroines had had considerably less. Wealth is relative.
It’s perhaps important that Heyer, while writing this, was experiencing combined bestsellerdom and taxpayer woes. By this point, her sales should have made her rich; ongoing tax arguments and the heavy burdens placed on high earners after World War II meant that she was instead under constant financial stress, and deeply resentful that she could not enjoy the money she earned, a resentment that leeches through here.
Anyway. Financially trapped, in mourning, and bound to social conventions that do not allow a single woman or a widow to live alone, Serena and Fanny head to the nearby Dower House. In some ways, this is to their mutual benefit: Serena does not have to live under the roof with a cousin she despises (as it turns out, even a few miles of distance is not enough), and Fanny does not have to return to her parents and live with a younger sister she is not fond of. In other ways, Fanny and Serena are not exactly the ideal roommates; they are deeply fond of each other, but have little in common.
The proximity to her old home proves difficult for both Serena and its new owners to handle, so the two head off to Bath, where—spoiler!—their affairs become tangled, especially so when Serena accidentally encounters Hector, a man she fell in love with years back, but was not allowed to marry—partly at Rotherham’s suggestion. A week later, Serena and Hector decide that they are still in love, and since she is now of age, they can marry. It takes them just a little bit longer to figure out their true feelings.
Some of Heyer’s most romantic plots had featured couples who fell in love during their first meeting, or after only a short acquaintance, if an acquaintance heavy on intrigue, climbing out of windows, or Headless Horsemen. The men in these plots were typically older men bored of the women they encountered in usual social situations, and the women either very young, or in their mid twenties, either knowing absolutely nothing of men, or quite enough to make a rapid decision. In a few cases, Heyer had dismissed some of these love at first sight moments as mere “calf-love,” or teenage infatuations, but those were never part of the main plot, and never examined too closely. Here, she took her first hard look at the trope she had used so effectively, and finds it, to put it mildly, lacking.
Hector and Serena are no longer teenagers: their feelings, when they meet, have definitely not been short lived—even if Serena confesses that she has not been as constant in her affections as Hector has. This honesty charms Hector even more. But they do not know each other well as adults at all. Hector comes from a different world: respectable, certainly, genteel and even touching the minor aristocracy—he will inherit an estate—but not the very wealthy aristocratic, political world that Serena has spent her life in. Indeed, he finds her world shocking, and occasionally makes some major mistakes, as when he assumes that the very Tory and conservative Serena has any connection to the very Whig and not at all conservative Devonshire House. Hector is, however, from the same world as Fanny, and the two, almost without thinking about it, begin to spend more time together, in a mutual understanding strongly contrasted with the conversations between Hector and Serena.
The tangle thus created is fairly intricate: Serena is engaged to Hector who secretly loves Fanny who has been helping to sponsor the teenage Emily who becomes engaged to Rotherham who is in love with Serena and the guardian of Gerard who thinks he’s in love with Emily. Oh, and a Mr. Goring. This tangle also allows Heyer to criticize two other loves, or at least attractions, at first sight: that of Gerard and Emily (Emily soon forgets him, then remembers him, then realizes her judgment of men is not exactly the best) and Rotherham and Emily, hands down the least pleasant part of the book.
Bath Tangle contains one triumph: the creation of Emily’s grandmother Mrs. Floore, a plain spoken (many characters call her vulgar) but very wealthy woman with a decidedly joyful love for colors and food. Despite her less than aristocratic origins—Mrs. Floore tells us firmly that her first husband, a gentleman, was considered far too good for her—she and Serena set up a firm friendship, helped by Serena’s fondness and kindness to Emily. The friendship, and money, only goes so far: Mrs. Floore never enters, or expects to enter, Serena’s general social circle.
The rest of the book, starting with the relationship between Hector and Serena demonstrates why. Their love should be romantic; Hector’s years of unwavering devotion should pay off. But in this book, her first to feature middle class characters in prominent and sympathetic roles, Heyer slams down hard on the concept that anyone should marry into another social class, however much the world may be changing, with royal princesses choosing their own husbands and the world struggling to readjust after Napoleon—a political and social situation not too far off from her own. Even comparatively minor distinctions in fortune and birth create impenetrable barriers: Hector may be well born enough to inherit an estate, and be aristocratic enough to meet most standards, even to marry the daughter of a baronet, but he believes that his offer of marriage to Serena is presumptuous, and the differences between their fortunes late cause major difficulties. She was to soften this belief somewhat in later books, while still acknowledging its difficulties, but here, she firmly rejects any concept of a Cinderella story. Women, she states in this novel, can find happiness only when matched with their social and financial equals.
Only one minor note interrupts this fervent argument that people are better off marrying within their own social classes: Mrs. Floore married above her station, twice, and happily both times. (It probably helps that she had already inherited a considerable sum from her father prior to her second marriage.) But to counter this, her first marriage resulted in a social climbing daughter, Lady Laleham, disliked by everyone else in the novel (including Mrs. Floore); the second marriage is childless.
The two other women who do marry outside their social class do not have an easy time of it. Fanny, not brought up in the top ranks of the aristocracy, finds it exhausting and terrifying, and her marriage is barren. Lady Laleham’s marriage garners almost universal disapproval, and even after her marriage, she remains dependent on a mother she is ashamed of, forced to use multiple social ruses to get her daughters accepted into society, and trapped in a marriage that garners almost universal disapproval from all characters.
