Wit and Lace: Powder and Patch, or, the Transformation of Philip Jettan

Georgette Heyer had already published a novel of silly derring-do (The Black Moth) and one work of serious historical fiction (The Great Roxhythe) when she sat down to write Powder and Patch, her third novel. She completed it in three weeks, and sold it to Mills and Boon, who published it in 1923 under one of her rare uses of a pseudonym, Stella Martin. Probably not because Heyer had any issues with Mills and Boon, but, more likely because, as her biographers suggest, she was also trying to sell a serious contemporary novel (Instead of the Thorn) to her regular publisher and wanted to conceal that she had gone to another publisher. It was the last time she was to publish with Mills and Boon during her lifetime (although Harlequin reprinted her novels after her death), although the company was later to greatly profit from the world she created. It is thus somewhat ironic, on multiple levels, that this hastily scribbled book, not offered to her usual publisher, is the one book she published that year that gave a true hint of her strengths as a writer: comedy and manners.

Not that Powder and Patch lacks its moments of derring-do and swordfights, but these elements are all deliberately made ridiculous. That goes along with the exceedingly improbable plot, which works more or less like this: young Philip, a good hearted but unpolished type, is in love with his lovely young neighbor Cleone, who claims to love him back, but wants wit and polish and fine foppish clothes. So, after a duel (see? Derring-do.) Philip pops off to Paris where, within six months, he becomes an expert swordsman, an elegant dresser, and a wit of the first order. Also, the book starts to pick up an alarming number of French phrases and dialogue, including a long poem entirely in French, rather assuming a high level of bilingualism for its audience.

The poem is enough to drive Philip from Paris back to London, where he presents himself to Cleone, who, naturally, because it’s that sort of plot, now decides she hates him. She’s also picked up some alarming rumors about duel number two (I did mention the swordfights) over a lady, and rather than, you know, asking questions, because this is a Plot of Misunderstandings, she assumes Philip has fallen in love with someone else, not that he’s dedicated six months of his life to trying to be exactly what she wants or anything like that.

I said improbable, and could add implausible: I’m willing to grant that Philip is a fast learner and a dashing sort, but going from barely able to handle a sword to expert swordsman in fewer than six months while learning to dress expertly is….improbable. But I can’t deny finding entertainment in a tale of an otherwise pure jock (he likes hunting and that sort of thing) into, well, a sort of geek, fascinated by costumes and poetry and the like. I don’t think Heyer necessarily intended this reading, but it’s rather enjoyable to see a woman squawk, I don’t want the jock type! I want the goth dude! This is particularly entertaining given the sort of heroes she would later specialize in: athletic yet obsessed with complete neatness in clothing.

And much of the rest of the froth is also highly entertaining: the obsession with stockings and wigs, the cravats, the return of the hatred for puce (I assume that, had Georgette Heyer entered Hell, she would have immediately found herself surrounded by elegant demons sporting all puce clothing), the way her heroes continue to fight duels and then sit down for elegant breakfasts with their opponents. And, in this book, a glimmer of the dialogue that she would later sharpen and refine; here, she is still uncertain of her cant, and many passages read awkwardly, but the humor is starting to shine though.

The largest problem with the book, unfortunately, is the heroine, who is…how do I put this kindly? Annoying. Heyer would feature unlikeable, annoying women later, but be aware of their issues. Here, she seems unaware, but it’s extremely difficult to like Cleone, who starts by claiming she loves Philip, but wants him to change, and when he does change for her sake, rather than being impressed, she’s angry and irritated, and then worsens matters by leading various men on, including one of her oldest friends, despite still being in love – in theory – with Philip. I suppose it’s meant to reflect the vicissitudes of typical teenagers, but it becomes wearisome even in a very short book. And in a series of books with implausible romances, this is perhaps the worst: I can honestly not see any reason why these two are supposedly in love with each other, or why.

And if I’m amused by Lady Malmerstoke’s patient attempts to explain to Philip that yes, women can think two completely contradictory things at the same time, and men need to know this and just get with the program, I’m a little less amused by her insistence that nearly all women (herself excepted) are secretly longing for men to overpower and master them, and that the only reason Philip is in love with Cleone is that he sees her as someone he can easily overpower and master. Well. It’s one explanation, at least, and let’s face it: we don’t have many other reasons for him to love her, except, well, she’s pretty. And annoying and unkind to her friends…yeah, I said that already.

Powder and Patch is not a great book, nor, despite its phrases, a particularly elegant one. If Heyer had written nothing else, this book would be forgotten as nothing more than an attempt to novelize a Sheridan comedy of manners. But it is an enjoyable enough read, and one that, as I noted, gives a hint of still more frothier pleasures to come.

Two quick notes:

One: Powder and Patch was later republished in 1930 without its final chapter, which is the version I seem to have (I’m guessing, since it ends quite abruptly.) It’s easy to find in various libraries and online.

Quick note two: Here is where the reread starts skipping some books. Brief comments on them:

The Great Roxthyhe is a serious historical novel, for years very difficult to find; Heyer suppressed it, in part for reasons that I may discuss (if I remember) when we reach Cotillion. It’s the one Heyer novel I have not read, so my (very limited) comments are going to be based on the summaries in Heyer biographies.

Instead of the Thorn is a serious contemporary novel, a study of marriage, between a girl who knows absolutely nothing about and is therefore terrified of sex and intimacy and her husband who really likes the whole concept of the sex and intimacy thing. It is almost unique in Heyer novels in discussing this at all (the other exception is The Conqueror), and in being the one of the few Heyer novels where we know, absolutely and definitely, whether or not the married couple are doing it (because they stop.) This is not in the slightest in a typical Heyer novel, and parts have definitely dated, but in general it reads well and provides some insights into social life in the 1920s if you’re into that.

Interestingly, this novel was written and published after Heyer met George Rougier, but before their engagement and marriage, when her interest in writing about sex took a nosedive.

Simon the Coldheart is another serious historical novel set in the Middle Ages, which shows Heyer’s painstaking focus on historical research while simultaneously proving that Heyer had absolutely no gift for writing medieval dialogue whatsoever. I find it hard to get through. I’ll be talking about The Conqueror instead, as a better example of Heyer’s serious historicals.

Next up: These Old Shades, for years Heyer’s most popular work.

After reading this book, Mari Ness has decided that more people need to dress in overflowing velvets and lace dripping with jewelry, even if that might prove to be a little hot where she lives, in central Florida.


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