Tue
Jul 10 2012 9:30am

Wit and Lace: Powder and Patch, or, the Transformation of Philip Jettan

Powder and Patch by Georgette HeyerGeorgette Heyer had already published a novel of silly derring-do (The Black Moth) and one work of serious historical fiction (The Great Roxhythe) when she sat down to write Powder and Patch, her third novel. She completed it in three weeks, and sold it to Mills and Boon, who published it in 1923 under one of her rare uses of a pseudonym, Stella Martin. Probably not because Heyer had any issues with Mills and Boon, but, more likely because, as her biographers suggest, she was also trying to sell a serious contemporary novel (Instead of the Thorn) to her regular publisher and wanted to conceal that she had gone to another publisher. It was the last time she was to publish with Mills and Boon during her lifetime (although Harlequin reprinted her novels after her death), although the company was later to greatly profit from the world she created. It is thus somewhat ironic, on multiple levels, that this hastily scribbled book, not offered to her usual publisher, is the one book she published that year that gave a true hint of her strengths as a writer: comedy and manners.

Not that Powder and Patch lacks its moments of derring-do and swordfights, but these elements are all deliberately made ridiculous. That goes along with the exceedingly improbable plot, which works more or less like this: young Philip, a good hearted but unpolished type, is in love with his lovely young neighbor Cleone, who claims to love him back, but wants wit and polish and fine foppish clothes. So, after a duel (see? Derring-do.) Philip pops off to Paris where, within six months, he becomes an expert swordsman, an elegant dresser, and a wit of the first order. Also, the book starts to pick up an alarming number of French phrases and dialogue, including a long poem entirely in French, rather assuming a high level of bilingualism for its audience.

The poem is enough to drive Philip from Paris back to London, where he presents himself to Cleone, who, naturally, because it’s that sort of plot, now decides she hates him. She’s also picked up some alarming rumors about duel number two (I did mention the swordfights) over a lady, and rather than, you know, asking questions, because this is a Plot of Misunderstandings, she assumes Philip has fallen in love with someone else, not that he’s dedicated six months of his life to trying to be exactly what she wants or anything like that.

I said improbable, and could add implausible: I’m willing to grant that Philip is a fast learner and a dashing sort, but going from barely able to handle a sword to expert swordsman in fewer than six months while learning to dress expertly is….improbable. But I can’t deny finding entertainment in a tale of an otherwise pure jock (he likes hunting and that sort of thing) into, well, a sort of geek, fascinated by costumes and poetry and the like. I don’t think Heyer necessarily intended this reading, but it’s rather enjoyable to see a woman squawk, I don’t want the jock type! I want the goth dude! This is particularly entertaining given the sort of heroes she would later specialize in: athletic yet obsessed with complete neatness in clothing.

And much of the rest of the froth is also highly entertaining: the obsession with stockings and wigs, the cravats, the return of the hatred for puce (I assume that, had Georgette Heyer entered Hell, she would have immediately found herself surrounded by elegant demons sporting all puce clothing), the way her heroes continue to fight duels and then sit down for elegant breakfasts with their opponents. And, in this book, a glimmer of the dialogue that she would later sharpen and refine; here, she is still uncertain of her cant, and many passages read awkwardly, but the humor is starting to shine though.

The largest problem with the book, unfortunately, is the heroine, who is…how do I put this kindly? Annoying. Heyer would feature unlikeable, annoying women later, but be aware of their issues. Here, she seems unaware, but it’s extremely difficult to like Cleone, who starts by claiming she loves Philip, but wants him to change, and when he does change for her sake, rather than being impressed, she’s angry and irritated, and then worsens matters by leading various men on, including one of her oldest friends, despite still being in love – in theory – with Philip. I suppose it’s meant to reflect the vicissitudes of typical teenagers, but it becomes wearisome even in a very short book. And in a series of books with implausible romances, this is perhaps the worst: I can honestly not see any reason why these two are supposedly in love with each other, or why.

And if I’m amused by Lady Malmerstoke’s patient attempts to explain to Philip that yes, women can think two completely contradictory things at the same time, and men need to know this and just get with the program, I’m a little less amused by her insistence that nearly all women (herself excepted) are secretly longing for men to overpower and master them, and that the only reason Philip is in love with Cleone is that he sees her as someone he can easily overpower and master. Well. It’s one explanation, at least, and let’s face it: we don’t have many other reasons for him to love her, except, well, she’s pretty. And annoying and unkind to her friends…yeah, I said that already.