Otherwise, everyone is firmly matched up by birth, with Heyer assuring us that this is the happiest ending for all of the characters—even as she has noted how these very same social rigidities have made both Fanny and Serena miserable. It should result in an interesting, rich novel. The book has, however, two significant problems: one, although it has the occasional amusing moment, it’s not, overall, very funny, mostly because of the hero. Who would be the other significant problem.
We’ve talked before about Heyer’s rude heroes. Rotherham is about the epitome of these. It’s not just that he and Serena fight constantly, or that he begins the novel by physically pushing Fanny and grabbing Serena’s wrists in a tight, painful grip before belittling her. Serena is reacting badly and emotionally to the announcement that her fortune is under his control, and he is not the only male to remonstrate. Significantly, however, the other man is her relative, and does not touch her or Fanny, and although he agrees that Serena should calm herself down and stop making a scene, he also agrees that Serena has every right to be upset. Every character in the novel agrees—verbally and politely; only Rotherham reacts with emotional and physical violence.
From here, it only gets worse. Rotherham terrifies Fanny; fights with Serena; terrifies and abuses Gerard and Gerards’ siblings; and, in what is the hands down the moral nadir of the novel, verbally and emotionally abuses the sixteen year old Emily. His excuse, such as it isn’t, for his treatment of Emily—that he is reacting to the news that Serena is engaged to Hector, also doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: Rotherham is almost immediately attracted to Emily when they first meet, and starts treating her poorly on their second meeting, months before Hector and Serena accidentally reunite. It takes Serena to point out just how cruel Rotherham’s being for him to even notice. The attraction is purely physical; Rotherham soon finds Emily boring. But when he hears a mere rumor that Serena is engaged, he asks Emily to marry him in revenge. Serena’s summation of this is spot on:
“…Ivo, it is beyond words. To use a child very nearly young enough to be your daughter as a weapon of revenge on me—I wonder that you dare to stand there and tell me of such an iniquity!” Serena said hotly.
Worse, after this, he begins to terrorize Emily. His goal is to get out of a marriage he no longer wants—the social rules of his class state that he is not allowed to break the engagement, but she can. But rather than, say, sit down and have a nice friendly chat with Emily, who doesn’t love him either, and accepted his proposal only out of combined parental pressure and a desire for wealth and a higher social rank, he chooses to try to terrorize her out of the marriage instead—in the very same book where Hector and Serena are able to terminate their engagement through a friendly conversation.
The resulting abuse—and it is abuse—leaves Emily physically unwell, and distressed enough to agree to a very poorly planned elopement (which ends up providing the few comical moments in a not very comical novel) that could lead to her social ruin. She is aware of this, and so terrified she agrees to it anyway. The text hints that the abuse is not just verbal and emotional, but somewhat sexual as well, although since this is a Heyer novel, we never get the details. We only get the portrait of a terrified Emily. And still worse, Rotherham later admits that he has encouraged Gerard to behave badly—and ruin Emily. And still worse, he then blames Serena for making everything go wrong, choosing to insult her by calling her a shrew and a scold and yelling at her. To be fair, she’s yelling back at him, but given that her sins consist only of trying to be overly helpful and interfering too much in people’s lives, and thinking for a time that she is in love with Hector, I’m inclined to be on her side here.
Against this, I can find very little to Rotherham’s credit: he is paying for his wards to be educated at Eton; he knows how not to sympathize with Serena, and he apparently gives great parties.
That’s about it.
It’s annoying as well since I think under most circumstances I’d be against Serena, who does have a tendency to be more than a little convinced that her own judgment is always correct, and a tendency to interfere in people’s lives when she really, really shouldn’t. But Rotherham is so awful that I can’t help but be on Serena’s side—and hope she finds someone else. Anyone else. That she DOES find two perfectly amiable men that she LIKES during the course of the novel just makes this final pairing all the worse.
Oh, indications here and there suggest it might work out: Serena is one of the few people able to curb Rotherham’s conduct, or even willing to try. (The others are his sister, one of his servants, and Emily’s grandmother Mrs. Floore.) Serena also has moments of noting that she and Rotherham have the same sense of humor, something important, and now and again he shows a surprising understanding of what she’s going through; surprising, because this empathy is remarkably lacking in his interactions with nearly everyone else.
Still. It’s not exactly that I want Hector to enter into a marriage that would probably only bring him misery, especially since he’s in love with another woman. But I can’t help but hope—a hope that keeps jumping up in each reread—for Serena’s sake that she would choose the considerably kinder and above all, considerate Hector instead of Rotherham. Or if not Hector, someone else. Anyone else. Or embrace your single status, Serena. Even if it means suffering on just 750 pounds a year.
Against this, one romance does work: that between Hector and Fanny, developing slowly but inevitably, and it’s comforting to see Fanny matched with someone who can make her happy. I also have hopes for Mr. Goring and Emily (once she’s completely recovered) down the line. But for Serena and Rotherham, I see only marital hell, and although Rotherham deserves this, it seems an unkind and unfair ending for Serena. Especially since, just a few books earlier, Heyer had rescued another heroine, from someone nowhere near as terrible, and given her to a kindly, sweet if not exactly bookish guy. I just wish, in her deconstruction of the love at first sight trope, and remaining in love with someone you haven’t seen in years, she’d been able to give a kinder ending to Serena.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.