To most of us, the Marquis of Alverstoke would seem to have the ideal life. Oh, certainly, he dislikes most members of his family, who respond to that dislike by continually begging him for money, but apart from that small inconvenience, he is privileged, very wealthy, good looking, and—this is a Georgette Heyer novel—in possession of an excellent physique, a skilled tailor, and a most superior valet. Even his shoulders, you will be pleased to know, stand in no need of padding, and, as we learn, he has also received a most superior education, good enough that years later he can still translate Latin and Greek without difficulty. Whenever he expresses a wish, it is immediately gratified, and he has enjoyed several delightful if sometimes expensive dalliances with women of questionable or no virtue at all. As a result, he is bored, cynical, and (apart from the dalliances) very very single, and (apart from the friends) very alone. And, one suspects, somewhat miserable.
The orphaned Frederica has arrived in London in the hopes of helping out the younger members of her family: the extraordinarily beautiful if nitwitted Charis; well intentioned, serious Jessamy, owner of the happy, large and boisterous dog Lufra; and budding young engineer Felix, who not at all incidentally manages to steal the book in several different scenes. As Frederica earnestly explains to the Marquis, the pressing issue is Charis, who is certainly lovely enough to make an excellent marriage—if, that is, she can be introduced to the right people. By the right people Frederica means the aristocracy of London. Fortunately, as she notes, the Marquis of Alverstoke is a distant—very distant—connection, a circumstance that leads her to hope that his wife might—just might—not only agree to help introduce the sisters to society, but also obtain vouchers for—hold your breath—Almack’s.
Unfortunately, not only is Alverstoke not married, but he’s not in the slightest bit inclined to throw a ball for a distant relative he barely knows, however willing he might be to give a friend a financial hand, or buy a horse for his heir. That is, until he sees the beautiful Charis, and realizes that he can use her to take revenge on two of his relatives, who have been begging him to hold a ball for their daughters, since Charis is far more beautiful than either daughter. If they want him to hold a ball (saving both of them significant money), they will have to launch Charis as well—making their daughters seem less attractive in comparison.
He also, less spitefully, finds himself doing things for Frederica’s young brothers. It helps that instead of asking for money, Jessamy instead tries to pay the wealthy Marquis back. It also helps that ten year old Felix has mastered the puppy dog look, and managed as well to master the ability to suggest that a trip to a foundry is a high treat for anyone. As are balloon launches. To his surprise, Alverstoke finds himself actually liking both boys, even as he continues to find Charis deadly dull. But his main reason for helping out the boys, to the point of later even helping to nurse Felix, is that he is rapidly falling in love with Frederica.
As Nora Roberts astutely notes, the attraction here is purely intellectual. As the text continually reminds us, Frederica is attractive, but not beautiful, and most of that attraction comes from her wit and common sense. She follows Heyer’s late trend of older, sensible heroines who focus on succeeding socially, rather than rebelling against the roles society has created for them, by running away or taking on professions or jobs that are deemed unsuitable. Frederica, whose mother died when she was only fourteen, has accepted her role as substitute mother and chaperon, focusing on her siblings instead of herself, even if she is—at least in Charis’ case—not always right about what should be done with them. She also accepts her age – probably too readily. She assumes that the men who approach her in London are interested only in introductions to her sister, and constantly refers to herself as a chaperon. It is Alverstoke—who initially finds her neat and elegant, if not beautiful—who has to remind her that she is not exactly that old.
Frederica, however, considers herself well past marriageable age—probably why she does not realize what exactly is happening between her and Alverstoke, even though by the end of the book she has received at least three very eligible offers. As Alverstoke also realizes, for all of her insistence that the London season is on Charis’ behalf, Frederica, not Charis, is the one who is actually enjoying it. Charis finds London parties uncomfortable, much preferring smaller country parties; she also dislikes London conversations, probably because—in Heyer’s mocking phrase—her understanding is not high. About the only thing Charis does fall in love with is Alverstoke’s heir, the very very handsome and also not overly bright Endymion. Frederica, though, ends up loving London, and London’s parties, one of the many things that makes her a match for Alverstoke. And, even more importantly, she doesn’t bore him.
