Tue
Feb 26 2013 11:00am

Gambling to Romance: Georgette Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter

Gambling to Romance: Georgette Heyer's Faro's DaughterGeorgette Heyer initially found it difficult to sit down and write Faro’s Daughter, distracted as she was with World War II and with a new idea for a contemporary novel that would eventually become Penhallow. Once she had worked out the details of the plot, however, she wrote the book in about a month, typing it in single space, her biographers note, thanks to the paper shortage. She called it all fluff, and indeed, most of the book is pure farce. Yet portions of the book reveal some of her deep-seated anxieties about the war—and concern about traditional gender roles in a wartime environment.

Telling her agent that she was sick of Dukes and other noblemen, this time, Heyer chose for her hero a rough commoner, who, to a degree almost unspeakable in a Heyer novel, does not make his clothing a chief focus of his life. (I shall pause to let you all get over this. Are we ok now? Good.) His boots, however, are excellent, and he is exceedingly wealthy and rude, so he isn’t completely without hope for romance.

Summoned to visit his aunt, the dowager Lady Maplethorpe, Mr. Ravenscar learns that his young cousin, Lord Maplethorpe, wants to marry a girl who—gasp—works in a gaming hall. (Do we need another pause? We do? Ok, then.) Her birth is respectable: the aunt she lives with, who owns the establishment, has a title, but this just Will Not Do, so off Ravenscar goes to the gaming hall to see just how far matters have progressed. Quite far, it seems, and although Ravenscar is able to defeat Deborah at cards, he leaves quite concerned about the fate of his young cousin.

Meanwhile, the young and beautiful Deborah has major problems of her own. The select gaming house she and her aunt are running in order to pay the ever mounting bills is becoming considerably less select, and groaning under its bills. Still more worrisome, the bills, and the mortgage for the house, have come into the possession of a certain Lord Ormskirk, who has Dastardly Plans. Actually, I shouldn’t joke about that: Ormskirk plans to use the bills to force Deborah to sleep with him, with no hope of marriage. That he believes, with some reason, that Deborah is vulnerable to this sort of thing speaks volumes.

Deborah’s discussion about these bills with her aunt, however, is one of the novel’s comedic highlights. Already stressed, she finds herself in a flame of fury when Mr. Ravenscar, with little elegance, tells her that he knows about her plans to marry Lord Maplethorpe—and offers to buy her off. Deborah, who had no such plans, is deeply insulted, and immediately plots her revenge, which involves a moment of becoming very vulgar indeed (Heyer has decided ideas about what ribbons can and cannot be worn with green stripes). Ravenscar obtains her aunt’s bills, increasing his power over her.

Naturally, Deborah has him kidnapped and thrown into her cellar.

As a previous commentator noted, Faro’s Daughter echoes the plot of an earlier Heyer short story, published in an Australian magazine, fleshed out with various subplots and farcical characters, notably Lady Bellingham, Deborah’s aunt, who has questionable ideas about Economy; Ravenscar’s young sister Arabella, who has a delightful habit of falling in love with virtually every man she meets, a more than slight problem given her very tempting fortune; and Deborah’s friend and protector Lucius Kennet, diplomatically termed a soldier of fortune. Or, more precisely, a kidnapper. Various minor subplots deal with Ravenscar’s race, Deborah’s brother, and Phoebe Laxton, on the run from a terrifying marriage to a man considerably older than she is, with a very bad reputation.

The generally insipid, if sweet, Phoebe Laxton serves mainly as a contrast to the considerably more self-possessed, dynamic, and competent Deborah, giving her someone to rescue as well as to offer Lord Maplethrope some sort of consolation prize. But she also serves as the one “traditional” woman in a novel otherwise filled with women taking very untraditional roles.

