Bringing murder into the Regency: The Quiet Gentleman

Georgette Heyer always claimed to dislike the mystery novels she had churned out on a regular basis prior to World War II. In part, this was thanks to ongoing struggles with that publisher—while also noting that her mystery publishers were doing a better job of promoting her works than her historical publishers were. In part, it may have been the ongoing tendency among literary critics to regard mysteries and other genre fiction as somehow lesser than mainstream literary fiction—a convenient way to place Georgette Heyer, who continued to long for literary acceptance, into that “lesser” category. In part it may also have been that at least some of her mystery novels were collaborated with her husband, who usually supplied murder methods and motives, which partly helps explain why some of these novels turn on obscure points of inheritance law—Rougier was a barrister.

Thus these novels were not entirely “hers.” But for all of her spoken dislike of the genre, Heyer had written one a year for a decade—and even after she stopped writing them, found ways to sneak elements of her mystery novels into her historical works. Even in the subgenre that she was now building, Regency romances, in The Quiet Gentleman.

The Quiet Gentleman begins well, with vintage Georgette Heyer irony, and has more of a plot than many of her later novels. Yet, somehow it never quite works, perhaps just because it has more of a plot. In it, Gervase, the Earl of St. Erth, returns home after years of war to a stepmother and half-brother who had been quietly anticipating his death by Napoleonic Army. He is startled to find that someone is really after his life, making more than one attempt to murder him, in between balls and uncomfortable dinners.

Not that he has too many suspects to choose from. His stepmother (or, as Heyer terms her, using the correct phrase for the period, “mother-in-law,”) certainly dislikes him, but is not the murdering sort. The girl staying with her, the entirely practical and not at all romantic Drusilla Morville, does not approve of murder and violence. His best friend is almost equally unlikely, as is the Chaplain—a very minor character in all respects. His cousin Theo has welcomed him home; the lovely Marianne, a beautiful neighbor with doting parents, is too much of a nitwit. But his half-brother Martin, on the other hand…hmm.

Of course, this being a Georgette Heyer novel, not everything can focus on attempted murder, even if the action is entirely out in the country, and never returns to London. The Earl throws a ball; various people make cutting comments, and a few people even fall in love.

Unfortunately, the attempt to balance a couple of love stories with the suspense of attempted murder never quite works out, and some scenes—even one I love, where Drusilla Morville yells at herself for hopelessly falling in love with the Earl, and convinces herself that this love will never be returned—often feel awkward, given the overall plot. After all, someone is trying to kill Gervase; is it really likely that the practical Drusilla would take this moment to monologue, at length, about her feelings for him, instead of monologuing, at length, about her genuine (and justified) fears for him?

And Drusilla’s silence on her quite correct conclusions regarding the attacks on the Earl is literally incomprehensible: yes, it may not have been her business, and yes, she may have guessed that the Earl already knew, but again, this is the man she is supposedly in love with, who has just been shot and nearly killed. Under the circumstances, why wouldn’t she say something to him, especially since she had previously expressed her (correct) conclusions on other matters, and (somewhat improperly) reported to him the proposed duel between his brother and friend? Only one reason: to enhance reader suspense, while trying to convince us that Drusilla really is clever, and unfortunately, it won’t work both ways. (Making it worse, another minor character also guesses the truth and decides to say nothing for…absolutely no reason whatsoever. Characters! The Earl has been shot! If you think you know why, or by whom, say something!)

The conflicting plots also create a rather uneven ending, with a suspenseful chapter immediately followed by a rather awkward chapter meant to join the hero and heroine together, in front of an interested audience that rather unbelievably manages to maintain a convenient silence just at the right moment, before breaking into speech. It contains its humorous moments, certainly, but it strikes a false note, in direct contrast to many of Heyer’s other magnificent closing chapters.

But the real problem, I fear, comes from one of the minor characters, Marianne, who for a minor character plays a rather major role in the plot, sparking much of the action. This is less because of anything she does, but more that because she is seventeen and pretty, at least four of the male characters fall in love with her, however temporarily in one case. (It might be five; I’m not sure about Mr. Warboys.) This love—or infatuation—helps drive the plot, serving as one of the motives for the murderer, and helping set up the various balls, dances and murder attempts.

