Tue
Apr 23 2013 4:00pm

Stepping Away from Romance: The Foundling

Georgette Heyer The FoundlingThe Most Noble Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware, Duke of Sale and lots of other titles, or Gilly to his friends, leads a life most of us might envy: several grand houses, armies of servants that put Downton Abbey’s elaborate staff to shame (Gilly has a Chief Confectioner, although his agent is not Entirely Happy with this person), and a family and staff devoted to his best interests. Indeed, they are pathetically concerned about the 24 year old Gilly’s supposedly fragile health. Gilly, in turn, hating arguments, and aware of how much he owes his various guardians, slinks back from asserting himself, even as his inner anger at the constraints about him grows. It’s a testament to Georgette Heyer’s powers of writing in The Foundling that all of this wealthy oppression manages to seem sympathetic.

Not that everyone does sympathize. Gilly’s young cousin Matt, for one, beset by major issues of his own, feels that Gilly should try being a normal person just for once. And since Gilly is feeling particularly oppressed, he suddenly decides to follow his cousin’s advice—and possibly help Matt out along the way.

Heyer had made her name by creating romantic plots, and the opening scenes of The Foundling, where Gilly finds himself obligated in all honor and by all relatives to ask for the hand of Lady Harriet Presteigne, do seem to suggest that a romantic plot will be forthcoming. But in much the same way as The Reluctant Widow had mostly abandoned romance to make fun of gothic novels, in The Foundling, Heyer mostly abandoned romance for a coming of age story where the romantic heroine barely appears.

It’s a rather odd decision for an author associated with romance to make in her third straight Regency novel. A touch of rebellion, perhaps, against an audience that kept demanding her light period pieces, with their romantic endings? By this time, Heyer had realized that most of her writing would focus on Regencies, but as her correspondence reveals, she had still not given up all hope of the “serious” novel, Lighthearted and funny though The Foundling is, it is for the most part a book of rebelling against the well meant strictures of others, although, in an ironic touch, the only person who actually manages to escape his socially destined role (and relatives) is the villain, Mr. Liversedge.

This inner rebellion may also explain why The Foundling takes awhile to get going, as Heyer takes the time to explain, in minute detail, just how frustrating and confined Gilly’s life is, for all his money, to allow us to better understand his rebellion—and his later irritation. In the process, Heyer also drops tidbits that she would use to create her Regency world, and particularly her Regency servant world. Servants, in Heyer’s Regency, take great pride in service and their roles, and generally exhibit an almost unhealthy devotion to their employers. Heyer had created devoted maids and valets before this, of course, but in The Foundling she carefully created an entire household hierarchy, most of which she promptly abandons right along with Gilly.

Gilly, after all, is seeking adventure, which is not ordinarily found by people surrounded by well meaning, cossetting men. So off he goes—straight into discomfort (by early 19th century Ducal standards, you understand) and into the guardianship of two young teenagers: Tom, who like the Duke, is attempting to escape well meaning relatives and tutors; and the beautiful and brainless Belinda, the foundling of the title, all too willing to go off with any man who promises her a purple silk gown and jewels.

Belinda has, after all, no relatives, and very few prospects, and as another character later points out compassionately, she has also not had much of an upbringing. Which partly explains how she has tumbled into the clutches of her self-appointed guardian, the grandiloquent Mr. Liversedge, who, despite a past that has hovered on the edges of gentility and even wealth, is not above a bit of blackmail, kidnapping and murder. Liversedge intends to use some letters and verbal promises made by Matt to Belinda to blackmail Gilly. Heyer intends to use Liversedge and Belinda for a touch of humor. Naturally, mayhem, including a house fire, exploding ginger beer bottles, accusations of murder, several frustrating chases through southern England, and more, ensues.