Powder and Patch is not a great book, nor, despite its phrases, a particularly elegant one. If Heyer had written nothing else, this book would be forgotten as nothing more than an attempt to novelize a Sheridan comedy of manners. But it is an enjoyable enough read, and one that, as I noted, gives a hint of still more frothier pleasures to come.

Two quick notes:

One: Powder and Patch was later republished in 1930 without its final chapter, which is the version I seem to have (I’m guessing, since it ends quite abruptly.) It’s easy to find in various libraries and online.

Quick note two: Here is where the reread starts skipping some books. Brief comments on them:

The Great Roxthyhe is a serious historical novel, for years very difficult to find; Heyer suppressed it, in part for reasons that I may discuss (if I remember) when we reach Cotillion. It’s the one Heyer novel I have not read, so my (very limited) comments are going to be based on the summaries in Heyer biographies.

Instead of the Thorn is a serious contemporary novel, a study of marriage, between a girl who knows absolutely nothing about and is therefore terrified of sex and intimacy and her husband who really likes the whole concept of the sex and intimacy thing. It is almost unique in Heyer novels in discussing this at all (the other exception is The Conqueror), and in being the one of the few Heyer novels where we know, absolutely and definitely, whether or not the married couple are doing it (because they stop.) This is not in the slightest in a typical Heyer novel, and parts have definitely dated, but in general it reads well and provides some insights into social life in the 1920s if you’re into that.

Interestingly, this novel was written and published after Heyer met George Rougier, but before their engagement and marriage, when her interest in writing about sex took a nosedive.

Simon the Coldheart is another serious historical novel set in the Middle Ages, which shows Heyer’s painstaking focus on historical research while simultaneously proving that Heyer had absolutely no gift for writing medieval dialogue whatsoever. I find it hard to get through. I’ll be talking about The Conqueror instead, as a better example of Heyer’s serious historicals.

Next up: These Old Shades, for years Heyer’s most popular work.


After reading this book, Mari Ness has decided that more people need to dress in overflowing velvets and lace dripping with jewelry, even if that might prove to be a little hot where she lives, in central Florida.

13 comments
Eugene R.
1. Eugene R.
Wikipedia brings us the delightful information that "puce" is French for "flea" and that the color derives its name from the bloodstains left on linens and bedsheets from the flea's "droppings" or demise. (Said stains also serve as a signal of bedbug infestation.) Cannot image why Ms. Heyer was not a fan of the color.

Also had a brief boggle at Ms. Heyer writing the screenplay for a John Wayne flick and then checked to see that her Conqueror is William The and not Genghis.
Azara microphylla
2. Azara
Do you know what was in the last chapter, or why it was dropped? It's a very short book as it is, so I doubt if it was for any reason to do with length.
Pamela Adams
3. Pam Adams
The largest problem with the book, unfortunately, is the heroine, who is…how do I put this kindly? Annoying

I tend to classify my Heyers as those with likeable versus unlikeable heroines. The likeable heroines are much higher on the re-read list..
Shelly wb
4. shellywb
Phillip's transformation makes the book worth reading to me time and again even though I too hate Cleone. Part of what I love is that while he starts out doing it for Cleone, he comes to love it for its own sake. And I was so glad of my high school French because that poem makes me laugh every time I think of it.

I enjoyed a couple of her medieval novels like Simon, but boy are they clunky. I've never read any a second time.
Eugene R.
5. Megpie71
I think Cleone Charteris reappears later in The Nonesuch as Tiffany (Theophania) Wield. Certainly they both have very similar personalities. I suspect Ms Heyer had a few readers write in about how annoying Cleone was, and decided to retire her to roles where she wasn't expected to be liked.