Lady Bellingham and Deborah, after all, both work—as gamblers, yes, but they are doing so as a profession. In Heyer’s previous novels, the women protagonists were either wealthy enough to not need to work (Pen, Judith, Sarah Thane) or actively discouraged from working (Eustacie, Mary Challoner). The major exception is a cross dresser, who needs to dress as a male in order to work, a drudgery she is rescued from by the end of the novel. Deborah does not like her job—as her friend and protector Lucius Kennet notes, she’s no gamester, a point only emphasized when she loses several games of cards to Ravenscar, which she attributes to his superior skill. But, recognizing that it is her duty, she does the job uncomplainingly, echoing the jobs done by many British women in World War II.

But although the two successfully ran a smaller, less professional venture, their move to a larger, grander, gambling hall has not gone well—perhaps hinting at Heyer’s real feelings on the subject of women entering traditionally male professions in droves. But their troubles also echo the financial straits faced by many women as World War II continued and everyday goods became not merely rationed, but more and more expensive.

Even after the decent sales of her two most recent novels, and with her husband not at the front, Heyer, like others, wondered how to make ends meet in wartime conditions. Echoing this fear, her later heroines would also worry about money, while rejoicing as they found bargains or made over old clothing. Deb and her aunt, however, never do seem to find bargains, shuddering at the ever rising cost of peas and other items:

“I am sure I am ready enough to live a great deal more frugally,” said Lady Bellingham, “but you may see for yourself, Deb, how impossible it is! It is not as though one was spending money on things which are not necessary.”

Such not necessary items include an opera box that she barely uses, on the basis that she always had one when her husband was alive, stables for her horses, satin cloaks, wigs, and clothing she barely wears, perhaps in an echo of Heyer’s friends who refused to give up similar luxuries even when unable to obtain the very rationed butter for their bread. Yet Lady Bellingham does not blame any of the luxuries for their horribly high bills, claiming that all of these are needed to run an expensive gaming house, or they will lose their best customers. Instead she blames the rising cost of food—specifically, basic food such as peas—and the “exorbitant” wages for the servants.

These servants, Heyer carefully notes, are paid far less per year than what Deborah and Mr. Ravenscar bet during a single night. Indeed, even their combined salaries add up to less than that sum. It is, admittedly, an appalling sum for Deborah (if not for the wealthy Mr. Ravenscar) but she has the cash in hand to pay it, despite the bills and expenses, unlike, one suspects, her servants. A striking and pointed illustration of the value of money.

Nonetheless, Lady Bellingham’s financial fears are very real: not only is she living beyond her means, but her house has a heavy mortgage. And, like many women in World War II, Deborah and her aunt have an added financial expense: a family member in the military. Kit, Deb’s younger brother, is an adult who could be reasonably expected to support the family in some way, or at least help out with the gaming house. Instead, the two women are supporting him, first by purchasing his military commission and second by sending continued funds his way. (Pride and Prejudice readers will remember that Wickham found it difficult to live within his military salary as well.) Completely unaware of his family’s financial straits, he demands a second purchase of a military commission—to a more elegant, and expensive, cavalry unit. This after Deborah and Kit’s father, an active captain in the military, has for all intents and purposes ignored his children and left them penniless, with only the very uncertain care of Mr. Lucius Kennet, and eventually Lady Bellingham.

Indeed, the real heroes of the novel—Mr. Ravenscar and Lord Maplethrope—have no ties to the military whatsoever. Mr. Ravenscar carefully warns his impetuous young sister to beware of good looking men in military uniforms (shades of Wickham again.) Mr. Lucius Kennet occupies some place in the middle: a cad and gamester, he at least offers Deborah some practical if highly dishonorable assistance. Heyer terms him a soldier of fortune; lacking a recognized miltairy role, he is yet associated with the military, with a term that in this novel is meant to carry doubts. It is all surprisingly anti-military for a novel written in 1941, perhaps betraying Heyer’s own grave doubts about the war.