It’s all great fun, thanks mostly to Liversedge. Like the old gentleman of The Masqueraders, Liversedge does not hesitate to dream big—of enough money to establish a high class gambling facility someplace in London or preferably Europe, which in Liversedge’s view means the equivalent of five times the annual income of a wealthy family in England at the time. Gilly, being unusually wealthy, can take this calmly, but the amount makes others gasp out loud. Liversedge handles his failures—and he has many of them—with great aplomb, never hesitating for a moment to admit his errors—while also never hesitating for a moment to blame others for his calamities, or explaining himself in terms of great dignity, or defending himself against what he terms calumnies:

“Before you succumb to this eloquence, Adolphus,” drawled Gideon, “I would remind you that this admirer of yours would have murdered you for a paltry sum.”

“There, sir,” instantly replied Liversedge, “I must join issue with you. For fifty thousand pounds I might have been able to overcome my natural repugnance to putting a period to his Grace’s life, but for a lesser sum I could not have brought myself to contemplate it. Those nobler instincts which even the basest of us have must have revolted.”

Nor does he hesitate to help his opponents when it will benefit him—even stooping to fill the role of a grand butler, a job he manages with brilliance. He even makes dessert. Only birth and circumstances have prevented him from climbing farther, and he has no intentions of allowing slight setbacks like the destruction of his only home to stop him now. Indeed, in Liversedge’s magnificent reckoning at the end of the novel, it is Gilly who owes him, not just for the loss of his home and the hopes of making money from Belinda, but for providing Gilly with a touch of excitement, tempering, and maturity. Gilly agrees, writing him a check.

But this is not merely repayment for services earned, but an act of self-interest on both parts. Gilly does not want society to know how easily he was duped, particularly since—as Liversedge does not hesitate to point out—Gilly presents a tempting target, especially after escaping his servants. And, as Gilly says only partly in jest, this is also an act of revenge against a town in Europe that bored him. And an act of gratitude at the same time.

Because by the end of the novel, Gilly is not merely no longer the diffident young man of its early pages, now able to shout down his uncle, but he has gained a small touch of cruelty and selfishness. Perhaps more than a small touch: his disappearance puts several people who care for him, and many who do not, in a genuine panic, not to mention leading to the destruction of a not exactly innocent house and inn that is yet the only source of revenue for its inhabitants. But when told that everyone from family to mere acquaintances has been terrified on his behalf, to the point of accusing his cousin Gideon (with reason) of murder, Gilly just laughs. The Gilly of the early pages of the book would have felt oppressive guilt and resentment; the Gilly of its end is apologetic, but not really sorry, even though he has put a number of people through some very real distress. He is later outright discourteous to his uncle both on major matters (a fight over land) and minor (not telling his uncle that Harriet has arrived, which necessitates more formal clothing).

And yet Heyer suggests that this new found selfishness is absolutely necessary for Gilly’s happiness—and the happiness of his tenants. As she quietly notes throughout the novel, in a zeal to prove that they have Gilly’s best interests at heart—at least his financial interests—Gilly’s uncle and land agents have been quietly squeezing money from his tenants, refusing to sell and lease land to people who could actually use it, and in at least some cases refusing to “invest in” cottages on Gilly’s estates—which means “repair.” Gilly has noticed this, but his efforts to correct the problem have been turned down because he is not assertive or selfish enough to fight people who keep assuring him that they have only his best interests in mind. A week spent in the company of decidedly less well off people, however, convinces him that for their good, at least, he needs to be more assertive—and less worried about hurting other people’s feelings.

Speaking of hurting other people’s feelings, The Foundling has one new note: several disparaging references to Methodists, and two Quakers who briefly enter the novel to harass the characters on religious grounds. Heyer had previously either avoided mentions of religion entirely (sometimes to the detriment of her novels, as in The Conqueror), or kept to safe jokes about kindly or stuffy English vicars or contemporaries seized by sudden religious trends (for example, the minor character in No Wind of Blame who speaks happily of being God-controlled). Her criticism remains light here, but present enough to make me wonder if she had been recently irritated by devout practitioners.

