Jul 16 2013 5:00pm

Rewarding Emotional Abuse: Bath Tangle

Bath Tangle Georgette HeyerGeorgette Heyer had often added a Cinderella touch to many of her novels, allowing her heroines to marry men of considerably greater rank and wealth. But in the 1950s, facing questions about changing class structures and the roles of women in Britain, she abruptly backtracked on this in Bath Tangle, where, for arguably the first time, Heyer took a serious look at the artificial world she had created for her readers to see its effects on women. The results were not pretty.

The book starts off on a somber note, at the funeral and reading of the will of the Earl of Spenborough, unexpectedly dead at the age of 50, leaving a young widow aged only 20, Fanny, and a daughter, the 26 year old Serena. Because Serena is a daughter, not a son, she can only inherit the earl’s considerable personal estate and her grandmother’s fortune, and must leave the homes she has lived in since her birth, and run since she was a teenager. (Yes, homes; the Earl owned a country estate, a Dower House, a London home, a hunting lodge, and probably a few others I missed.) It doesn’t help her to realize that she would do a better job of running her father’s estate than the inferior cousin who inherits it. (This realization is later proved to be completely correct.)

Worse, as she discovers when the will is read, what inheritance she does have remains completely in trust and under the control of the Marquis of Rotherham. Still worse, Serena can only regain control of her fortune when and if she marries and if her marriage is approved by Rotherham. (At which point her money will actually pass into the control of her husband.) Did I mention that Serena and Rotherham were once engaged, and she called it off, partly because of his terrible temper? This would be cruel enough under normal circumstances; that Rotherham and Serena can barely speak without fighting takes it beyond cruelty to near torture. Finding out that she will have only “pin money,”—about 750 pounds a year—instead of the full inheritance she had expected to control, leaves her breathless with anger and fury. Others are equally appalled. Except for Rotherham who yells at her for not being ladylike about it.

Total sidenote: Serena demands to know how she will be able to support herself on “just” 750 pounds a year—this at a time when Jane Austen noted that 1000 pounds a year made Mr. Bingley a very rich and desirable person indeed, worthy of going all the way to Netherfield in the rain and catching a very bad cold—something Austen could speak of with authority since she, her sister, her mother and a family friend were making ends meet on less than 100 pounds a year combined, while remaining genteel, and when governesses considered themselves lucky to earn 20 pounds a year. In a later Heyer book, a decidedly superior governess boasts that she is paid the almost unheard of sum of 100 pounds a year—enough to raise her into near social equality with her neighbors, and of course some of Heyer’s earlier heroines had had considerably less. Wealth is relative.

It’s perhaps important that Heyer, while writing this, was experiencing combined bestsellerdom and taxpayer woes. By this point, her sales should have made her rich; ongoing tax arguments and the heavy burdens placed on high earners after World War II meant that she was instead under constant financial stress, and deeply resentful that she could not enjoy the money she earned, a resentment that leeches through here.

Anyway. Financially trapped, in mourning, and bound to social conventions that do not allow a single woman or a widow to live alone, Serena and Fanny head to the nearby Dower House. In some ways, this is to their mutual benefit: Serena does not have to live under the roof with a cousin she despises (as it turns out, even a few miles of distance is not enough), and Fanny does not have to return to her parents and live with a younger sister she is not fond of. In other ways, Fanny and Serena are not exactly the ideal roommates; they are deeply fond of each other, but have little in common.

The proximity to her old home proves difficult for both Serena and its new owners to handle, so the two head off to Bath, where—spoiler!—their affairs become tangled, especially so when Serena accidentally encounters Hector, a man she fell in love with years back, but was not allowed to marry—partly at Rotherham’s suggestion. A week later, Serena and Hector decide that they are still in love, and since she is now of age, they can marry. It takes them just a little bit longer to figure out their true feelings.

