Oct 22 2013 5:00pm

The Lingering Effects of Bad Marriages: False Colours

Georgette Heyer False ColoursGeorgette Heyer took pride in her a long, successful, and generally happy marriage. If, as her biographer hints, its early years were filled with financial stress, and in later years may have included a discreet affair or two on her husband’s side, they shared a strong partnership, and in later years were united in their pride and love for their only son, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a barrister.

But for all her own domestic happiness, Heyer witnessed multiple disastrous marriages, and in False Colours, takes the time to explore the long term effects of unwise pairings on children and even more distant relations.

As the novel opens, Kit Fancot has returned home from a diplomatic posting unexpectedly early out of a vague feeling that something has happened to his identical twin, Evelyn. Sidenote: And this rather answers the question of whether any of Heyer’s protagonists ever got involved in politics. Kit’s job in the diplomatic corps is about as political as jobs can get, and it’s a job gained from political connections. Having said that, this is yet another case where the political job happens outside of Britain—as if Heyer was determined to keep politics outside of London, even while occasionally acknowledging its existence there.

His mother, the generally delightful Lady Denville (do not, I beg you, call her a dowager), confirms Kit’s fears, saying that no one has heard from Evelyn for days. Not exactly unusual, but Evelyn is supposed to be going to a dinner party to meet his possible future fiancée to get the full approval of her family before the betrothal becomes official. If he doesn’t show up, not only will the girl, Cressy, be publicly humiliated, but the wedding will be off. And that in turn will jeopardize Evelyn’s chances to take control of his own estates—and finally have a purpose in life.

Not to mention another problem: Lady Denville, is deeply in debt. How deeply she doesn’t know, but the novel later reveals that her debts total at least 20,000 pounds—in other words, two years of income for the fabulously wealthy Mr. Darcy, or the equivalent of millions today. And that’s not counting the full dressmaking bills or the jewelry bills. Adding to the issue: Lady Denville, while gambling, staked a brooch with the claim that it was worth 500 pounds—forgetting in her excitement that the brooch was actually just a nearly worthless replica. She sees nothing wrong with this; her sons are both horrified and amused. Lady Denville’s few attempts to practice Economy have gone very badly indeed; her later arrival at the ancestral estate loaded down with items that none of the residents can use (as the horrified housekeeper notes, the Spermaceti Oil is quality stuff, certainly, but they don’t even use lamps) shows that she is in the grip of a shopping/gambling mania.

Lady Denville is loosely inspired by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who reputedly had the same winning charm; the text notes the resemblance of the two. Like Georgiana, Lady Denville gets away with this sort of thing partly because she is known to be a member of a very wealthy family—as another character later grimly notes, the jewelers are well aware that the family will eventually pay for all of the jewelry she’s paid for without hesitation to save the family reputation and ensure that they don’t end up getting dragged through courts. She is also delightfully charming and an excellent hostess, adored by her sons and her goddaughter and even tolerated by the not-so-tolerant.

But the major reason Lady Denville is forgiven is the general awareness of the bleakness of her marriage. At a young age, she married a considerably older man charmed by her beauty; the two, alas, had absolutely nothing else in common. Exasperated by her even then spendthrift nature, her husband became more and more emotionally and verbally abusive. She in turn increased the spending and the flirtation (the text suggests infidelities on both sides) and devoted herself to her sons. This in turn created a strong rift between the twins and their father. The result: the father is convinced that Evelyn will be as irresponsible as his mother, and therefore ties up the estate preventing Evelyn from gaining control of it until he is thirty—or has convinced an uncle that he is socially and fiscally responsible. But with nothing to do, and a decent income from his principal, Evelyn becomes socially and fiscally irresponsible, increasing the family strain. The stress helps encourage his mother to take more spending sprees.