I do find one part of the book rather awkward. At its beginning, Gilly finds himself wishing—rather understandably—that he could choose his own bride, rather than the match his family is strongly encouraging. He also thinks that despite spending time with her, he does not know Lady Harriet well: as we learn, she is generally shy and often inarticulate.

And yet, after spending the next several chapters away from her, he suddenly trusts her enough to deliver the beautiful Belinda into her care, assuring her that he could not find anyone he liked better. Their mutual declarations of love work a bit better a few chapters later, after Harriet has shown her true character by helping Gilly—and by showing up to get him out of jail, quite shockingly, showing that they do have a hint of rebelliousness in common after all. And Heyer has softened this ending by having several minor characters point out that they’ve felt that Gilly and Harriet were in love with each other the entire time. (They phrase it as “not indifferent,” but what they mean is evident.)

Still, although I think Harriet knows her own feelings, Gilly does not, and I cannot think that his whole kidnapping, escape, and trotting through England with a young girl obsessed with purple gowns has done that much to lead him to that realization—although Harriet must have seemed an improvement in comparison. And I find myself rather wishing that, like Sir Richard Wyndham before him, he had not ended up with the bride chosen for him.

Having said all this, out of all of the Heyer couples, Gilly and Harriet are perhaps the best suited for each other: they come from similar backgrounds, share similar interests, have similar personalities, and are friends. Harriet, unlike many others, ends up approving of Gilly’s entire escapade. To an extent, too, Gilly’s proposal has a touch of Cinderella about it for Harriet: she’s certainly not poor (among the wealthier of Heyer’s post-war Regency heroines) and able to buy several hats without counting the cost, but she is not happy at home, and marriage and her own establishment represents freedom and escape. At the same time, Gilly’s casual dismissal of the very real pain and humiliation that Harriet has felt after an acquaintance has told her about Belinda, and a small note towards the end of the book suggesting that Harriet does not always understand Gilly’s sense of humor, strike warning notes, even if Harriet ends up acquiescing to both situations. Her last words of the novel are assurances that she will always obey Gilly. Gideon approves. I couldn’t help flashing back to an earlier scene, where Harriet’s governess, who knows Harriet’s feeling for Gilly, thinks that their marriage will work because Gilly is a model of compliance, something no longer true.

True, The Foundling is not a romance, so quibbling that its romance does not quite work is perhaps a touch unfair. At the same time, The Foundling is meant to be Gilly’s coming to age story, where he finally learns to take control of his own life, and it seems somewhat sad that he still lacks control of one of its most important factors—who exactly he’ll be sharing the rest of his life with. For all Heyer’s assurances that Harriet and Gilly are happy, with a lovely shared moment as they leave gaol, I remain somewhat unconvinced.

This quibble aside, The Foundling is a fun, if somewhat meandering read, containing some of Heyer’s great comedic scenes. I can’t exactly recommend it as a starting place for Heyer, but if you are enjoying Heyer, this is one book to check out.


Mari Ness does not own a single purple gown, although she does have a purple velvet jacket somewhere which should count. She lives in central Florida.

15 comments
Azara microphylla
1. Azara
There are lots of things about this book that I still enjoy, but looking at it now there are others that make me a bit uneasy.

The first is the foundling herself, Belinda. Her characterization goes way beyond 'brainless blonde' and into 'intellectual disability' territory, and seeing all her near escapes from prostitution played for laughs upsets me. Giving a similar character a bit more intelligence and agency in Cotillion improved the plot enormously.

Another is the unsympathetic treatment of Tom's father, the industrialist, compared to the latitude given Liversedge. Again, revisiting a similar character in the later guise of Jonathan Chawleigh in A Civil Contract, while still edging towards caricature, at least provided some depth.
Mari Ness
2. MariCats
Belinda's not a favorite of mine, either, but, how do I put this? My issue with her characterization isn't so much that I think she might cross over into intellectually disabled, as that she seems too naive and trusting -- although that is part of the cliche of how that group is often described. In my experience that's not always true.

