“Nonsense” is certainly one word to describe Georgette Heyer’s Friday’s Child, an amusing romp of a novel about the early months of a marriage between two excessively silly and immature people in Regency London. Littered with still more silly and self-absorbed characters, and filled with indulgent descriptions of rich foods that had been completely unavailable to Heyer and most of her readers during the time of writing, the novel’s high points include possibly one of the most ridiculous duels ever put on paper (I laughed), a conversation where five aristocrats show their vast ignorance of history, geography, and Shakespeare, a character worried about being followed by a Greek ghost whose name he cannot remember, and some issues with a little dog named Pug. It is thoroughly unbelievable, but it works because it is also thoroughly funny, and because, beneath all the silliness and froth, it offers a surprisingly serious look at gender roles, marriage and growing up.
Oh, and how not to conduct a duel.
Not that either protagonist is particularly grown up at the start of the novel, although they are legally adults. Sherry—short for Lord Sheringham, Viscount—starts by busily proposing marriage to the young beauty Isabella, partly since falling in love with Isabella is the trendy thing to do, and mostly because if he does not get married soon, he cannot gain control of his inheritance, and will thus be completely financially ruined.
Not only does Isabella not find this romantic in the slightest—and since she is quite the Romantic sort, this is triply affronting—she also has some more than justified criticisms of Sherry: he is reckless, a gambler, a spendthrift, and a womanizer, who has been keeping a—shall we use Heyer’s polite term? We shall—an opera dancer. A very expensive opera dancer. As we soon learn, this is hardly his only companion of questionable virtue. Moreover—although Isabella has not been informed about the particulars of this stunt—he has come very near to killing other people with reckless driving. (Sherry dismisses this airily.) Isabella, his mother, and his uncle (a man quite similar to Uncle Joseph of Envious Casca) beg Sherry to change his ways. This goes badly, as Sherry storms out determined to marry the first woman he sees.
As it turns out, this is Hero, an orphaned girl living on the charity of relatives, who has just been handed an ultimatium: marry the curate, and face a life of at best genteel poverty, or become a governess, a position she is completely unsuited for. Just how unsuited becomes clear in the next few chapters, when a conversation reveals that Hero, however well meaning, cannot exactly be called bookish. She can read and write, but don’t expect much more than that. She is, however, desperately in love with Sherry, and when he offers marriage—mostly out of spite and a conviction that it would be a lot of fun, she leaps at the offer, and, with the help of their friends the mostly pragmatic Mr. Ringwood, the willing to duel at the slightest pretext (or no pretext at all) Lord Wortham, and Ferdy Fakenham, whose years at Eton have left him, shall we say, untouched, the two are married within days, renting a small by aristocratic standards house, and moving in high society.
Outside of two early novels, Georgette Heyer was never one to peek inside the bedroom after marriage, but in this case, it seems clear that Sherry and Hero are not sleeping together. Before they are wed, Sherry tells Hero that this will be a marriage of convenience, and that he will not interfere with her pleasures, as long as she keeps them discreet. They later keep separate bedrooms and do not hesitate to invite friends along on their “honeymoon,” which is less a honeymoon and more a method of avoiding the righteous wrath of Sherry’s mother and the initial gossip over their hasty wedding. Also, their house is getting furnished. These are all great reasons to leave London but not exactly romantic, and although the honeymoon does allow Hero to get to know Sherry’s closest friends, and vice versa, it does not appear to be filled with much else. Heyer even pointedly notes that Hero goes up to bed before Sherry does.
When they return to London, he returns to his late hours, initially leaving her at home alone. When he escorts her to her bedroom, he leaves her at the door, and the novel contains not a single hint that Hero might be pregnant. And whle the e romantic Isabella and Wortham exchange passionate kisses (well before they are wed—or, gasp, even engaged!) Sherry and Hero do not. And in a final suggestion that the marriage was never consummated, no one seems to think that Sherry and Hero will have any problems getting a divorce, except for Ferdy, whose only objection is that the family has never had one before. And even in a gallery of not particularly bright characters, Ferdy’s level of understanding is not terribly high. If he can tell they aren’t sleeping together….well.