Also perhaps echoing the war: Deborah’s frequent cries of “oh, if only I were a man!” Not, as in previous Heyer novels, for the chance for further adventures, or to escape an unwanted marriage, but because she wants to be able to run Ravenscar through with a sword—and supervise his kidnapping personally. But in Heyer novels, at least, women cannot engage in acts of violence traditionally considered masculine. It’s an echo again of many women in World War II who resented working in support, not combat positions.

It creates a novel uneasy about the power of women. On the one hand, the novel features two women who more or less successfully trick men, and two women who have entered the male sphere, taking up a profession traditionally dominated by men. (And within the house, they welcome mostly male guests, although aristocratic women certainly gambled as well.) On the other hand, the novel offers gentle Phoebe Laxton, who must be rescued from a marriage to a considerably older man with a hellish reputation (the planned marriage is described by a neutral observer as “little better than a rape,”) and whose only long term solution is marriage to a man who promises to protect her.

And Deborah, for all her comparative freedom and courage, is limited: she cannot, as she bitterly protests, fight Ravenscar physically, or kidnap him herself, instead relying on allies to do both for her. Her rescue from Ormskirk’s plans, for instance, comes through Ravenscar, not through anything she does. Almost alone among Heyer protagonists, she frequently wishes she were a man—so that she can conduct physical violence. The other stricture, of course, is her class: she may work in a gaming hall, but her aunt has a title, her birth was respectable, and she can even act as a chaperone to young Phoebe, all qualities which make it difficult for her to pick up a sword.

I have certain quibbles with the book—I find both romances entertaining enough, but not particularly convincing. I have no doubts that Deborah and Ravenscar will be able to quarrel merrily enough, and I have no doubt that they are physically attracted to each other, or that Deborah is the first woman that Ravenscar has ever found interesting. But I also wonder how they are going to get through a single decade without attempting to kill each other, not to mention that every objection that applies to Deborah’s marriage to Adrian also applies to her marriage with Ravenscar. Adrian and Phoebe’s romance, meanwhile, works only because Heyer has taken pains to establish that Adrian falls in love very easily, and Phoebe hasn’t really met anyone else. But Heyer’s attempts to suggest that this time, Adrian is really in love—as opposed to his infatuation of just three days prior, the one he was willing to risk the disapproval of family and friends for—are, to say the least, not really convincing, and it’s as well that Heyer hurries past that point.

But this aside, this is one of Heyer’s most entertaining and fast paced novels. It was to be the last of her novels set in the Georgian period, and almost the last to feature a heroine so willing to defy convention. After this, Heyer’s novels would focus on the styled manners of the Regency. But she had one more book of bitterness to purge from her system first: Penhallow.


Mari Ness rather sympathizes with Lady Bellingham’s methods of justifying her expenditures. She lives in central Florida.

7 comments
Anaisis
1. Anaisis
This makes me want to reread the book!
Anaisis
2. Sienamystic
This is one of my favorite Heyer novels, despite the fact that it's not one of the titans (I kind of adore The Toll Gate, too). But I just love Deborah, and I find the setting really interesting. I didn't know it was written in WWII - when I reread there will be some interesting things for me to mull over.
Azara microphylla
3. Azara
While this book is quite an entertaining read, I find the underlying theme really puts my teeth on edge. I think this is the only money-making plan any of her heroines ever have that could actually make them very well off, as opposed to living on a pittance as a governess, and Deb and her aunt are shown to be utterly incompetent at running a gambling business. (At least two other books have male characters who expect to make a good living as professional gamblers, so this seems to be a case of slapping down the over-ambitious woman).

And isn't it a gambling hell , not a gambling hall?
Anaisis
4. between4walls
The useless members of the military thing pops up again with Conway in "Venetia." I was very surprised when I read it to see how being in the army was depicted as an evasion of responsibility.

