Gambling to Romance: Georgette Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter

Georgette Heyer initially found it difficult to sit down and write Faro’s Daughter, distracted as she was with World War II and with a new idea for a contemporary novel that would eventually become Penhallow. Once she had worked out the details of the plot, however, she wrote the book in about a month, typing it in single space, her biographers note, thanks to the paper shortage. She called it all fluff, and indeed, most of the book is pure farce. Yet portions of the book reveal some of her deep-seated anxieties about the war—and concern about traditional gender roles in a wartime environment.

Telling her agent that she was sick of Dukes and other noblemen, this time, Heyer chose for her hero a rough commoner, who, to a degree almost unspeakable in a Heyer novel, does not make his clothing a chief focus of his life. (I shall pause to let you all get over this. Are we ok now? Good.) His boots, however, are excellent, and he is exceedingly wealthy and rude, so he isn’t completely without hope for romance.

Summoned to visit his aunt, the dowager Lady Maplethorpe, Mr. Ravenscar learns that his young cousin, Lord Maplethorpe, wants to marry a girl who—gasp—works in a gaming hall. (Do we need another pause? We do? Ok, then.) Her birth is respectable: the aunt she lives with, who owns the establishment, has a title, but this just Will Not Do, so off Ravenscar goes to the gaming hall to see just how far matters have progressed. Quite far, it seems, and although Ravenscar is able to defeat Deborah at cards, he leaves quite concerned about the fate of his young cousin.

Meanwhile, the young and beautiful Deborah has major problems of her own. The select gaming house she and her aunt are running in order to pay the ever mounting bills is becoming considerably less select, and groaning under its bills. Still more worrisome, the bills, and the mortgage for the house, have come into the possession of a certain Lord Ormskirk, who has Dastardly Plans. Actually, I shouldn’t joke about that: Ormskirk plans to use the bills to force Deborah to sleep with him, with no hope of marriage. That he believes, with some reason, that Deborah is vulnerable to this sort of thing speaks volumes.

Deborah’s discussion about these bills with her aunt, however, is one of the novel’s comedic highlights. Already stressed, she finds herself in a flame of fury when Mr. Ravenscar, with little elegance, tells her that he knows about her plans to marry Lord Maplethorpe—and offers to buy her off. Deborah, who had no such plans, is deeply insulted, and immediately plots her revenge, which involves a moment of becoming very vulgar indeed (Heyer has decided ideas about what ribbons can and cannot be worn with green stripes). Ravenscar obtains her aunt’s bills, increasing his power over her.

Naturally, Deborah has him kidnapped and thrown into her cellar.

As a previous commentator noted, Faro’s Daughter echoes the plot of an earlier Heyer short story, published in an Australian magazine, fleshed out with various subplots and farcical characters, notably Lady Bellingham, Deborah’s aunt, who has questionable ideas about Economy; Ravenscar’s young sister Arabella, who has a delightful habit of falling in love with virtually every man she meets, a more than slight problem given her very tempting fortune; and Deborah’s friend and protector Lucius Kennet, diplomatically termed a soldier of fortune. Or, more precisely, a kidnapper. Various minor subplots deal with Ravenscar’s race, Deborah’s brother, and Phoebe Laxton, on the run from a terrifying marriage to a man considerably older than she is, with a very bad reputation.

The generally insipid, if sweet, Phoebe Laxton serves mainly as a contrast to the considerably more self-possessed, dynamic, and competent Deborah, giving her someone to rescue as well as to offer Lord Maplethrope some sort of consolation prize. But she also serves as the one “traditional” woman in a novel otherwise filled with women taking very untraditional roles.

Lady Bellingham and Deborah, after all, both work—as gamblers, yes, but they are doing so as a profession. In Heyer’s previous novels, the women protagonists were either wealthy enough to not need to work (Pen, Judith, Sarah Thane) or actively discouraged from working (Eustacie, Mary Challoner). The major exception is a cross dresser, who needs to dress as a male in order to work, a drudgery she is rescued from by the end of the novel. Deborah does not like her job—as her friend and protector Lucius Kennet notes, she’s no gamester, a point only emphasized when she loses several games of cards to Ravenscar, which she attributes to his superior skill. But, recognizing that it is her duty, she does the job uncomplainingly, echoing the jobs done by many British women in World War II.

But although the two successfully ran a smaller, less professional venture, their move to a larger, grander, gambling hall has not gone well—perhaps hinting at Heyer’s real feelings on the subject of women entering traditionally male professions in droves. But their troubles also echo the financial straits faced by many women as World War II continued and everyday goods became not merely rationed, but more and more expensive.

Even after the decent sales of her two most recent novels, and with her husband not at the front, Heyer, like others, wondered how to make ends meet in wartime conditions. Echoing this fear, her later heroines would also worry about money, while rejoicing as they found bargains or made over old clothing. Deb and her aunt, however, never do seem to find bargains, shuddering at the ever rising cost of peas and other items:

“I am sure I am ready enough to live a great deal more frugally,” said Lady Bellingham, “but you may see for yourself, Deb, how impossible it is! It is not as though one was spending money on things which are not necessary.”