Interestingly enough, from the text, it appears that Lady Denville and her husband married after having the exact sort of courtship Heyer celebrated in her earlier novels—particularly Faro’s Daughter and The Grand Sophy: brief and superficial, with a couple who seemingly have little in common. It was a situation that Heyer could and did play for comedy, to excellent effect, but perhaps years of writing such scenes had caused her to wonder what would happen next. The answer was not entirely happy.

Cressy, meanwhile, is dealing with her own father’s recent marriage to a woman she dislikes, a marriage that has put her in a very difficult position at home—so difficult that she is willing to enter a marriage of convenience with Evelyn just to get away from home. The text hints that her own parents did not exactly have a happy marriage either. Here, Heyer reassures readers that an unhappy marriage does not necessarily need to result in childhood unhappiness: Cressy, like Kit, is self-assured and content until her father remarries. Evelyn, however, is another story.

For extremely overcomplicated reasons that don’t really make sense the more you think about them, so don’t, Kit agrees to pretend to be his twin brother for a bit—not realizing that this pretense will make it very difficult for him to search for Evelyn and ensure that his twin is ok. The masquerade creates other social difficulties as well: Kit hasn’t lived in London for years, and doesn’t know Evelyn’s friends. And although the twins look alike their personalities are very distinct. Kit and his mother soon realize that to continue to pull off the deception, Kit needs to head to the country—a great idea that runs into some problems as soon as Cressy’s grandmother decides that she and Cressy should join Kit there.

The ending of the book feels more than a bit forced—no matter how many times I read this, I can’t see Cressy marrying Kit instead of Evelyn as all that big of a scandal: they are twins. Just say that the newspaper and their friends got things mixed up. It happens. Compared to the other, real scandals Heyer has detailed in previous books, this is nothing. Nor can I see Evelyn’s issues as all that terrible, or the issue of his mother’s debts all that urgent given that the text has also told us that her creditors know the money will be there eventually and are willing to wait for it. But I do enjoy the novel’s quiet exploration of marriages arranged for love, infatuation, or convenience, and the discussion of which is best. And that—in a novel discussing the issues with romance—Heyer for once delivers a convincing romantic couple. Their obstacles may be—ok, are—ludicrous and unbelievable, but their hopes for future happiness aren’t.

False Colours is a quieter book than many of the previous Heyer novels, marking the beginning of her more thoughtful and less farcical looks at the Regency world she had created: a world where young women often did marry older men that they did not know well, where the older men found themselves paying for their wives’ reckless spending and gambling. It was a theme she would return to as she continued to explore the cracks in the farcical, escapist world she had created.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

2. Janhavi
False Colours is really very funny and thoroughly re-readable. I suppose in some ways it is the beginning of her quieter books, but is still quite a farce! The whole situation is quite ridiculous but it is so amusing.

I understood the problems about Cressy and Kit marrying that a) people could find out about Kit pretending to be Evelyn and b) the uncle thinking Evelyn was fickle. The potential scandal, I thought, was that the twins would be seen as dishonourable and deceitful, not about Cressy marrying Kit. Still, I agree the problems are a bit contrived (as evidence, Kit clears them all up with just a couple of hours of thought! Lol)

On a side-note, I would agree about Faro's Daughter, but not The Grand Sophy. Come on, Charles and Sophy live together in the same house for 6 months! Even if the book doesnt focus on their romance, the comments and reactions of other characters (Sir Vincent, Charlbury, Eugenia) imply that the romantic relationship is quite obvious. I could get into long discussions about all they have in common--- but I will stop derailing this conversation!

Spoilers alert: Interesting that you dont mention Evelyn falling in love with Patience, I find that quite unbelieveable. The Bonamy Ripple plotline is also somewhat implausable, but hilarious nonetheless.

I am excited to see two of my favourites are coming up, Frederica and Black Sheep!
3. Megpie71
The marriage of Lady Denville to her husband, to me, read like the marriage in "April Lady" (had the protagonists not resolved their issues). A much older husband, a much younger and more innocent wife, and very little in common between them aside from a certain degree of affection and romantic feeling, with very few social opportunitiees to discover whether there could possibly be more. In such a situation, all it would take is a few incidents of jealous or incidental miscommunication, and the affection would dwindle away to nothing.

