Having found herself compared (unfavorably) for years with Jane Austen, in 1962 Georgette Heyer finally relented and followed her predecessor’s advice that “three to four families in a country village is the very thing to work on.” The resulting novel, focused on three to four families and a most superior governess living in northern England, also took more than a bit of inspiration from Austen’s plots.
The Nonesuch features two wealthy men who arrive at a country village, stirring up gossip and speculation (hi, Pride and Prejudice); a protagonist who finds herself rather prejudiced against one of them (hi, Pride and Prejudice again); and a wealthy and fairly obnoxious girl whom readers won’t much like (hi, Emma, with a touch of Isabella from Northanger Abbey) But for all that, The Nonesuch is very much its own novel, and an experiment for Heyer in just how far she could stretch the Regency world she had created, and use it to explore the devastating effects of conversation.
Its main character, the very superior Miss Ancilla Trent, is one of Heyer’s very few working women characters. Miss Trent comes from a very well connected family—as several minor characters frequently remind us, in almost hushed tones, her uncle is, gasp, a general. (I’ll give you a moment to deal with this social superiority.) Her family, however, has fallen on hard times, and although they continue to offer Ancilla a home, she has decided to attempt to support herself, especially after failing to marry any of the very eligible men introduced to her by her aunt. Ancilla’s career has gone remarkably well—far better than most women in her position. Her social background, including that awesome uncle, has allowed her to have first a well paid position at an exclusive school, and later a well paid if considerably less enjoyable position as governess-companion to the very wealthy and beautiful Miss Tiffany Wield.
After annoying virtually all of her relatives and teachers, Miss Wield has been packed off to the North, more or less under Ancilla’s supervision, although Ancilla’s powers of supervision and control are fairly limited. Thanks largely to her fortune, and partly to her disposition, Tiffany has been greatly indulged, and hardly knows the meaning of restraint, manners, or compassion. Especially compassion. Nor does she exactly have much incentive to learn self control, discipline or compassion. As multiple people note, Tiffany may be wild and cruel, but the combination of wealth and a beautiful face will allow her to achieve her ambition of marrying into the aristocracy—assuming she doesn’t drive away all of her suitors first. And even then, it’s quite possible that her money will encourage many men to overlook any personality problems.
Indeed, her money has allowed her current guardian, Mrs. Underhill, to tolerate many of these faults, in the hopes that Tiffany will be inclined to marry her cousin, Courtney, thus keeping all of that money in the family. Mrs. Underhill, after all, is someone well aware of the ways that money can make up for numerous social deficiencies. One of Heyer’s rare middle class characters, Mrs. Underhill has, despite her vulgarity, occasionally questionable grammar and insignificant birth, used an excellent marriage and money to pull herself and her children into a higher social class, allowing her to mingle with “Sirs” and “Ladies” and even—gasp—a real live Lord.
The genuine lord in question is Lord Lindeth, a baron (quite low on the aristocratic scale by Heyer’s standards, but let us move on) who has arrived with his considerably wealthier and older cousin, Sir Waldo Hawkbridge. Sir Waldo is—gasp—a Corinthian, which to Heyer readers immediately means “sexy hero” and to Ancilla, who has obviously not read enough Heyer novels, immediately means “reprobate and thoroughly bad example who helped ruin my cousin and several other people.” In actual fact, Sir Waldo is, as his relatives note, devilishly straitlaced and not at all the sort of person to usually lead people into ruin, but people make all kinds of assumptions about wealthy, athletic types, and Ancilla is carrying some massive baggage around.
The arrival of the two sends pretty much everyone into a combined tizzy and social whirl, even the kindly, very proper family of the kindly, very proper Vicar, his sensible wife, and lovely if shy daughter. Parties, expeditions, and rivalries spring up; Tiffany decides to make the two strangers fall in love with her, and Ancilla, who had assumed she was completely beyond any hope of love, falls pretty hopelessly in love with Sir Waldo. (Where’s Waldo? Sorry; it was inevitable.)
Perhaps the highpoint of the novel is Heyer’s study of gossip and its effect, not just on the various social entertainments—the not-particularly-aristocratic Mrs. Underhill, hearing a rumor not to her benefit, manages to outdo another neighbor, causing said neighbor to take some revenge later on—but on the characters themselves. Tiffany, not particularly inclined to obey orders, does pay attention to the way her peers regard her, an adoration that swiftly changes thanks to gossip. The more restrained Ancilla finds her actions circumscribed not just by what people are saying, but what she fears they will say. Heyer also has a lot of fun with the way the various families attempt to outdo each other in originality and entertainments. This also allows Heyer to think about the effects that her beloved London fashions might have had in a community without regular access to London balls: it’s pointed, self-deprecating, and quite well done.
Another highlight is Heyer’s subtle portrait of the ruthless Tiffany Wield. Heyer had often featured charming, headstrong teenagers before, of course, but almost entirely in a positive light. Even their extreme self-centeredness and failure to consider how their actions might be regarded by others, or affect others, was generally treated with indulgence or humor. Here, Heyer takes a sharper look. Only one person directly benefits from Tiffany’s self-centeredness: Ancilla Trent, enjoying a salary far, far greater than that of most governesses. (At 150 pounds a year, it is more than any of the Brontë sisters would earn in the same profession decades later.) Almost everyone else is hurt by Tiffany’s heartlessness: the two cousins she lives with are miserable, and even all that money does not take away Ancilla’s stress.