I suspect at least part of Phillip's problem with swordsmanship in the first duel was basically arrogance - he went in expecting to win easily, and wound up getting beaten by someone he thought was an easy mark. Following this, he puts in some serious practice, and the next duel (incidentally, against the same opponent) goes his way primarily because he takes his opponent seriously this time around and isn't expecting the easy win. Plus, of course, he will have been receiving tutoring in swordsmanship from the best tutors money could buy.
Erin Horakova
6. ErinHoráková
Since Heyer was so prolific, does anyone know what titles are generally considered her best/her core texts?
Mari Ness
7. MariCats
@Eugene R -- Heh. I doubt Heyer could have pulled off a biography of Genghis Khan -- her comfort level was with England and to a considerably lesser degree France. In her fiction her characters rarely even reach Scotland or Wales.

@Azara - According to Heyer's biographers in the final chapter Philip and Cleone take off to Paris. (Which confirms that my copy is missing that chapter -- my copy ends with Philip saying that he'll write a sonnet about Cleone's eyes.) They speculate that the change came from Heyer, and was inspired by her own life -- instead of heading to Paris and a bright social life, she was instead heading happily to Sussex and a quiet social life.

@Pam Adams -- Yes, the likeability/unlikeability of the heroine/secondary heroine does have a large impact on my own rereading -- well, that and in some cases the very last chapter, which we'll get to with Arabella and Sprig Muslin.

@shellywb -- The medieval novels unfortunately try to reproduce middle English language with contemporary spelling and this just does not go well. Plus, as you say, clunky.

@Megpie71 -- Interesting comparison -- now that you point it out, I think you're right that Cleone is in some ways an early sketch for Tiffany. The differences, I think, is that Tiffany is really even worse, and, more importantly, the author is aware of it and not trying to make Tiffany the heroine.

I have thought -- and I'll get into this more when we hit the Nonesuch -- that Tiffany was Heyer's acknowledgement to readers who were finding some of her younger, ingenue heroines very annoying -- some of them work, others, really not, and I suspect that Heyer decided to make a more realistic and unsympathetic version in response to this. Oddly, in some ways, I think that makes Tiffany slightly more sympathetic than some of the other teenagers -- but we'll get to that.

@ErinHorakova - I don't think there's any real consensus on her best/core texts.

Reader favorites generally include, for instance, A Civil Contract, which does not have the same tone as the rest of her Regencies. The core Regencies are probably Friday's Child, The Grand Sophy, Cotillion, The Foundling, Venetia, The Nonesuch, Sylvester or the Wicked Uncle, and Frederica -- but this is a pretty debatable/arguable list. (One of the commentators on here has already expressed a dislike of The Grand Sophy, for instance, and portions of that book have been severely criticized by many readers.)
Eugene R.
8. Midu
I also liked the anthology "Pistols for Two".
Eugene R.
10. RiceVermicelli
@Erin and @MariCats:

The more Heyer I read, the more I become convinced that the core texts are whichever you, the reader, love best. I have pushed for all sorts of individual novels in my time. These days, I'm partial to Black Sheep (which I admit has a plot suspiciously similar to Lady of Quality), and False Colours. (Really, why has no one else mentioned False Colours? How could you not be charmed if you read it?) And I'll admit that The Tollbooth has the sexiest kiss Heyer ever wrote, but you have to wade through a lot of book for that paragraph.

THe corpus has something for everybody. The "core" texts are the ones you'd want buried with you, in case there is no afterlife and you have to keep yourself entertained.
Eugene R.
11. between4walls
@ErinHorakova- Jo Walton's list of Heyer's books by quality, with commentary, is here. I only got into Heyer recently and have found this list useful. Sarah Monette's ranking is here, as a footnote to a discussion of The Black Moth and Black Sheep. They overlap in praising A Civil Contract, Venetia, The Grand Sophy, Sprig Muslin, and The Unknown Ajax, but otherwise diverge quite a bit.
Erin Horakova
12. ErinHoráková
Thanks so much everyone, this is really interesting and helpful! I admit, I was expecting something more like the Shakespeare situation, where readers/the critical community, barring some redemptive readings, largely agree on what's absolutely key, what's goodish, and what's rubbish. There's probably some cool reception theory stuff to be said on how these consensus emerge and shift, or don't really, in this case. It's sort of like canon formation.
Eugene R.
13. filkferengi
This was the first Heyer I ever read, & the reason I took French in high school. Even this early, Heyer had felicitous facility with secondary characters. Sir Maurice, Uncle Tom, & Aunt Sally are all wonderful!

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