Such not necessary items include an opera box that she barely uses, on the basis that she always had one when her husband was alive, stables for her horses, satin cloaks, wigs, and clothing she barely wears, perhaps in an echo of Heyer’s friends who refused to give up similar luxuries even when unable to obtain the very rationed butter for their bread. Yet Lady Bellingham does not blame any of the luxuries for their horribly high bills, claiming that all of these are needed to run an expensive gaming house, or they will lose their best customers. Instead she blames the rising cost of food—specifically, basic food such as peas—and the “exorbitant” wages for the servants.

These servants, Heyer carefully notes, are paid far less per year than what Deborah and Mr. Ravenscar bet during a single night. Indeed, even their combined salaries add up to less than that sum. It is, admittedly, an appalling sum for Deborah (if not for the wealthy Mr. Ravenscar) but she has the cash in hand to pay it, despite the bills and expenses, unlike, one suspects, her servants. A striking and pointed illustration of the value of money.

Nonetheless, Lady Bellingham’s financial fears are very real: not only is she living beyond her means, but her house has a heavy mortgage. And, like many women in World War II, Deborah and her aunt have an added financial expense: a family member in the military. Kit, Deb’s younger brother, is an adult who could be reasonably expected to support the family in some way, or at least help out with the gaming house. Instead, the two women are supporting him, first by purchasing his military commission and second by sending continued funds his way. (Pride and Prejudice readers will remember that Wickham found it difficult to live within his military salary as well.) Completely unaware of his family’s financial straits, he demands a second purchase of a military commission—to a more elegant, and expensive, cavalry unit. This after Deborah and Kit’s father, an active captain in the military, has for all intents and purposes ignored his children and left them penniless, with only the very uncertain care of Mr. Lucius Kennet, and eventually Lady Bellingham.

Indeed, the real heroes of the novel—Mr. Ravenscar and Lord Maplethrope—have no ties to the military whatsoever. Mr. Ravenscar carefully warns his impetuous young sister to beware of good looking men in military uniforms (shades of Wickham again.) Mr. Lucius Kennet occupies some place in the middle: a cad and gamester, he at least offers Deborah some practical if highly dishonorable assistance. Heyer terms him a soldier of fortune; lacking a recognized miltairy role, he is yet associated with the military, with a term that in this novel is meant to carry doubts. It is all surprisingly anti-military for a novel written in 1941, perhaps betraying Heyer’s own grave doubts about the war.

Also perhaps echoing the war: Deborah’s frequent cries of “oh, if only I were a man!” Not, as in previous Heyer novels, for the chance for further adventures, or to escape an unwanted marriage, but because she wants to be able to run Ravenscar through with a sword—and supervise his kidnapping personally. But in Heyer novels, at least, women cannot engage in acts of violence traditionally considered masculine. It’s an echo again of many women in World War II who resented working in support, not combat positions.

It creates a novel uneasy about the power of women. On the one hand, the novel features two women who more or less successfully trick men, and two women who have entered the male sphere, taking up a profession traditionally dominated by men. (And within the house, they welcome mostly male guests, although aristocratic women certainly gambled as well.) On the other hand, the novel offers gentle Phoebe Laxton, who must be rescued from a marriage to a considerably older man with a hellish reputation (the planned marriage is described by a neutral observer as “little better than a rape,”) and whose only long term solution is marriage to a man who promises to protect her.

And Deborah, for all her comparative freedom and courage, is limited: she cannot, as she bitterly protests, fight Ravenscar physically, or kidnap him herself, instead relying on allies to do both for her. Her rescue from Ormskirk’s plans, for instance, comes through Ravenscar, not through anything she does. Almost alone among Heyer protagonists, she frequently wishes she were a man—so that she can conduct physical violence. The other stricture, of course, is her class: she may work in a gaming hall, but her aunt has a title, her birth was respectable, and she can even act as a chaperone to young Phoebe, all qualities which make it difficult for her to pick up a sword.

I have certain quibbles with the book—I find both romances entertaining enough, but not particularly convincing. I have no doubts that Deborah and Ravenscar will be able to quarrel merrily enough, and I have no doubt that they are physically attracted to each other, or that Deborah is the first woman that Ravenscar has ever found interesting. But I also wonder how they are going to get through a single decade without attempting to kill each other, not to mention that every objection that applies to Deborah’s marriage to Adrian also applies to her marriage with Ravenscar. Adrian and Phoebe’s romance, meanwhile, works only because Heyer has taken pains to establish that Adrian falls in love very easily, and Phoebe hasn’t really met anyone else. But Heyer’s attempts to suggest that this time, Adrian is really in love—as opposed to his infatuation of just three days prior, the one he was willing to risk the disapproval of family and friends for—are, to say the least, not really convincing, and it’s as well that Heyer hurries past that point.

But this aside, this is one of Heyer’s most entertaining and fast paced novels. It was to be the last of her novels set in the Georgian period, and almost the last to feature a heroine so willing to defy convention. After this, Heyer’s novels would focus on the styled manners of the Regency. But she had one more book of bitterness to purge from her system first: Penhallow.

Mari Ness rather sympathizes with Lady Bellingham’s methods of justifying her expenditures. She lives in central Florida.


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