Having tried something a touch more serious, for her next book, Sprig Muslin, Georgette Heyer returned to the formulas that had served her well in previous bestsellers: a charming older hero, an atypical, shy and retiring older heroine, a spirited teenager, a hopeful poet, social misunderstandings, and intense focus on clothing, tailoring, and whether it’s a great idea to bring along someone who might be mistaken for your mistress to a dinner party where everyone is hoping you will ask another woman to marry you—especially when the said other woman is the daughter of your dinner host. (Short answer: no.) Also, fake highway robberies and a gunshot. It’s almost entirely great fun, with some of Heyer’s most sparkling dialogue, and if we could just get rid of or completely rewrite the last 30 or so pages I’d so be on board. Alas, not so much.
The elegantly dressed Sir Gareth is on his way to ask his old friend, Lady Hester, to marry him. Not because he is in love—he has never recovered from the tragic death of his fiancé, who was also one of Hester’s friends—but because he must marry someone, and he and Hester get along very well and are excellent friends. In addition, he can offer her something: freedom from an untenable home life. As an unmarried woman of probably 29 or 30 (it would be indelicate to question this point too strongly), Lady Hester, despite her noble birth, has been turned into something of a household drudge and ruthlessly used by her relatives. It’s not a life she’s happy with, as Sir Gareth well knows. At the same time, she is convinced that it is better than living with and sleeping with a man she is in love with, who does not love her back. It’s a debatable point. (The characters debate it.)
“Drudge,” by the way, is the word the characters use: someone named Lady Hester is not, of course, scrubbing floors. But she does work as a housekeeper, supervising the domestic staff, and as a nurse and unofficial governess for several nieces and nephews, without pay. This is partly thanks to her retiring and shy personality, but mostly because she has very few options: she cannot seek employment, thanks to her birth, and she cannot live alone.
Considerably less resigned to her fate is Amanda, a young girl Sir Gareth happens to be encounter in an inn. Amanda is most definitely not supposed to be in the inn, or travelling alone, but as the young, cosseted granddaughter of an indulgent grandparent, she is accustomed to having her own way, and when thwarted, simply takes it. Extremely sheltered, she is also unaware of the potential dangers that she can encounter while travelling alone—everything from having innkeepers refuse to serve her (as a young woman travelling alone, she is assumed to be unrespectable) to having people believe that she is some form of prostitute, to the very real, if only implied and unspoken, threat of rape. Women, the characters agree, need protection.
Amanda firmly disagrees with this. She has fallen in love with a neighbor, Captain Neil Kendall, who, having almost recovered from a major injury, is about to be shipped back to war. Amanda can go with him only if they are married, and her grandfather has firmly refused to give his permission, stating, with considerable justification, that Amanda is too young, and should enjoy herself before settling for the difficult, dirty life of a soldier. (She is very much too young. More on this in a bit.) Any hopes of elopement are dashed when Captain Kendall refuses to take off to the Border with Amanda. She decides that her only option is to compel her grandfather to agree to the marriage by running away—in the process showing that she is very well able to care for herself.
Incidentally, Amanda apparently never made the one argument that might have moved her grandfather to consent: that Neil has already been wounded, and may well die in warfare or of illness when he returns to the Army. This may be because Amanda never thinks of it: she is convinced that Neil is an outstanding soldier, certain to become a General. No, her main argument is that she has been in love with Neil for two years, and not fallen out of love with Neil even after meeting several other men. She also argues that she’ll enjoy the life of a soldier’s life more than society life in London, something that might be more convincing if she knew anything about the realities of warfare (reality in general is not one of Amanda’s strong points.) Given that Neil is planning on heading back to war, and Amanda, if with him, will be close to battle, I can hardly blame her adoring grandfather for continuing to say a very firm no.
Amanda certainly has guts, and a seemingly boundless capacity for telling thoroughly untrue stories, as well as beauty and charm. But she has no job skills, or any chance of obtaining employment (her one attempt to be a governess ended the moment her employer looked at her), and knows little about the world. Aware that if she returns home too quickly, she will not be allowed to marry Neil, she comes up with increasingly impractical plans to terrify her grandfather into consenting. This isn’t just painful for her grandfather, but also leaves Sir Gareth in an awkward position: abandon Amanda in an inn with all its assorted dangers, or take Amanda with him to the house of the Earl of Brancaster—where he plans to propose to Lady Hester. He decides that the only honorable thing he can do is the second.
Not surprisingly, this is not taken well by any of mansion’s inhabitants and guests, none of whom believe Sir Gareth’s rather weak story that Amanda is the daughter of some of his friends. Nor is it taken well by Amanda, who almost immediately makes plans to flee Sir Gareth’s care, or Hester, deeply in love with Sir Gareth but aware this love is not returned, who immediately assumes that Sir Gareth is falling in love with Amanda.
This conviction leads Hester to reject Sir Gareth’s proposal. Amanda, meanwhile, continues to try to flee Sir Gareth’s care, first with the thoroughly vile Fabian Theale, and second with hopeful poet Hildebrand Ross, in both cases, telling lengthy lies to gain their support. (Not that Theale, looking for the young healthy prostitute that he assumes Amanda is, needs much coaxing.) Which, naturally, leads to Sir Gareth getting shot, as these things do, and Lady Hester, just a day after rejecting Sir Father, rushing to his rescue. Also, a kitten.