At the same time, Heyer manages to almost—almost—create a moment of pity for the teenager. Not much; it’s fairly easy to see that social setbacks in a country village will not affect or damage Tiffany very much, and she almost certainly will end up in the aristocracy, as one of those self-centered, idle women that Heyer liked to use as background characters. And now she tells us where they came from.
Interestingly enough, for the most part, Tiffany’s admirers do not turn away from her because of her actions, but because of her reported actions. Interesting, because Heyer makes a point of noting just how inaccurate gossip can be. Sure, everyone got the great secret about the fireworks right, and the dowagers are quite right in their guesses that Ancilla is falling very hard for Sir Waldo. But nearly all of the initial speculations about Sir Waldo and his cousin are flat out wrong, and some other actions and words are grossly misinterpreted. These misinterpretations continue when Lawrence, yet another cousin—this one dressing far beyond his income—arrives.
Part of Ancilla’s problem is that the minor characters—Mrs. Underhill, who definitely married up, excepted—regard any understanding between Ancilla and Sir Waldo as either straight out of a fairy tale or headed for prostitution. Sir Waldo may not be very high in the aristocracy, but this is the second greatest social gulf between a Heyer couple since Friday’s Child—a marriage made purely on a whim out of spite, though the match in The Reluctant Widow runs a close second. It’s only beaten by A Civil Contract, where the entire book is about the social gulf and the book seriously questions if the protagonists can overcome that.
It’s not just that Sir Waldo is wealthy; he is very well connected. Ancilla, whatever her decidedly lesser connections, is a mere governess, rarely even part of the considerably lesser social circle of her employer. The idea of a governess marrying considerably upwards might have been enough of a cliché that Heyer had even joked about it in a previous novel, but the reaction of the dowagers and Mrs. Chartley show a more realistic reaction, and it is not surprising that they question Sir Waldo’s intentions. Ancilla, after all, does not have Jenny’s money (from A Civil Contract) to protect her.
For all of this realism, Heyer by now knew her audience, and even in a novel that once again explored the difficulties in the escapist world she had created, borrowing some of Austen’s irony to do so, she could not help retreating to that escapism: Sir Waldo does (spoiler!) fall for Ancilla; the Chartleys just happen to have a convenient relative who can smooth over that misalliance; Tiffany is considerably wealthier than her counterpart in Emma and so on.
But for all of Heyer’s knowledge and her previous experience with writing mystery novels, she makes one arguable plotting mistake in this book: readers are aware, from the beginning, what Sir Waldo is up to. (Contrast with Frank Churchill in Emma, where the reveal comes as a surprise to (most) readers right along with Emma.) This does lead to Comedic Misunderstandings when Ancilla talks about Sir Waldo’s “repugnant way of life” (meaning sleeping around a lot) and Sir Waldo thinks she is talking about racing and hunting, and when Lindeth mentions Waldo’s “brats,” and Ancilla leaps to the conclusion that these are Waldo’s illegitimate children. The second scene, however, is followed by some very real emotional pain: Ancilla cannot believe—and is even hurt—that anyone would believe that she would tolerate this sort of thing, and the thought that the love of her life might not have the best of morals devastates her.
The plotting mistake also allows Heyer to note the differences between the tolerant London world of her creation (where multiple men kept mistresses) and the gender inequities of this society. Ancilla notes that Sir Waldo can have any number of illegitimate children and remain a leader of Society, but Prudence and Elizabeth will both have their reputations entirely ruined if they spend any time alone in an inn in the middle of nowhere or in Leeds without another woman in attendance.
But unfortunately, funny though this is, and pointed though it is as a discussion of gender differences, it also fundamentally does not make sense. Just pages before, Ancilla had trusted Sir Waldo enough to allow him to drive off with her beautiful and very very wealthy young charge. I know mothers of teenage daughters today who would not allow a man they’d known for such a short time to drive alone with their daughters, and it speaks very well of Sir Waldo—and Ancilla’s trust in him—that she allows this. (Yes, she’s trying to keep Tiffany from having a temper tantrum, but still.) A few pages later, she is enough in love with Sir Waldo to risk gossip that could seriously jeopardize her position, and to be carried into transports by the thought that yes, he’s going to propose at last. (While I’m complaining, why doesn’t he just go ahead and ask her then, instead of asking her to wait for him the following day? Sure, he wants to do the proper thing, but since he’s been waiting for days to seize the moment—seize the moment!)
Despite this, she believes Lindeth completely, to the point of turning down Sir Waldo—and yet, just a couple of days later, despite being convinced that Sir Waldo is a completely reprehensible person, agrees to ride alone with him in a phaeton. Sure, it’s both to save Tiffany and convince readers that Ancilla not so secretly really trusts him after all deep down inside, but….still. It feels like an obstacle for the sake of an obstacle, or another reminder to the audience, who doesn’t really need it, of the effects of gossip—and Ancilla’s strict sense of honor and morality.
It’s one of several small ways where the ending lacks the neatness of Heyer’s other plots. Oh, certainly, two of the couples are happily paired together and a third strongly hinted at, all differences forgotten (not that one of the couples really had any differences, but moving on). Other elements, in particular, the fate of Lawrence, are left hanging. Though given Heyer’s previous silly aristocrats, I think it’s safe to say that even in this somewhat more realistic vision of Regency England, some Marquis will end up marrying Tiffany.
But a neat plot isn’t everything. The Nonesuch may not have the high comedy of some of Heyer’s novels, but in its quiet depiction of a society with little to do but gossip, it is one of her sharpest.
Mari Ness has never been able to resist fireworks. She lives in central Florida.