Some of Heyer’s most romantic plots had featured couples who fell in love during their first meeting, or after only a short acquaintance, if an acquaintance heavy on intrigue, climbing out of windows, or Headless Horsemen. The men in these plots were typically older men bored of the women they encountered in usual social situations, and the women either very young, or in their mid twenties, either knowing absolutely nothing of men, or quite enough to make a rapid decision. In a few cases, Heyer had dismissed some of these love at first sight moments as mere “calf-love,” or teenage infatuations, but those were never part of the main plot, and never examined too closely. Here, she took her first hard look at the trope she had used so effectively, and finds it, to put it mildly, lacking.

Hector and Serena are no longer teenagers: their feelings, when they meet, have definitely not been short lived—even if Serena confesses that she has not been as constant in her affections as Hector has. This honesty charms Hector even more. But they do not know each other well as adults at all. Hector comes from a different world: respectable, certainly, genteel and even touching the minor aristocracy—he will inherit an estate—but not the very wealthy aristocratic, political world that Serena has spent her life in. Indeed, he finds her world shocking, and occasionally makes some major mistakes, as when he assumes that the very Tory and conservative Serena has any connection to the very Whig and not at all conservative Devonshire House. Hector is, however, from the same world as Fanny, and the two, almost without thinking about it, begin to spend more time together, in a mutual understanding strongly contrasted with the conversations between Hector and Serena.

The tangle thus created is fairly intricate: Serena is engaged to Hector who secretly loves Fanny who has been helping to sponsor the teenage Emily who becomes engaged to Rotherham who is in love with Serena and the guardian of Gerard who thinks he’s in love with Emily. Oh, and a Mr. Goring. This tangle also allows Heyer to criticize two other loves, or at least attractions, at first sight: that of Gerard and Emily (Emily soon forgets him, then remembers him, then realizes her judgment of men is not exactly the best) and Rotherham and Emily, hands down the least pleasant part of the book.

Bath Tangle contains one triumph: the creation of Emily’s grandmother Mrs. Floore, a plain spoken (many characters call her vulgar) but very wealthy woman with a decidedly joyful love for colors and food. Despite her less than aristocratic origins—Mrs. Floore tells us firmly that her first husband, a gentleman, was considered far too good for her—she and Serena set up a firm friendship, helped by Serena’s fondness and kindness to Emily. The friendship, and money, only goes so far: Mrs. Floore never enters, or expects to enter, Serena’s general social circle.

The rest of the book, starting with the relationship between Hector and Serena demonstrates why. Their love should be romantic; Hector’s years of unwavering devotion should pay off. But in this book, her first to feature middle class characters in prominent and sympathetic roles, Heyer slams down hard on the concept that anyone should marry into another social class, however much the world may be changing, with royal princesses choosing their own husbands and the world struggling to readjust after Napoleon—a political and social situation not too far off from her own. Even comparatively minor distinctions in fortune and birth create impenetrable barriers: Hector may be well born enough to inherit an estate, and be aristocratic enough to meet most standards, even to marry the daughter of a baronet, but he believes that his offer of marriage to Serena is presumptuous, and the differences between their fortunes late cause major difficulties. She was to soften this belief somewhat in later books, while still acknowledging its difficulties, but here, she firmly rejects any concept of a Cinderella story. Women, she states in this novel, can find happiness only when matched with their social and financial equals.

Only one minor note interrupts this fervent argument that people are better off marrying within their own social classes: Mrs. Floore married above her station, twice, and happily both times. (It probably helps that she had already inherited a considerable sum from her father prior to her second marriage.) But to counter this, her first marriage resulted in a social climbing daughter, Lady Laleham, disliked by everyone else in the novel (including Mrs. Floore); the second marriage is childless.

The two other women who do marry outside their social class do not have an easy time of it. Fanny, not brought up in the top ranks of the aristocracy, finds it exhausting and terrifying, and her marriage is barren. Lady Laleham’s marriage garners almost universal disapproval, and even after her marriage, she remains dependent on a mother she is ashamed of, forced to use multiple social ruses to get her daughters accepted into society, and trapped in a marriage that garners almost universal disapproval from all characters.

