A World of Language: April Lady

Georgette Heyer began writing April Lady after a bad bout of illness and ongoing stress with the people she now considered her greatest enemies on the planet: Britain’s Inland Revenue. (Some of you may sympathize.) Convinced that Inland Revenue was deliberately finding obscure laws solely to make her life a misery, she also found that in order to pay her growing tax bills, she had to continue to write more of her bestselling novels, diverting still more attention away from another book she was hoping would prove a masterpiece, My Lord John. Bowing to pressure from taxes and publishers alike, she dashed out April Lady in just a few months, telling her agent that the book was terrible. She was not too far off, although the book was also a bestseller.

Heyer was able to write this book so quickly not because she was gripped by inspiration or by love of her characters, but because by this time she knew the world she had created so well that it took little effort for her to recreate that world and its language. All she had to do in this case was reuse an old plot from a previous book (A Convenient Marriage), move it forward a few years, and, well, book.

If the result is not always all that interesting, April Lady does betray signs of anger, or at least irritation, towards the gender roles Heyer usually cherished. It also showed how Heyer could simply drift into the cant and language she had mastered and in part created, in a classic example of how sometimes, writers can let the worlds and languages they’ve previously created fill the book for them.

First, the book. If you’ve forgotten the plot of A Convenient Marriage, a reintroduction: Nell has been married off at a very young age to the considerably older Earl of Cardross, in part because her own family is almost completely bankrupt. Nell herself has been spending an exorbitant amount of money, far beyond the generous allowance her husband gives her, and her bills are arriving at her husband’s desk. Adding to the issue, Nell’s brother, Dysart, is a major gambler—Nell excuses this on rather questionable genetic grounds, noting that it runs in the family—and Nell has been giving him money, against the express wishes of her husband. (This was a legal issue in Regency England; the money, technically, is not Nell’s but her husband’s.)

Further adding to the issue, it appears that marital relations, to use a nicely discreet term, have stopped. Heyer, as always, stops at the bedroom door, but unlike in A Convenient Marriage and Friday’s Child, it seems clear that this marriage was at least consummated: Nell is not that young (the obstacle in A Convenient Marriage) so Cardross has no reason to hold back, and Cardross has never regarded Nell as just a young friend who has always tagged after him. By all accounts, except that of Nell’s mother, he has fallen deeply in love, or at least lust. And Nell later thinks that she is barren—a thought that never occurs to either of the other two heroines, but a natural thought for a woman who has slept with her husband and not conceived. Still later, when Cardross returns after an absence of just a few days, Nell notes that he attempts nothing physical beyond touching her hand—in a context that makes it clear this has not always been the case. She’s inexperienced, yes, but not that inexperienced, and she is terrified.

But thanks to that inexperience and some well met but seriously misguided advice from her mother, Nell does not think that Cardross actually cares for her; believes with some reason that Cardross is sleeping with someone else (he was not celibate before their marriage), and has stopped responding to him physically. Heyer shows her physically withdrawing, reluctant to even have Cardross touch her. Cardross, a generally decent if emotionally inaccessible man, does not press his attentions on Nell, to again use a discreet term. Unfortunately, the end of marital relations, and Nell’s subsequent conviction that Cardross really doesn’t care, has only made matters worse. It’s all the more painful because the two of them really are in love, and indeed fell in love at first sight.

Heyer manages to sum up all of this in the book’s first few pages, meaning that in April Lady, we have less a book about falling in love, and more a book about finding out that the person you love already loves you, which can be an exciting plot—but isn’t here, since “how will these two fail to understand each other next” is not as interesting as it should and could be.