I'd agree that Cotillion is a step up from this on two levels: Dolph is aware of his mother's brutality, and Olivia very well aware of her mother's intentions. Those two mothers are about the only bit of depth and darkness that Cotillion has, though I think they're mostly there to allow the minor characters to have some opposition and a hapy ending.

Speaking of Cotillion, that also provides us with one of Heyer's first sympathetic middle-class figures in her Regency books: Miss Plymstock. Otherwise, I don't think Heyer managed to avoid cariacturizing the middle class in her Regency novels until Black Sheep.
hapax
3. hapax
This has long been one of my favorite Heyers, mainly because I find the character arc of Gilly so very absorbing. Although I agree that it's telling (considering Heyer's fondness for rude heros) that his ultimate maturation is shown when he is *finally* able to act in a thoughtless, uncivil, and selfish manner.

Despite the underplayed romance, I also think this book contains one of the most sincerely romantic moments in all of Heyer's oeuvre: the small incident when, after Harriet has "properly" dressed and groomed Belinda, and is thinking (with some despair) that no man will be able to tear his eyes away from her beautiful protege, she discovers that Gilly has been looking at *her* the whole time.

It's subtle, but very sweet.
hapax
4. etv13
@hapax: It's one of my favorite Heyers, too. In fact, for a stretch from my mid-twenties to mid-thirties, it was my very favorite Heyer. (Before that, it was Venetia, and afterward, Cotillion.) I'm a middle-class American woman, but I identified very strongly with Gilly's sense of being hemmed in by people who love him and mean well, but think they know better than he does what's in his best interests.

@Azara: I don't think Tom's father is portrayed unsympathetically, particularly not in relation to his being an industrialist. We see him through Gilly's eyes as a parallel to Gilly's Uncle Lionel -- i.e., as someone who's a threat to Tom's autonomy while nonetheless loving him and wanting what by his own lights is best for him -- but without the social advantages that allow Lionel to ensure that Gilly knows how to shoe a horse without that threatening his class status in any way.
Azara microphylla
5. Azara
@etv13: What I think is unsympathetic about Heyer's portrayal of Tom's father is not his treatment of his son, which seems ordinary enough for the time, but his sycophancy towards the very idea of a duke. That attitude would be normal enough for Liversedge, who comes from the servant class, but at a time when the old landowning class and the new industrialists were at serious loggerheads over the Corn Laws and other political issues, I find Mr. Mamble's servility too much of a caricature.

This brings up something I've been thinking of lately, which is a noticeable difference between Heyer's Regencies and so many 19th century English novels which are set among the aristocracy. While Heyer's characters are upper class, there's rarely any sense that they're the ruling class, in the literal sense of the term. Many of the contemporary 19th century authors were fascinated by the idea of the political power wielded by the upper class, not just through their hereditary seats in the House of Lords, but also through the pocket boroughs and other seats they controlled in the House of Commons. But there are only three or four Heyer regencies where this political power gets more than a glancing reference. (I think it's important in Bath Tangle, and is one reason why I find the eventual pairing in that work more plausible than it seems at first glance).

But here, the happy-ever-after ending has Gilly in thorough command of his own lands, and set to become a responsible landowner and do his duty to his tenants. But his wider responsibility to his fellow countrymen and women seems noticeably absent.
hapax
6. etv13
@Azara: It's been 30+ years since I read the book, but I saw the TV version of Persuasion not too long ago, and in it Anne Eliot's father was really thrilled about hanging out with a mere viscount -- and he was a baronet. So I don't hold his being overly impressed with a duke against Mr. Mamble, or Heyer's portrayal of him.