Otherwise, everyone is firmly matched up by birth, with Heyer assuring us that this is the happiest ending for all of the characters—even as she has noted how these very same social rigidities have made both Fanny and Serena miserable. It should result in an interesting, rich novel. The book has, however, two significant problems: one, although it has the occasional amusing moment, it’s not, overall, very funny, mostly because of the hero. Who would be the other significant problem.

We’ve talked before about Heyer’s rude heroes. Rotherham is about the epitome of these. It’s not just that he and Serena fight constantly, or that he begins the novel by physically pushing Fanny and grabbing Serena’s wrists in a tight, painful grip before belittling her. Serena is reacting badly and emotionally to the announcement that her fortune is under his control, and he is not the only male to remonstrate. Significantly, however, the other man is her relative, and does not touch her or Fanny, and although he agrees that Serena should calm herself down and stop making a scene, he also agrees that Serena has every right to be upset. Every character in the novel agrees—verbally and politely; only Rotherham reacts with emotional and physical violence.

From here, it only gets worse. Rotherham terrifies Fanny; fights with Serena; terrifies and abuses Gerard and Gerards’ siblings; and, in what is the hands down the moral nadir of the novel, verbally and emotionally abuses the sixteen year old Emily. His excuse, such as it isn’t, for his treatment of Emily—that he is reacting to the news that Serena is engaged to Hector, also doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: Rotherham is almost immediately attracted to Emily when they first meet, and starts treating her poorly on their second meeting, months before Hector and Serena accidentally reunite. It takes Serena to point out just how cruel Rotherham’s being for him to even notice. The attraction is purely physical; Rotherham soon finds Emily boring. But when he hears a mere rumor that Serena is engaged, he asks Emily to marry him in revenge. Serena’s summation of this is spot on:

“...Ivo, it is beyond words. To use a child very nearly young enough to be your daughter as a weapon of revenge on me—I wonder that you dare to stand there and tell me of such an iniquity!” Serena said hotly.

Worse, after this, he begins to terrorize Emily. His goal is to get out of a marriage he no longer wants—the social rules of his class state that he is not allowed to break the engagement, but she can. But rather than, say, sit down and have a nice friendly chat with Emily, who doesn’t love him either, and accepted his proposal only out of combined parental pressure and a desire for wealth and a higher social rank, he chooses to try to terrorize her out of the marriage instead—in the very same book where Hector and Serena are able to terminate their engagement through a friendly conversation.

The resulting abuse—and it is abuse—leaves Emily physically unwell, and distressed enough to agree to a very poorly planned elopement (which ends up providing the few comical moments in a not very comical novel) that could lead to her social ruin. She is aware of this, and so terrified she agrees to it anyway. The text hints that the abuse is not just verbal and emotional, but somewhat sexual as well, although since this is a Heyer novel, we never get the details. We only get the portrait of a terrified Emily. And still worse, Rotherham later admits that he has encouraged Gerard to behave badly—and ruin Emily. And still worse, he then blames Serena for making everything go wrong, choosing to insult her by calling her a shrew and a scold and yelling at her. To be fair, she’s yelling back at him, but given that her sins consist only of trying to be overly helpful and interfering too much in people’s lives, and thinking for a time that she is in love with Hector, I’m inclined to be on her side here.

Against this, I can find very little to Rotherham’s credit: he is paying for his wards to be educated at Eton; he knows how not to sympathize with Serena, and he apparently gives great parties.

That’s about it.

It’s annoying as well since I think under most circumstances I’d be against Serena, who does have a tendency to be more than a little convinced that her own judgment is always correct, and a tendency to interfere in people’s lives when she really, really shouldn’t. But Rotherham is so awful that I can’t help but be on Serena’s side—and hope she finds someone else. Anyone else. That she DOES find two perfectly amiable men that she LIKES during the course of the novel just makes this final pairing all the worse.