Unfortunately, she’s—how do I put it—a complete nitwit.

I can’t like Marianne. Oh, I know, she’s supposed to be pretty and charming—although spoiled—but aside from her looks, and her ready agreement to play with spoiled children, she has literally nothing else to recommend her, and frankly, although I do believe that love at first sight can happen, I don’t believe that it happened here, even if does create all of these jealous sparks to help drive the plot forward. Unnecessary jealous sparks, I might add; greed and resentment should have been incentive enough for murder without adding “AND I DIDN’T GET TO MARRY THE SILLY GIRL” to it.

But that’s only part of the problem. The larger issue revolves around the two scenes where Martin attempts to forcibly kiss Marianne, deeply upsetting her. Heyer makes it clear that she thoroughly disapproves of this kind of behavior—partly because Martin does not have the permission of Marianne’s father, partly because pressing unwanted attentions on a girl “is not at all the thing,” and obviously, politeness should be paramount. So, yay for the “the girl needs to be willing as well” argument. And particular yay for avoiding the trope common in romance novels at the time that girls who said “no” really meant “yes” and would dissolve into a man’s arms if he continued to push.

At the same time, Heyer also suggests, and has her characters nearly state this outright, that Martin was provoked, and that Marianne, by flirting with him, and by not telling him of her later engagement, deserved what she got. And that Marianne is making too much of a fuss about nothing at all.

And the thing is, I find myself agreeing, which makes me in turn feel uncomfortable. After all, in the first scene, Martin doesn’t even manage to kiss her—all he does is to try to take her in his arms and grasp her hands. In the second scene, all he physically does is take her hand while telling her that he is in love with her. And after all, Marianne had flirted with Martin and had made him believe, at one point, that his attentions (to use Heyer’s word) would be welcome. No big deal, everyone (except Marianne) agrees.

Except that these attentions are entirely unwanted now, as Marianne makes clear, and upset her, as she also makes clear.

Martin is very much in the wrong here—as soon as Marianne backed off and protested, he should have as well. I know this; I agree with this, and yet, I also find myself blaming Marianne, mostly because she’s such a simpering annoyance. Blaming the victim is, well, ugh; I hate it when others do this; I hate it when I find myself doing so. It also annoys me that Martin mostly backs off only after he finds out that Marianne is engaged—in other words, that she’s now the property of some other man. Grr.

But for all of my carping about Heyer’s romances, I find myself quite liking the mostly sidelined romance between the Earl and Drusilla. Much of Drusilla’s background, admittedly, seems to have been designed to allow Heyer to discuss a different group of historical figures than she usually does—the Coleridges, Southeys and Mary Wollstonecraft—which more than occasionally feels a bit intrusive. But that aside, both are quiet and practical, with several mutual interests, despite the large gulf in their political backgrounds. Heyer shows us a slowly budding friendship and romance: Gervase first notes her common sense, and then her skill at dancing. We see them playing chess, and Gervase talking seriously with her about the attempts to murder him. The chess game plays a double role, both allowing Drusilla to keep a watchful eye on Gervase, and allowing the two to get to know each other. At his request, she remains discreet, so discreet that she does not even voice her (correct) conclusions about the murderer. And of course, she saves his life.

So I like the Earl; I like Drusilla; I like the opening chapters; the Dowager, her daughter Louisa, and Drusilla’s parents never fail to amuse. And yet this book always leaves me vaguely unsatisfied and itching.

Fortunately, the next book was to be one of her greatest. And also, one that I’m going to be skipping over, since Jo Walton already covered it admirably here.

Mostly sidenote: I’ve been trying not to complain too much about the new Sourcebooks covers, but this one totally baffles me. Who is that older man on the stairs apparently lunging at the Earl and the woman holding him back? Why doesn’t the cover just have a nice image of a Regency man with a horse? The book does have a horse. Oh well.

Next up: The Toll-Gate, which seems to be baffling a number of people in the comments, and which I have to admit I honestly don’t remember much about.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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