Not exactly a sidenote: Heyer’s most recent biographer, Jennifer Kloester, strongly hints that Heyer’s husband began at least one, if not more, extra marital affair at about this time, and that Heyer knew. Discreet as Heyer, Kloester names no names, and claims that Heyer, who had always stated in her own books that women should not pay attention to men’s pointless little sexual affairs, did not mind her husband’s philandering. But beneath the generally dull surface of this book some very real anger leaps out now and again, including some surprisingly vicious comments directed towards Cardross’ mistress, along with the occasional fierce statement from Nell that she will not allow her husband’s mistress to keep him. (A few books later, the very different Venetia will cheerfully agree to allow her husband to have as many casual affairs as he wishes, but we’re not quite there yet.) It has all the feel of not quite buried anger, and perhaps helps to account for the books’ sometimes stifled tone and frequent digressions, though to be fair, Heyer was always one for digressions, here and elsewhere.

Anyway, for a bit of plot, and a more interesting heroine, Heyer adds Lady Letty Merion, Cardoss’ young half-sister, an indiscreet young damsel who is the first to hope that Nell will put Lady Orsett’s nose out of joint—Lady Orsett being the elegant woman who has been sharing Cardoss’ bed and affections for some time. Letty has fallen in love with the most unsuitable Mr. Jeremy Allandale. By “unsuitable” Cardoss means “does not have enough money or prospects,” and I mean “SERIOUSLY is not the right person for Letty at all, are you kidding me, Heyer?” Letty is boisterous, charming, reckless, tactless, and more than willing to disobey the rules of Society and not the world’s most honest person. Allandale is boring and a high stickler for the rules, even refusing to—gasp—dance with Letty more than twice in one evening and one of the world’s most honest people. (He lectures Letty more than once on this point.) The match baffles everybody. Certainly, opposites can attract, and I’ve known several happy relationships where one person is outgoing and the other quiet, but I can’t help but feel that after three months of marriage, Letty will be bored to death and seeking a divorce—something not possible in her world, as this book stresses.

Be that as it may, Mr. Allandale is about to be sent off to—another gasp!—Brazil. Letty, betraying a certain good sense, is convinced that Mr. Allandale will forget her once he leaves, and is thus desperate to marry him before he does, so she can accompany him. This plan does not garner enthusiasm from anyone else—it’s Brazil! Gasp again! (Actually I probably shouldn’t make fun of this—in those days that was quite a trip.)

But this, too, ends up barely creating that much plot until near the end of the novel, where Heyer creates her usual ending of misunderstandings and revelations. Only, in this case, many of these misunderstandings are not very funny. It says a great deal, and none of it very good, that Nell immediately assumes her brother is responsible for the disappearance of an extremely valuable family heirloom, and that her husband immediately assumes that Nell was responsible. (Cardross has a bit more evidence on his side, but, still.)

All this leads to a lot of repetition, where characters state over and over again that they don’t understand how Letty could have possibly fallen for Mr. Allendale, where Nell worries about new bill after new bill after new bill, where characters repeat over and over and over again what a general disgrace Dysart is (having a different character say this each time really does not do much to change the monotony). Paragraphs tend to be very long (one paragraph alone covers almost four straight pages in the Harper Regency edition). Not just the main plot, but individual elements are shamelessly stolen from Heyer’s previous books: the faked highway robbery (The Corinthian and A Convenient Marriage), the foolish and drunk society guy unable to follow the conversation (Friday’s Child), and so on.

For all this, I found the book oddly fascinating, for about the same reasons as Heyer biographer Jane Aiken Hodge did. First, April Lady has some remarkably bitter statements about gender. Nell reflects, at some length, about the double standards of society, and in particular the way that men of her world demand that women follow more stringent social rules:

Even Cardoss suffered from this peculiarity. He had not criticized her raiment, but he made no secret of the fact that he expected from his wife and sister a degree of decorum which he did not practice himself. “I will have no scandal in my household,” said Cardross inflexibly, just as though he had not been creating scandal in Lord Orsett’s household for years.