Maybe it makes more sense in the context of the buying and selling of commissions, but I don't know enough about the period to make sense of it.
Anaisis
5. etv13
There are lots of decent and responsible military men in Heyer: Colonel Audley, Jack Staples, Harry Smith (okay, he's a real guy, so not quite like the others, but she chose to write about him), Hugo Darracott, Adam Deverill, Gervase Frant . . . Interestingly, they're all army men; I can't think of any naval officers in Heyer. Conway is seen as evading responsibility because he stays on in the army after his father is dead and the war is over, and Deborah's brother is demanding an expensive commission. For other younger brothers, though, the army is seen as an appropriate outlet for young men who are a little too wild -- e.g., Richmond Darracott and Helen's brother in April Lady.

This was never one of my favorites, but I re-read it a few months ago, and I thought Deb and her kind of screwy sense of fair play was really charming. And Heyer would do the Lady Bellingham-style notions of economy even better with the twins' mother in False Colors.
Mari Ness
6. MariCats
@anaisis -- I like corrupting you :) (Everyone else, @anaisis is a long long term friend.)

@sienamystic -- The Toll-Gate is one I haven't read for awhile, so we'll see how that goes. And this obviously is one of my favorites as well.

@Azara -- Yeah.

It's irritating, because Heyer was certainly aware of how many women in the period worked outside and inside the home. She even occasionally features some of these women (all of the women selling hats/dressses/working as fashion designers to the elite) although very rarely.

In her slight defense, Heyer is working with a system where aristocratic and gentile women generally did have few options beyond governessing/companion/marriage or sleeping with a wealthy man if they wanted to retain their social status/contact with their families. Mary Shelley, for instance, on the edge of this group, _couldn't_ search for a job (even as a governess) since her son was to inherit a baronetcy and her inlaws would and could take the kid if she obtained regular employment. They rarely sent her money, either, so she ended up writing nonfiction at a rapid rate to support herself and her son, lacking other options. Heyer's occasional comments show that she was also aware of Lady Bess Foster, who was removed from her children, and who, lacking other job skills, ended up "working" as a companion to a duchess and a mistress to the duke, and later marrying the duke. She also knew the story of the Brontes, who with all their talent and energy could only obtain low paying positions as governesses until Charlotte broke through with Jane Eyre. Jane Austen generally lived as a dependent in various family households.

The power of these narratives -- and these women often wrote their stories, adding to their power -- has generally obscured the lives of women who did work as professionals. But those women typically came from the lower or middle classes, which were not classes Heyer was focused on writing about.

Regarding Deb specifically: she and her aunt initially were successful; what doomed them was expanding into a larger, more expensive house and adding some questionable gambling methods where they expected the house to win -- but it was a gamble.

You're correct on the hell bit :)

@between4walls -- I'm not sure that this is an accurate reflection of the Regency era as it is a reflection of Heyer's conflicted attitudes towards the military and in part a reflection of Jane Austen, who did live in the period and liked the navy a lot more than she liked the military.

@etv13 -- Certainly -- Heyer did not always use this anti-military approach, which is exactly why I was surprised to find this attitude in a book written right in the middle of World War II -- when I would have expected a more pro-military, patriotic attitude.

Most of Heyer's still active military figures appear in pre-World War II novels; her post World War II novels tend to feature military figures who are either evading responsibility (Conway); returning to take up responsibilities of land management (often finding neglected estates or their inheritances in danger); or, as you noted, using the army as a refuge/way to shape their characters. We're going to be looking at the estate management issues in particular, since that becomes critical in multiple post-war Heyer novels, and is a genuine reflection of her concerns at the time.
Azara microphylla
7. Azara
I think it's not so much that Heyer has a down on the military, as that brothers generally make a very poor showing in her books. I imagine this is mostly for reasons of plot: any heroines who had elder brothers as competent and intelligent as her average hero wouldn't need rescuing, which would defuse the majority of her plots. Brothers tend to be feckless, reckless, dim or selfish, and the only sympathetic brothers tend to be young and naive enough that they need rescuing too.

Sarah Thane in The Talisman Ring had an elder brother who seemed a reliable type, but then she's in the minority of Heyer heroines who don't need to be rescued from anything in particular.

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