It all leads to a mostly happy, comedic ending, as everyone properly pairs up, and Sir Gareth, after several days in Amanda’s presence, realizing just how much he cares for Lady Hester—all great fun until Amanda’s longed for Captain Kendall shows up. He starts off by shutting Amanda up, sending her off for a glass of milk. It, um, gets worse.
I don’t like Captain Kendall. That’s an understatement. He’s controlling, demanding, and treats his intended wife like a child. Indeed, Neil and Amanda are allowed to marry only because the characters agree that Neil can control Amanda—and Amanda needs to be controlled. Control her he does, in part by dressing her down in public and speaking sharply to her. She obeys immediately, to the shock of the watching characters who have never seen Amanda obey anyone, and then he turns around and demands the story—not from Amanda, the girl he’s supposedly in love with, but from Sir Gareth.
I also can’t stop contemplating Captain Kendall’s statement that the attachment between him and Amanda is of a long standing nature. Just how long standing is this attachment? By all accounts, Amanda is 16, so young that most characters assume that she is still a schoolgirl, and young enough that one character even states that she is too young to be compromised—“Her youth is protection enough.” Amanda then confesses that she has been engaged to Captain Kendall for two years—since she was fifteen. Since she isn’t seventeen yet, she must have been a very young fifteen. He is currently 24, so was 22 or 23 when they got engaged. We are also told that Captain Kendall is back from the Peninsula (e.g., Spain) on sick leave after getting a ball in his shoulder that could not be dug out for “several months,” thus implying that during their two year engagement, Amanda and Neil have barely seen each other. Amanda tells us that they practically grew up together, but since he is eight years older than she, I’m not sure how much time they spent together as kids—enough that he knows her quite well, and apparently, enough for him to start getting feelings for her when she was about fourteen and he about twenty-one.
Childhood romances are, of course, a staple of this sort of literature, and Heyer, aware that some women did marry at very young ages during the Regency and earlier, had certainly acknowledged this and used large age gaps before this. Amanda and Neil are closer in age than, say, the Earl of Rule and Horatia. And Neil is as aware as Rule is that Amanda is too young to be married—possibly more aware, since Rule marries Horatia anyway, and Neil, to give him credit, does not. But Rule does not try to mold his young wife’s personality, or control her; nor does he speak of curbing her, ending her tricks, and managing her—all words used by Neil. All actions taken by Neil. And he is about to marry her to keep her under his control. Marriage brought Horatia freedom, and in this book, marriage can and will bring Hester freedom; but it will bring the exact opposite to Amanda.
Given that Heyer had just completed a book strongly suggesting that teenage infatuations for soldiers who then trotted off to the Peninsula do not work out, this seems particularly problematic. I have no doubt that Amanda feels strongly now. I question whether she will feel the same later. I also question whether a girl who has been sheltered from all information about rape and real time war conditions, who has to ask people who have never served in the army if she will have to wring chickens’ necks once there, should be allowed to go without a talk about “HEY. THIS IS WHAT A BATTLEFIELD IS LIKE. IT KINDA SUCKS.” I’m aware that Amanda has shown little inclination to listen to her elders so far, but still, it doesn’t seem as if Neil even tried. Perhaps because he correctly assumes she will obey his orders.
Adding to the problem: all of this happens in a book that elsewhere is concerned about restrictions on women. Lady Widmore openly admits that she has married, not for love, but because marriage is preferable to the constrained life of a single woman. She also urges Lady Hester to marry, again, not for love, but because she is aware that Hester, after her father’s death, will be forced into a miserable existence as a servant or near servant to her sisters, and remain under her family’s control, an unhappy situation. Sir Gareth’s brother in law is convinced that the death of Clarissa was, in the long run, a good thing for Sir Gareth, since Sir Gareth would never have been able to control Clarissa. Given that Sir Gareth proves completely unable to control Amanda, Mr. Wetherby would seem to have a point.
To be fair, Sprig Muslin has two of Heyer’s best scenes (the dinner at the house of the Earl of Brancaster; the moment when Amanda attempts to explain to an elderly friend of Sir Gareth’s father that Lady Hester is Sir Gareth’s “natural” sister), and several other delightful moments, along with the ongoing obsession with clothes. (In another highlight, the potentially nasty confrontation between a very angry and worried Sir Gareth and a not quite drunk Mr. Theale is headed off by Mr. Theale’s focus on Sir Gareth’s excellent coat, demanding the name of Sir Gareth’s tailor. It’s a lesson to all of us to keep our priorities straight.
And Neil is nowhere near as bad as Rotherham. Still, two books in a row suggesting that women need to be controlled, and two books in a row handing women off to abusive sorts....well, I just find myself feeling more than a twinge of nostalgia for Heyer’s earlier books, when the younger heroines found themselves rewarded, not silenced, for stepping beyond boundaries.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, without a single dueling pistol. Or properly blackened boots. You may all gasp now.