It’s a fair point. Cardross’ main complaint about his sister’s relationship is that it will make her unhappy, but a secondary complaint is that his sister cannot travel to Brazil because it’s unsuitable. Part of his concern about Brazil, admittedly, is the knowledge that Letty is not exactly suited for enduring difficulties. But sailing off to Brazil is also not something an aristocratic woman can do, unless she is married to a person on that ship—and perhaps not even then. Letty also has to endure the aggravation of knowing her money is in someone else’s control—a typical dilemma for many Heyer characters, both men and women, but something that in later books was to mostly affect women.

Speaking of money, the novel also contains some bitter statements about bankers and moneylenders and how they are enriching themselves off mostly innocent people—shades of Heyer’s ongoing financial woes seeping through, but also reflecting the very real concerns of her contemporaries, some of whom faced the choice crushing interest payments or abandoning long held family homes.

But the real interest, from a writing and world-building perspective, is how Heyer could fill pages of a book that, a few flashes of anger aside, did not seem to interest or amuse her very much, with the language she had created. Here are quotes:

“Dirty dishes!” he repeated firmly. “I can’t remember when my father last had a feather to fly with, and the lord knows I’ve never had one myself! In fact it’s my belief we should have been turned up by now if you hadn’t happened to hit Cardross’ fancy….”

One of the many tedious regurgitations of the main plot, made slightly more intriguing by the language.

“Got some new bobbery on hand from the look in his ogles. Ah, well! he ain’t one of the stiff-rumped sort, that’s one thing, and it don’t matter to him if he’s swallowed a spider: you won’t catch him forgetting to tip a cover his earnest! There’s plenty as wouldn’t give me more than a borde for hiding their tiles, but you mark my words if he don’t fork out a hind-coach-wheel! What did he drop in your famble, Mr. Farley!”

This speech has, I hasten to add, nothing to do with either plot. It’s just there.

“You wouldn’t remember ’em if I did. What you need is a damper: you’re as drunk as a brewer’s horse!”

“Oh, no, I’m not! I’ll tell you what you are! A damned loose fish! A regular hedge-bird! A man-milliner, by God! Cowhearted!

“If you ain’t stale-drunk in the morning, come round to my place, and I’ll dashed well show you how cowhearted I am!” promised Mr. Hethersett, stung by these opprobrious terms. “It’ll be bellows to mend with you, what’s more! I’ve seen you sport your canvas at Jackson’s, and when it comes to handy-blows you ain’t any better than a moulder!”

Pick up any book actually from the period—novels, poems, Byron’s various rants, the letters of actress Mrs. Jordan (and mistress of the Duke of Clarence)—and it will take only seconds to realize that however odd Regency language might be to our ears, it was never this odd. Much though I complained about the deadened attempt to imitate Austen’s language in Regency Buck, that language at least was considerably closer to the language used at the time. Heyer knew this; her research was extensive, and even in her early days, and in the worst of her medieval and Elizabethan moments, Heyer had generally had her characters speak more normally than this. (Beauvallet as the obvious exception.)

But the use of cant—and every page of this book is loaded with metaphors and phrases Heyer had gleaned from diaries and letters of the period—allows Heyer to do several things. One, of course, is show off her research and distinctive knowledge of the period. It was so distinctive that in an unrelated plagiarism case, Heyer was able to demonstrate that the other writer had used a phrase that Heyer had found in a single, privately owned letter that the other writer would (probably) not have had access to. Score one for Heyer. On a purely practical note, this sort of cant allowed Heyer to increase her word count; she may not have had enough plot or character development to carry a novel here, but the addition of these phrases created the illusion—or at least the word count—that she did. Score two. And by now, Heyer had done enough research and writing in the Regency world that she hardly had to search for these phrases; she could simply recreate the world she had built.

For above all, the use of this cant created a thoroughly artificial world, a world that is not really Regency England, but very much a place of Heyer’s imagination, created and structured around her language, a place she could use to make veiled statements about her life or (coming up very soon) the fate of major estates in a post-war society. It was a world that however much she resented, she could also revel in. And after a few comparatively dull books, it was about time to sparkle again.

Next up: Sylvester, or the Wicked Uncle.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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