As for the scandals regarding the marriage: the scandal is not that Cressida Staveley is marrying Christopher Fancot. The scandal is that apparently Evelyn Fancot is crying off marrying Cressida Staveley (which was a major insult to Cressida, and to her family). Or alternatively, that Cressida is crying off marrying Evelyn to marry his brother (which lays open the very nature of the marriage of convenience between the two - so the scandal isn't that there's a marriage of convenience, but rather than Cressy is socially being seen to say that being married to someone - anyone - is better than living in her father's house. Which is true, but not polite to have mentioned in the papers!)
5. Carrie80
This is one of the first Heyers I read and one of my favourites. But I haven't read it for years, as mum threw out our (ok, her) falling apart copy. Glad to hear it still stands up.
6. Maria M.
I have a fondness for Kit Fancot, one of Heyer's most likeable heros. Of course most of the book is written from his POV.

The romance between Patience and Evelyn does sound unlikely to lead to a happy marriage, but let's remember that as the book ends, that marriage is by no means a foregone conclusion. And anyway, quiet, angelic-looking girls may yet develop unexpected strength of character. After all, we only know of the girl through Evelyn's highly biased account.

This cover picture does not go with the book at all - the sullen youth does not look like the unusually mature Kit, and who is this tiny black-haired woman? Definitely neither the blonde Lady Denville, nor the brunette Cressida.
7. RiceVermicelli
This is probably my favorite Heyer. I love that Cressida can tell the twins apart, and isn't fooled for long. I think the central romance has more promise then average for a Heyer couple. (Sophie and whatsisname might well strangle each other one day, after all.) But one does worry about Evelyn and Patience, and Bonamy Ripple probably knows what he's in for.
8. Ellynne
And, of all the ones I'm sure J. K. Rowling has read (c'mon, Heyer gives us a cruel tutor named Snape and a character named Flitwick), the mischieveous, trouble-making, red-haired twins are defintely connected to Fred and George.
Beth Mitcham
9. bethmitcham
Although the brothers look alike, no one discussing marriage with them would have a problem telling them apart, as one is the heir and the other is the younger brother. But it's definitely the case of panic driving rational thought away, even as Kit tries to exert common sense.

Janhavi, I also lost track at bit at the Grand Sophy reference, since that couple has so little in common with the example that maybe it was a misprint? It's not like Heyer is short of examples of fast matches. Sophy and Charles are more like Kitty and Frederick, two people who learned to like each other while doing the stuff they like to do together (of course, Sophy and Charles like to arrange people's lives, while Kitty and Freddie like to go to parties, but whatever).
10. RohanV
Possibly the wrong thread, but I disagree with you about Faro's Daughter. Perhaps it's because I'm a gamer, but Deborah and Ravenscar seem to be very well matched. They both have the same sense of honour/gamesmanship/fair play/attitude about life, which is different from the rest of society as presented in the book.

For example, Ravenscar refusing Deborah's brother's assistance when tied up in the cellar, and Deborah bandaging his wrists after he wins free. They both understand the game, and the unstated rules of the game, even if no one else around them does.

In some ways, I think they're the best suited of all Heyer's couples. That similar approach to life to me seems more important than most other considerations.
11. etv13
I, too, was wondering about the choice of Faro's Daughter and The Grand Sophy as being anything like the Denville's marriage. Both Sophy and Deb Grantham are relatively older, socially experienced women who are quite capable of giving as good as they get, and the age disparity isn't that great. Charles, in particular, is a fairly young man who still lives with his parents, and Sophy is something of an heiress. I would think April Lady and The Convenient Marriage present couples who are closer to the Denvilles in their composition -- mature, wealthy men and young, inexperienced women.
12. Janhavi
@bethmitcham: "of course, Sophy and Charles like to arrange people's lives, while Kitty and Freddie like to go to parties, but whatever" lol, that is too true and really funny. In fairness, they also seem to like shooting things, horses, pets, family life, etc...