Oh, indications here and there suggest it might work out: Serena is one of the few people able to curb Rotherham’s conduct, or even willing to try. (The others are his sister, one of his servants, and Emily’s grandmother Mrs. Floore.) Serena also has moments of noting that she and Rotherham have the same sense of humor, something important, and now and again he shows a surprising understanding of what she’s going through; surprising, because this empathy is remarkably lacking in his interactions with nearly everyone else.

Still. It’s not exactly that I want Hector to enter into a marriage that would probably only bring him misery, especially since he’s in love with another woman. But I can’t help but hope—a hope that keeps jumping up in each reread—for Serena’s sake that she would choose the considerably kinder and above all, considerate Hector instead of Rotherham. Or if not Hector, someone else. Anyone else. Or embrace your single status, Serena. Even if it means suffering on just 750 pounds a year.

Against this, one romance does work: that between Hector and Fanny, developing slowly but inevitably, and it’s comforting to see Fanny matched with someone who can make her happy. I also have hopes for Mr. Goring and Emily (once she’s completely recovered) down the line. But for Serena and Rotherham, I see only marital hell, and although Rotherham deserves this, it seems an unkind and unfair ending for Serena. Especially since, just a few books earlier, Heyer had rescued another heroine, from someone nowhere near as terrible, and given her to a kindly, sweet if not exactly bookish guy. I just wish, in her deconstruction of the love at first sight trope, and remaining in love with someone you haven’t seen in years, she’d been able to give a kinder ending to Serena.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
I maintain my firm wish that Serena and Rotherham die horribly in some sort of shipwreck on their honeymoon cruise. I can forgive a lot of accidental mistakes, or ones made out of an attempt to be kind (which then goes horribly wrong), or ones based on bad information. But Rotherham is absolutely monstrous in this story, and Serena's willingness to jaunt off and marry him even after calling him on it makes her look just as bad. Apparently a great sense of humor and being able to finance her riding stable outweighs little character defects like sexually assaulting a terrified girl.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
I always see this one as The Grand Sophy: The Dark Side. Rotherham is far beyond Charles' levels of ego and forcefulness, while Serena is Sophy without Sophy's power of always being correct.
Rich Horton
3. ecbatan
I always thought of Bath Tangle as late Heyer because it seems that the later novels featured older and ruder heros, and older heroines. (Old for a man being over 40, for a woman being mid-20s, of course, in this milieu.) But it's only from the 50s?

Yes, Rotherham is a really rude, unpleasant, person, and this is an Heyer novel I've never liked.

Rich Horton
Shelly wb
4. shellywb
I loathed Rotherham, and could find nothing redeeming about this book.
5. Ingrid
Slight monetary correction: on p. 1 of P&P mr Bingley is said to be worth four or five thousand a year, and I don't remember the figure being adjusted downward later on in the novel.
In Sense and Sensibility frugal Elinor calls a 1000 pounds a year wealth, but Marianne, who has her heart set on the expensive Willoughby, thinks 2000 pounds a year is a competence (chapter 17).
I haven't read Bath Tangle in years, but Serena always struck me as more unusual than Rotherham. The overbearing hero was the standard in fifties and sixties, even seventies romance; the bossy heroine was far rarer. Still is, I expect.
6. Arianne
Absolutely agree. I HATE both Serena and Rotheram. And though I liked Fanny and Hector, Bath Tangle rates as the worst Heyer novel. Yes, even worse than Cousin Kate IMHO.
7. Bayushi
For me, the redeeming feature of Serena and Rotherham is that Serena wanted someone to argue with and bounce off of. (My mother was much the same way, except she was married to a Hector. It Did Not Work.) And while Serena didn't fight with everyone, she was also bored by those she wasn't arguing with. Having lived with someone like that, I can honestly say that I could see why the pairings worked out as they did and it was probably for the best.
Mari Ness
8. MariCats
@fadeaccompli -- I don't even think he's that funny! And she could pay for stables out of her own fortune once she's married assuming Rotherham gives her husband control of her inheritance. She doesn't need the guy. She's good-looking, wealthy, an excellent hostess and kind-hearted. KEEP LOOKING, SERENA!