You're right that Heyer is focused on her heroes' private lives almost to the exclusion of their public ones, with a very few exceptions. To Bath Tangle I'll add False Colours -- Kit Fancot is fully engaged in a diplomatic career, which seems pretty ruling class to me (his uncle got a peerage out of a similar career, after all) -- and I think you could make an argument about the military/ex-military characters like Hugo Darracott and St. Erth. The hero of The Nonesuch, whose name escapes me at the moment, is portrayed as a committed philanthropist. Most of the rest of them, though, even the earls and dukes and marquesses, seem pretty disengaged from politics and public life. At a guess, I'd say this has something to do with Heyer's novels being historical romances and not contemporary nineteenth-century novels.
Azara microphylla
7. Azara
I think her choice in this matter is not just because she was writing romances (since I find the ones with a little politics just as successful as the ones without), but is tied in with the way she presents Regency England as a far more stable, settled conservative place than it was in reality.

Even the admirable Sir Waldo Hawkridge in The Nonesuch is quite conservative: he seems more focused on mitigating the effects of social evils than in rooting them out altogether.
Pamela Adams
8. Pam Adams
I tend to think that Gilly and Harriet will become like Adam and Jenny in A Civil Contract. (quickly checks to be sure that this isn't the Bujold title) They will primarily be country people, responsible for those living on their estates, but Gilly, will, like Adam, 'take his seat in the house.'
hapax
9. etv13
@Azara: I was struck when I read The Absentee by how much more provisional and improvised the London season felt in that book than it does in Heyer. It's kind of like when I visited the real New Orleans after years of hanging out in New Orleans Square. (They did have a great jazz band there when I was a kid, though -- Teddy Buckner and his Jazz All-Stars.)

I think Sir Waldo (and many of her other heroes) is conservative because Heyer was pretty conservative. She shows her characters wanting to help individuals (Sir Waldo's orphans, Arabella's climbing boy), but even the ones who are interested in politics don't seem to want to effect systematic social change. That doesn't mean they don't act like (or as) members of the ruling class, though.

I don't remember if it says in The Foundling whether Gilly has taken his seat already or not. I can't imagine Lord Lionel letting that pass, though. On the other hand, I'm having a hard time imagining Avon in the House of Lords, and when Heyer shows you Charles James Fox in Devil's Cub, it's in a purely social context. I think Heyer is just not that interested in politics as an activity her characters might be involved in. I've read a fair number of Regency romances, and maybe it's a result of Heyer's influence, or maybe it's just because they are romances, but very few of them feature characters who are interested or involved in the political issues of the day. Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas have some characters who are, but they're Victorian (the characters, I mean, not Milan and Thomas).
Mari Ness
10. MariCats
@etv13 -- I checked, and Lord Lionel does tell Gilly: "You have been presented at Court, you have taken your seat in the House, you have travelled, you have had a season in London." This is said more in the context of pointing out why Gilly is ready for marriage, however, and not so much in the "we have great hopes for a political career" for you context. There's also some discussion of Parliamentary dress. I definitely got the idea that Gilly had not been much of a politician before this, but his experiences meant that he might be taking his duties in the Lords -- as a Tory -- more seriously.

The social exploits of Charles James Fox were pretty legendary so I don't have a problem with those getting brought up.

@Azara and @etv13 -- Politically it seems a bit of a mix. We see some heroes, especially those in the rude/selfish category, actively avoiding their political duties -- Alverstoke as the main one leaping to mind here. And even many of her less rude heroes -- Mr. Beaumaris, Richard in The Corinthian, Freddy, Sherry -- just seem content to enjoy their money and not worry about their other duties. And we certainly see several cases of land management issues, although that's more reflective of concerns of 20th century Britain than of the Regency period.

Heyer does have a few government characters here and there, though. What I find interesting is that for the most part they work out of the country -- Meg's husband is off in China, Sophy's father in Brazil, and so on. The Reluctant Widow has a couple of men working in government service.