Sherry is not, after all, in love with Hero at the beginning of the novel, and as the novel and Hero are well aware, as a good looking wealthy young man, he has other options, although he claims that as a sober, married man he has given them up. Sherry and Hero even discuss a couple of them before their marriage. Sherry is only shocked that someone has told the young Hero such stories, not worried about the effect of this sort of revelation on their relationship. Which is just as well since stories of opera dancers have done nothing to slow Hero’s devotion. And because the marriage is not proceeding without other issues. Once again, Heyer treats sex—or in this case, the lack of it—as the most minor part or problem of the marriage.
For one, not only is Hero very young—only seventeen—and woefully uneducated, not just about Shakespeare, but almost nothing about the various rules of high society. Since Hero’s relatives naturally assumed that their dowerless dependent would never marry a peer, it’s perhaps not surprising that they did not bother to teach her such things like Ladies Do Not Publicly Race Their Curricles, or even more importantly, Ladies Do Not Say, Audibly, In The Middle of a Stage Performance, Beloved Husband, Is THAT Your Opera Dancer? But it’s somewhat more odd that they apparently failed to teach Hero about the value of money, or to warn her against gambling, or to teach her anything about household management. Or maybe they tried, and she just didn’t take it in. Regardless, as an aristocratic wife, Hero is a disaster.
But a funny one. Heyer treats almost all of her mistakes—called scrapes—with humor. With two exceptions. The first occurs when Hero confronts the closest thing the book has to a villain, Sir Montagu Revensby, after another woman accuses Sir Montagu of seducing her, then abandoning her and her child. I say “closest thing,” because although Sir Montagu is most certainly a bad guy, who spends the book leading people to gaming hells, trying to force wealthy women into marriage by compromising them, and seducing and abandoning young girls, he’s not set up to oppose the major characters, exactly. Rather, they need to learn that they can grow beyond him.
(Interestingly, in another example of “sex isn’t that important” in the novel, none of the characters are particularly upset that Sir Montagu has been sleeping around—just that it’s bad ton, or unaristocratic behavior, for him not to support his mistress and child.)
Hero also has to learn to accept gender roles. Hero struggles in her marriage in part because initially, Sherry and his friends treat her as just one of the guys. They join in the honeymoon, as if we needed more proof that this is not a sexual relationship, and start calling her, as he does, Kitten. But, as Hero learns, she is not one of the guys. This has its good points—she can give Lord Wortham the sympathetic and helpful ear he desperately needs—and its bad points; not only can she not do many of the things men can, but Lord Wortham, forgetting that she is a woman, helps put her in a compromising situation. On the bright side, this does help to remind Sherry that he is, in fact, married. (And leads to some of the novel’s best scenes.)
And if, in The Corinthian, the protagonists could find happiness only by defying London society and its constraints, in Friday’s Child, the protagonists can find happiness only by accepting society’s rules and settling down. Sherry may still be rich enough that he can lose more than even the coveted yearly income of Mr. Bingley in one evening and still bet more, as well as support another man’s illegitimate child and feast nobly on all kinds of expensive and delightful foods (this last undoubtedly wish-fulfillment on the part of the exhausted of war rations Heyer), but even he cannot continue this high spending rate forever.
Although—spoiler—Hero and Sherry do grow up, I don’t know that I completely buy them as a romantic couple. That role seems better fulfilled by the secondary couple, Isabella and Wortham, even if they seem more in love with Romance than each other. Nonetheless, as pure romance, this is somewhat lacking. Readers should also be warned that the characters, the incident with the illegitimate baby aside, are all almost entirely self-absorbed, ignorant, and unthinking. Nor, for all of its flickers of historical detail and cameo appearances from various historical figures (including, most prominently, the Patronesses of Almack’s, about to start their long, long, role as arbiters of the scandalous Waltz and other matters of ton) can this be called even remotely realistic. Any hint of major historical events—like, you know, Napoleon—is far off, the middle classes sell things in the background, and although everyone talks about poverty, almost no one is really poor—all this, doubtless because Heyer knew her readers needed an escape from war battered Britain.
But Heyer has done a lovely job here of showing the slow process of discovering your partner, good points and bad, and falling in love with someone you thought was only a friend. Plus, she gave us Ferdy Fakingham, who someday might remember the name Nemesis. It’s no wonder readers responded to the story, and demanded that Heyer follow this up with another. Friday’s Child was an instant bestseller, and from then on, Heyer was to write mostly Regencies. If you haven’t tried those yet, this is not a bad place to start.
Next up: The Reluctant Widow, book and movie!
Mari Ness has never raced a curricle. She lives in central Florida.