It occurred to me after posting this that really only two other heroes in the Heyer historicals come anything close to this -- Vidal in Devil's Cub and Worth in Regency Buck. Worth is at least trying to save Judith's life (why?), and Vidal gets shot and the text suggests that he's going to reform, at least somewhat. There's no suggestion that Rotherham was working in anyone's best interests throughout most of the text or that he's going to change, and alas, nobody shoots him.

@Pam Adams -- Charles can also admit when he's wrong, and when he is wrong, he's generally acting out of what he honestly thinks is the best for his siblings and his parents. I'm not saying that Cecelia doesn't have a right to be upset, but Charles isn't wrong when he says the marriage she wants is a Bad Idea. He just handles it badly.

Rotherham is not acting in anyone's best interests, except very arguably one of his wards.

@Ecteban -- Yes, it's actually not one of her later novels, although I had mentally placed it as being written at about the same time as Cousin Kate.

I'm not sure that any of her later heroes really reach Rotherham's levels of physical abuse along with the rudeness.

@shellywb Well, I like Hector, and he gets a happy ending. So...something there. Otherwise I think you're right.

@Ingrid -- :: headsmack :: You're right; I don't know what I was thinking. Still, 750 pounds a year ought to be enough to live on even if you can't keep a long string of horses, whatever Miss Marianne thinks.

@Arianne -- I find Cousin Kate to be one of the worst of the Heyer novels. That said , the manipulative, abusive character there has better motives than Rotherdam does (ok, "I need a grandson" isn't great, but it's better than "I'm really pissed at the woman I love so I will terrorize a 16 year old") is, within the context of the period, offering her son the best mental illness treatment available; does give Kate SOMETHING in return for the manipulation; thinks she's acting for the best, and, yay, gets murdered, so I can see why for many readers it would be more satisfying.

@Bayushi -- And see, I've seen the opposite, where relationships disintegrate, and badly, because of the constant fighting. And by "disintegrate" I mean "someone gets physically hurt." It's one thing to have a relationship where you can safely argue and bounce ideas off someone. I can see several Heyer couples safely settling into that kind of thing -- Deb and Ravenscar; Sylvester and Phoebe; Sophy and Charles; Mary and Vidal. None of those men, however, are emotionally abusive; Rotherham is. And if Serena wants someone to fight with -- well, she does have some serious fights with Hector, largely because they don't agree on certain things as much as she and Rotherham do. Hector, though, definitely needs to be with someone better for him.

In any case, my issue is not so much whether or not the relationship will work out -- Serena is clearly the only woman Rotherham has a chance with, and I'm with you that the rest of the pairings are all for the best -- and more that Rotherham emotionally and verbally abuses multiple people in this novel and gets away scot free, with the woman he wants, in the end. A very wealthy woman. He's not even facing social disapproval -- he's heading to Europe where he'll miss all of that. The most he gets is Serena yelling at him for a few pages.

This is in stark contrast to the other Regency books, where the abusive and/or rude heroes do usually suffer something: Vidal gets shot; Sylvester is publicly humiliated; Damerel is dead broke (and recognizes that the heroine is far too good for him); and so on. Rotherdam? Really not so much. and that's my problem.
Azara microphylla
9. Azara
What makes sense of the pairing for me is that Serena, of all Heyer's heroines, is the one who is most actively interested in politics, and most cramped by the domestic routine of running a household. (Sophy of The Grand Sophy is just as capable, but has the temperament to make the best of wherever she happens to be, rather than raging against circumstances.) I mentioned in the discussion of a previous book that while Heyer's main characters all belong to the upper class, very few of them belong to the ruling class in the sense of being actively involved in running the country, as opposed to being good stewards of their own possessions. Both Rotherham and Serena are very much part of the ruling class, with all the matching arrogance you'd expect.