If I recall correctly St. Erth flat out tells someone that he will be voting Conservative and has no interest in revolutionary ideals, but I may be misquoting?
Azara microphylla
11. Azara
@MariCats: I noticed that about so many of the more politically engaged characters being diplomats abroad, and I'm still musing as to why.

The problem with St. Erth's views on politics is that they're given in opposition to the opinions of the Morvilles, whose Utopian idealism is presented as something impossible to take seriously, so I find it hard to gauge just how conservative he really is.

I see Adam in A Civil Contract as in many ways the most convincing dabbler in politics: he was a good subordinate officer, but not a very original thinker, and I can see him conscientiously supporting Wellington in the Lords, and defending the interests of his agricultural district, doing his duty as best he knows.

Rotherham (backed up by Serena) is certainly the kind of poltician who would have voted in the Sedition Acts and Suspension of Habeus Corpus Act and ruthlessly sent in the Dragoons against protesters.

I see Hugo Darracott and Lord Damarel as the two dark horses in political terms. Lord Damarel started out as an idealistic diplomat before he derailed his career, and with the future of his children to consider might end up as a supporter of the more gradual type of reform. And I find it hard to believe that with the influence of his Yorkshire grandfather in his past, Hugo Darracott would end up as just another run-of-the-mill Tory.

With regard to land management issues, Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent of 1800, while nearly forgotten today, was very influential at the time. The disastrous land management it criticised was that of the Anglo-Irish gentry, but the Irish estates were generally seen in England as a dire example of what could result from poor management, so I think it was also a contemporary issue.
Mari Ness
12. MariCats
@Azara -- The fate of the great houses after World War II was most definitely a contemporary issue, with arguments on multiple sides -- the great houses were irrelevant in a democratic, post-war age, the great houses were a critical part of British heritage and needed to be preserved, preserving estates was all very nice but hideously hideously expensive and with tax rates what they were it would be easier to just sell the places or knock them down, and so on. Multiple estates and great homes were converted into hotels or schools. Heyer evidently admired people like the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire who managed to keep Chatsworth going despite massive tax issues by investing in local farms and turning the house into a tourist attraction/film setting, instead of letting the place fall apart.

I agree that it's very difficult to know what St. Erth's political leanings are -- I'm going with Tory, but I see him as tired of war, realizing that he's about to have to do a lot of work with his estate, and probably choosing not to do much in politics. Hugo Darracott could end up being very interesting indeed; his ability to suddenly turn against the law officers he admires to save his family means that I'd find it very difficult to predict his politics.
hapax
13. pilgrimsoul
I have benefitted from the aristocrats' financial disaster having had the wonderful opportunity to visit the houses and wander the grounds. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand--golly I sure did enjoy myself--on the other I feel respect for the stewardship that created these lovely places.
hapax
14. pilgrimsoul
I have benefitted from the aristocrats' financial disaster having had the wonderful opportunity to visit the houses and wander the grounds. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand--golly I sure did enjoy myself--on the other I feel respect for the stewardship that created these lovely places.
hapax
15. etv13
@MariCats: I figured this time it was my turn to check; what St. Erth tells Mr. Morville is "I have not the smallest desire to live in a Republican state, and if an attempt were made to strip me of my possessions I should resist it to the utmost of my power!" Which I don't think is determinative one way or the other if we're choosing between nineteenth-century Whig or Tory.

I get the sense (admittedly, not based on very much) that Lord Legerwood (in my view one of the most mellifluous titles bestowed on a Heyer character) may well be involved in government. Trying to guess what Freddy's views might be when he inherits, though, is beyond me.

@Azara: I can't see Hugo Darracott as a run-of-the-mill anything, but his grandfather was a very rich industrialist who sent his grandson to Harrow. I don't think we can assume he would have had a particularly liberal influence.

Just in general, I want to think of characters I like as sharing my general outlook, but one of my favorite characters ever (Jack Aubrey) is a Tory.

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