@RohanV, I agree that Deb and Max have the same attitude to life, etc (so do Sophy and Charles, for that matter), but in fairness, the entire book takes place over 8 days or so. It really is a very brief courtship.

April Lady and Convenient Marriage are definitely like the Denville's marriage. Under the 'brief' category I might also include The Corinthian, The Reluctant Widow, Toll Gate.
13. JaneW
I love this one too. Kit and Cressy are delightful, and there are lots of very funny moments.

In the marrying for love /convenience discussion, I think it is interesting to contrast Lady Denville's first and (intended) second marriage: the first for love (or so she thought) to someone with whom she had nothing in common, and which made her unhappy; the second for convenience but to an old friend who while in some ways a bit of a buffon is rich, very fond of her, smarter than he looks, and with whom she has 25 years or so of shared experiences (even though it is going to parties...). You can see that she will be very contented, and when he has got used to it, so will Sir Bonamy.

I think Patience is really just a plot device to explain why Evelyn is not unhappy to lose Cressy to Kit. Evelyn will eventually find someone to marry- it may or may not be Patience. At least it seems that her parents are sensible and will probably insist on a decent period of courtship.

On rushing into things generally, I think short engagements were quite common in days of no pre marital sex where there were no financial constraints making a couple wait- it would be rather different outside the upper crust.
Pamela Adams
14. PamAdams
You're not even hinting at my favorite bit- when Mrs. Alperton came to visit!
Pamela Adams
15. PamAdams
My other thought was that Evelyn's income was pretty high, even tough he didn't have control of his estates. After all, he had 500 pounds in his pocket to buy back the brooch. I wonder that he didn't pay off some of his mother's debts directly......
Rich Horton
16. ecbatan
I freely admit that all I remember of False Colours is the name Kit Fancot.

BUT, I just ran across a 1975 Pan paperback of the book in an antique mall in tiny Clarksville, MO. Having just read this post, I couldn't possibly not buy it -- so I'll reread it soon.

The cover does manage a brunette Cressy ...

Rich Horton
17. Ros
Heyer has several characters much more closely involved in politics than Kit: Adam Deveril in A Civil Contract and Sophy Stanton Lacy spring to mind. But Rule in A Convenient Marriage and Alverstoke in Frederica both make speeches in the Lords on a regular basis as well. There are probably others, too, that I'm forgetting.
18. Lisala
I just re-read 'False Colours' and enjoyed it immensely. The only cavil I had with it is that to pull the teeth of the effect of the newspaper advisement that something interesting was due from the party staying at the family mansion that summer, all they needed to do is send in the announcement of the upcoming marriage of Lady Denville and Sir Bonami Ripple. Everything else about Kit taking Evelyn's place and falling in love with Evelyn's not-quite-betrothed unexpectedly could just wait until Kit's next leave from his diplomatic job in Vienna. As long as there's no outright engagement between Evelyn and Cressy, everything else falls happily into place. Presumably the Denville-Ripple high society extravaganza with Royal Dukes in attendance and a few hundred thousand pounds in refreshments, new furnishings to compliment Amabel's colouring, and all manner of delights to keep the adults and children in attendance happy, would take priority over Amabel's children's doings, and it would be quite improper to have them encroach on the wedding of the century with an announcement of a betrothal of their own. Cressy could be Amabel's maid of honour and that's how she meets Kit! The immediate announcement of her and Kit's betrothal would be vaguely received by the all-too-stunned wedding guests as Amabel and Bonami go off on a honeymoon overseas, so they can't be pumped for information, and Kit, Evelyn and Cressy wonder aloud how the inaccurate rumour uniting the wrong twin with Cressy ever came to be. So much easier than actually trying to undo the twins' masquerade and make sense of it.

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