I can see Serena as a very successful political hostess, softening the blunt edge of her husband's manner with charm enough to let him end up as Viceroy in Ireland, or Governor-General of India, ot one of those other posts that were the preserve fo the upper levels of the aristocracy. He may be unpleasant, but with that level of wealth and half-a-dozen huge houses all over the country, they don't have to live in each other's pockets.

The person who comes out of this worst for me is the dead Earl, who seems to have loved his daughter dearly and yet unnecessarily put her in such a dependent position. Again, I mentioned before that I consider this in many ways Heyer's Emma analogue: Serena is the "heroine whom no one will like", the young woman who at first sight appears to have everything, but is in fact very much cramped and confined by her father's behaviour, and ends up marrying an older man and family friend.

Part of the problem arises from Heyer's default position that all her heroines should marry up, both in terms of rank and of money. Lady Hester in Sprig Muslin is the only heroine I can think of offhand whose father is a peer and who doesn't herself marry a peer (or peer's brother, as is the case with Lady Barbara in An Infamous Army). And with Lady Hester, Heyer stacks the deck by making her particularly put-upon, while her eventual husband is an especially eligible baronet. The only heroine who is noticeably richer than her husband is Jenny from A Civil Contract, and Adam's family and friends regard his behaviour is marrying a rich Cit to save his family estate as almost heroic.

That's a real pity, in my view - my ideal match for Serena would be someone like the earnest secretary from Frederica, who (unlike Hector) is actually interested in politics. Combine his talents and energy with hers, add her money and influence, and you'd get a power couple active into the reign of Queen Victoria.
Pamela Adams
10. PamAdams
or Governor-General of India,

Perhaps she should have married Harry Smith?
12. JaneW
That's a good point actually Azara. She could marry into a respectable family the wayLady Aurelia Darracott (the daughter of an earl) married a younger son of a good family who is involved in politics ( from Unknown Ajax).
Serena's big mistake (and possibly a calculated move by Rotherham) is rushing into this in her mourning year. A much better plan would be to stay with Fanny until the year is up (Fanny and Hector will have to wait), then go and visit friends and relations in town and meet a better candidate. One the other hand she has had some time to do this already, and only has one broken engagement to show for it...
Some slight sympathy for Rotherham: having made the big mistake of getting engaged to Emily, he would need to be fairly brutal to get her to break with him, given how terrified she is of her mother. If he merely sat down and explained and asked her to release him, do you think Lady Laleham would let her? In fact even with the brutal treatment it takes Mrs Floore's intervention to get Emily off the hook.
He is however an arrogant and bad tempered man, so I am far from confident that they will in fact do better this time
There are some funny scenes: my favourite I think is Hector walking in on Fanny with her admirer - leading of course to their admission to each other of their feelings.
13. bookworm1398
I reread this book after reading this review and I just don't get where the Rotherham hate is coming from. He isn't a kind and considerate personality, so what? He seems to be a perfect match for Serena, they share interests, friends. humor, expectation on what they want out of life. They are best friends and he understands her better than anyone else. What more do you want?
14. MagdaG
There's another factor that will probably work in favour of a Rotherham/Serena marriage: a mutual strong interest in politics. It's mentioned in the novel that Serena was meant to be a political hostess and for that she needs a large fortune and a great house to entertain in. They discuss politics on an even level and would probably make a good tag-team in Tory politics. If all they had in common was horses and hunting, it would be one thing. But politics will take up a great deal of time and energy from both of them.
15. John Cowan
Someone once said of Thomas and Jane Carlyle that it was a great pity they had married, as they were so incompatible. "Not at all," said someone else. "By any other arrangement, four people would have been made miserable instead of two."

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