As Heyer tells us, Alverstoke’s besetting sin is boredom. She might have added, “Willingness to insult most of his relatives” and “lack of family feeling” to that list of sins, along with “tendency to ignore some of the moral strictures of society,” such as “don’t sleep with other men’s wives,” but these issues tend to arise from that very same boredom. I can’t swear that Alverstoke wouldn’t insult his sisters under ordinary circumstances—Louisa would present a tempting target for anyone—but a less bored Alverstoke probably wouldn’t bother, which in turn might reduce the cycle of resentment that has built up between him and his sisters. Notably, as soon as he begins to fall for Frederica, he spends even less time with his sisters—and by the second half of the book, he has no time to offend Louisa at all, and has even managed to do the inconceivable: please his other sisters, Augusta and Eliza.
Did Heyer intend this boredom as a reproach to readers who idealized the Regency world she herself had sanitized, as an attempt to suggest that even riches were not everything? Or—having, for once, almost reached an agreement with her enemies at Inland Revenue, and finally enjoying some of the financial comforts of bestsellerdom, had she found out that money was not enough? Or was she making an observation about the very wealthy people she had known?
Certainly, Alverstoke was not Heyer’s first bored aristocrat, but this is the first novel where she explicitly states that money—or at least too much of it—can be an evil. Alverstoke cannot remember ever having a wish that was not immediately granted; both the words, and the tone, shock Frederica, who immediately realizes that this also explains Alverstoke’s carelessness about the feelings for others, and general self-centeredness. She feels a jolt of compassion for him, and thanks him for teaching her that riches are not pleasant, but rather a dead bore. When he later offers a hint of his true feelings, she withdraws emotionally, assuming that she cannot hold his interest for long. She’s wrong, as shown by one factor: Alverstoke, for her sake, is changing.
It’s not that Alverstoke can’t be helpful and kind: he can. The text tells us that he has more than once come to the rescue of a friend well before meeting Frederica, although he hates to be reminded of this or thanked. He has also quietly supported his Dauntry cousins for years, under the guise of helping out his heir. That it is a guise is swiftly worked out by nearly everyone, even the not very bright Endymion, who realizes that Alverstoke can easily marry and sire an heir, and is under no real obligation to the Dauntry family. Alverstoke also takes Felix to the foundry (a trip that also subtly demonstrates just how bored Alverstoke is, if a foundry is better than hanging out with his friends), helps save Lufra the Baluchistan hound (not without taking the time to deliver a few priceless putdowns), takes Charis on a carriage ride to discourage a few of her more morally questionable suitors, and takes the entire family out to Hampton Court. Where, to be fair, they end up doing the maze which is lots of fun even if Alverstoke cheats so I’m not sure that counts as a favor.
What I am sure, however, is that even Alverstoke grants that none of these were particularly difficult. It’s not until he falls in love with Frederica and wants to help her that he finds himself leaving his opulent and leisured life for actual, difficult work: caring for a very sick child.
That child is Felix, who has gone up in a balloon, because, when you are Felix, you go up in balloons, regardless of whether or not this is a good idea, whether or not you had permission to go up into the balloon, whether or not you were properly dressed for the balloon, and whether or not your relatives and pseudo-guardian approve:
Silence reigned for another half-mile. Jessamy broke it, saying violently: “He deserves to be flayed! And if we find him safe I will too!”
“Not if I have anything to say in the matter!” replied the Marquis. “The thought of flaying him has been sustaining me for the past hour, and not even Harry shall rob me of that pleasure.”
Any flaying, however, has to be held off, since Felix is very sick indeed, so ill that his sister has no time to examine her own feelings—or think too much about just why a man who started the book planning revenge on his sisters would now be taking care of a sick child.
Apart from the balloon ride, Frederica offers many other delights: the witty banter between Frederica and Alverstoke; Felix’s explanation of just why Alverstoke needs to take him to a balloon ride; Augusta’s rapid summation of her brother’s faults and virtues—and her immediate appreciation of his later tactics; the beyond silly romance of Charis and Endymion, not nearly as doomed as the two think it is, played for sheer laughs throughout; and Heyer’s devastating and subtle observations of human gossip and behavior. It is classic Heyer, with hardly a flaw throughout—although it does contain one of her very rare historical errors, as every one of her biographers equitably notes, and although I tend to agree with Frederica that Charis might well fall out of love with Endymion, given that this relationship seems to be based on mutual outstandingly good looks and a conviction that they are in a Doomed Romance. But I am not worried about Frederica and Alverstoke: this is one sparkling romance that can last for years.
Although her remaining books contained elements of wit and sparkling dialogues, Frederica was to be the last of Georgette Heyer’s great comedies. If you read no other novel by Georgette Heyer, it should probably be this one or Cotillion. Or better yet, both.
Mari Ness advises everyone to dress appropriately for balloon rides. She lives in central Florida.